FreshGrade's Blog about Boosting Parent Engagement with Digital Portfolios

Boosting Parental Engagement with Digital Portfolios

Teachers have long understood how parental engagement helps students perform better in school.

At the same time, families are often hungry for information about what is happening in their child’s classroom.

But even as schools work hard to encourage parent engagement, families have continued to feel disconnected from their child’s educational experience.

Schools are turning to technology for help. Increasingly, digital portfolio apps such as FreshGrade are being used to achieve a more satisfying and effective means of parent engagement than was previously possible.

What Do We Mean by Parental Engagement?

When families look for ways to be engaged with their child’s schooling, they often gravitate toward actions such as volunteering in the classroom or library, or raising money to support the school. These actions are clearly beneficial and should continue to be encouraged.

But both families and teachers were seeking ways for parents to be more closely engaged in the classroom experience of their child. The traditional methods of regular parent-teacher conferences, teacher-generated newsletters, handwritten notes, and phone calls home were still leaving many parents feeling disconnected from the classroom.

A more active level of collaboration between families and teachers was needed. Both parties have long been frustrated by their inability to achieve this kind of connection. Digital portfolios offer a possible solution.

Why is Parental Engagement Important?

If teachers and schools are doing a good job, why is there so much focus on parental engagement?

The number one reason is student performance. A National Education Association (NEA) policy brief notes that when parents, families, and communities work together with schools, it results in higher academic performance by students and improvement to the school. Children get better grades, go to school more regularly and stay in school longer.

When families are involved, studies have shown students also demonstrate improvements in behavior. They have better social skills, are more motivated in school, and behave better in the classroom.

Parents Benefit From Digital Portfolios

Parents benefit from involvement as well.

As parents develop a tighter connection with the school and what is going on in the classroom, a better rapport can be built between the school and the families. This in turn leads to stronger ties growing between the school and the community.

When families feel disconnected from their child’s school, they may not realize how much their engagement can matter. When they become more involved, parents can see how they can have a meaningful impact on their child’s educational experience.

Increased engagement can also give parents the sense that they are not alone whenever they run into any challenges with their child. They feel more in partnership with teachers and can also gain confidence in their parenting skills with a supportive community behind them.

Bridging the Gap Between Home and the Classroom

Schools and teachers work very hard to provide regular progress reports to families about how their child is doing in school.

But even using strategies aimed at clear, interactive communication don’t always succeed. Wanny Hersey, Superintendent at Bullis Charter Schools described how their efforts were falling short. “In spite of the fact that we had parent-teacher conferences to set up goals together in the fall…in spite of the fact that we reported out three times a year, and had another parent-teacher conference on the goals, the parents still felt like they didn’t know what was going on.”

Parent Survey Results Before Digital Portfolio
A Survey that Bullis Charter Schools took about "Focus Learning Goals" (FLG's) before implementing a digital portfolio. It was clear that parents desired to be more involved.

But with typical classrooms comprising dozens of students, having teachers provide frequent individual updates is simply unrealistic.

Checking in with the kids themselves rarely provides parents with much insight either. “How was your day, honey?” is often met with the most bare-boned of answers: “Fine.”

Digital portfolios offer a way to give parents real-time updates on their child’s classroom experience. Teachers or students can capture images or videos of work in the classroom and upload them into the app. Teachers can provide feedback to the student and parents can participate as well.

The two-way nature of communication brings parents into a more active role in their child’s progress.

Parents move from just receiving information to being part of the conversation.
Karen Fadum, an educator with the Surrey School District

Increasing Parent engagement by using two-way communication in digital portfolio

Giving Teachers Tools to Improve Engagement

Teachers recognize the importance of communicating with families about how their child is doing in school. But they are also tasked with other directives beyond academic learning. A study by Virginia Commonwealth University examined some of the many challenges and responsibilities teachers increasingly face as part of their jobs. Teachers are under pressure to continually improve student achievement, improve social and emotional learning, and participate in professional development, while being constrained by limited resources.

Meeting all of their responsibilities can be challenging. The last thing teachers need is another burden placed on them.

Digital portfolios give teachers a tool for improving parent engagement while also freeing up more of their time to focus on effective teaching. It allows teachers to capture learning in the classroom in different ways.

Students feel more empowered as they take the initiative to select their work for sharing. They can take pictures and video, and make recordings. Both teachers and parents can provide comments and feedback in an ongoing conversation that happens in real time. With digital portfolios, families feel they are always in the loop with what is happening in the classroom.

Parent Digital Portfolio View Increasing Engagement

Reaching Families With Barriers to Engagement

Some families face extra challenges to parent engagement. The State of Michigan examined some of the challenges faced by non-English speaking families. Such parents, for example, can be reluctant to reach out to their child’s school or teacher. A digital portfolio that has a translation feature can overcome this problem.

Time constraints make parent engagement difficult for many families as well. Work schedules can make it nearly impossible for some parents to go to school meetings or even schedule a convenient time for a phone conversation. Digital portfolios provide a platform for meaningful two-way communication that gets around these barriers.

Karen Fadum describes how FreshGrade finally provided a means of parent engagement for families with severe time constraints.

Especially for parents who work multiple jobs or can’t get to school for pick up or drop off—I had a couple of parents who actually cried—they finally felt so connected to the school and they didn’t feel left out anymore.
Karen Fadum, an educator with the Surrey School District

Digital Portfolios Allow Teachers to Help Parents

The ongoing communication provided by digital portfolios allows teachers to guide parents on how to be a partner in their child’s learning. Karen Fadum explains, “Digital portfolios help parents transfer learning from the school to outside of school, like the grocery store, a field trip, or at home.” Active family engagement keeps parents current on what their child is working on at school. It allows them to collaborate with teachers by pointing out how lessons relate to their child’s life when they are not in school.

Expanding learning by involving families also can happen more organically. For example, parents can encourage discussions about what their child is learning about history and how it relates to current events. Math concepts can be reinforced through activities as simple as cooking or something more complex, such as planning the family budget.

As parents engage through a digital portfolio, it allows teachers to model for the families how to give meaningful feedback. Wanny Hersey wants parents to go beyond simple comments. “It is not especially useful when parents simply say, ’Oh! How wonderful!’ or ‘You’re so perfect!’” Teachers are able to direct parents to focus on comments that target important values such as risk taking, learning from mistakes, and having a growth mindset.

The kind of feedback students receive matters. A 2014 Harvard University Kennedy School study examined the effects of different types of feedback from teachers to students. The study found when students received constructive messages that focused on specific ways they could improve, it produced better results.

Empowering Students With Digital Portfolios

Ultimately, the goal of education is to help students grow and reach their potential. There is no better way to make this happen than by empowering students to take ownership of their future. But they cannot do it on their own. Digital portfolios bring together the village that it takes to raise a child through parent engagement and improved interactions between teachers and families.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of digital portfolios? Parents would no longer have to be satisfied with the one-word answer of “fine” when they ask about their child’s school day!

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