Since September 2019 I started using virtual classes on Edmodo with my students. I decided to use this virtual class tool to share links, free software, homework, and news with parents. I got used to communicating with students throughout the virtual class chat, giving them support at home, to avoid that a difficulty became an obstacle to complete homework. However not all the parents were happy about the online activities and support.
Due to COVID-19 emergencies in Italy, the schools officially stopped lessons on 5th March. However, in the beginning, no one thought that we were going to stop classroom lessons for months. So, on the same day I wrote to my students on virtual classes that everything would be all right and we would continue to work together through online tools. I started by giving some assignments to students, so they do not lose connection with school activities.
In a few days we understood that the online teaching period would be longer than expected. Then, from just giving something for them to do, I started introducing to students new activities using tools that could provide interaction between them (Padlet, Khaoot, Menitmer, Flipgrid) and tools that allow them to create a complete lesson (Google module, Sway, Microsoft Forms). These give the idea of activity with a beginning, middle, and end, allowing me to also assess the students.
In the beginning, I had no problem with students, it was different to communicate just though a chat, but we were always connected. I did not want them to get lost or feel alone so I answered their questions at a specific day and time during the week.
As my school decided to do not to use a common platform with video conference tools integrated, and many students work only on their mobile phones, I decide to work asynchronously. That way, I recorded short videos and uploaded on my YouTube channel, they have the video lessons there and can watch whenever they want, without using too much of their data. They work hard and produce amazing things, see link mitosis and meiosis activity we did. There were issues to solve about the use of some online tools, but we managed it! We also manage to continue working on group projects on Minecraft which started before school stopped. See picture of one of the Minecraft’s creation.
While with the students there were no big issues and only “light”. On the other side, with the student’s parents, communication was not as easy. Here is where the light changed slightly to a metaphorical “shadow”.
My attempts to aware parents about the important use of online learning tools were not welcomed by all. Some of them do not support students’ online tools use, consequently not supporting the completion of the activities I designed for them. Parents not backing students’ online tools use, was also experienced and extended to normal school lessons, which in my opinion, was a pity for students. They miss an opportunity to learn, acquire 21st-century skills, and worse, and in many cases, it means that students lost the whole activity.
This problem is manageable, but it is necessary to offer training for parents as well. My suggestion is: at the beginning of each school year, we organize a meeting with parents where we explain to them the digital tools that we will use throughout the year, and provide them some material as a tutorial that they could use at home when needed. This could also be useful to underline what students could learn by using these digital tools.
From my perspective, a national campaign about this topic is urgently needed: reinforcing the work of teachers at school and the important role that parents play regarding being supportive and helping students to acquire 21st-century skills. I tried to organize an online discussion with parents about how to integrate digital tools into didactics. While I was designing an online survey to discuss digital classroom, some bad feedback came to me, saying I was too ‘digital and not available for students’!
This extended what I already saw as a challenge under communication. In Italy, official school news travels on the official website, and this communication is top-down, from headmasters to school staff, teachers and parents, an official way to communicate is also by email. Unfortunately, between the teachers’ group and with parents’ email is not so common, most of the teachers prefer other ways of communicating that are more immediate such as instant messaging. If there is a lack of official communication, instant messaging will become an official channel (without any official recognition). If someone is new at the school, does not want to share the private phone number, someone that does not want to participate in the instant messaging group this person can be excluded from conversations, decisions, etc.
Instant messaging is a practical form of communication that results in it being the preferred way of communication by parents and teachers. In my opinion, this means is a great tool to communicate with friends, send video, photo, and jokes. For this reason, it also makes it very informal and I defend that they are not a proper communication method for work-related issues. It can create a great misunderstanding where formal and informal communication is mixed, it generates some troubles and a daring role reversal.
In a moment where teachers cannot have a meeting and cannot ask parents to have a talk about their son’s and daughters’ communication. It is fundamental to develop a proper and institutional communication channel with parents. There are different roles in the education process, these need to be clear to everyone involved. Teachers have a professional role and when the discussion is about school activities we must communicate in a professional way, allowing everyone to participate, avoiding that personal and professional communication channels are not mixed.
Personally, I prefer to separate my role as educators and protect students’ and my privacy. That way, I choose not to share my private number and not to participate in the instant messaging group. Which, for some, look like if I am not collaborating enough.
As I have experienced this challenge, and I imagine other teachers around Europe might face such issues and identify with my story too. In that line, I strongly suggest the creation of an official communication channel for each school, where rules and roles are all well-defined. For example, Telegram is useful, in fact the Italian Ministry of Education (MIUR) has its channel to share news and opportunities. In addition, to communicate between school staff other great tools are Trello or Slack that allows to create a working group on specific tasks.
I hope that what we have learned during emergency remote learning will be transferred to normal school activities and that an official school communication channel will be one of the lessons we bring to the next school year.
Author: Teresita Gravina, Scientix Ambassador from Italy