K-12 Technology News

Blackboard Connect Expands Parent Notifications

Blackboard has just added a new feature to its Blackboard Connect notification service that allows teachers to send messages to parents one on one. Blackboard Connect for Teachers includes about 100 pre-recorded comments to address assignments and exams, classroom conduct, and work habits that can be strung together in a message. Messages are pre-recorded in 22 languages and are automatically sent in each family's preferred language. With the new service, teachers can notify parents of behavior and performance changes, deliver assignment reminders, and provide feedback.

According to Karl Engkvist, executive vice president of Blackboard Connect, to use the service, teachers log into the Blackboard Connect for Teachers Web site, where they see a list of their classes. They can then expand those to see the students that are enrolled in each class. They have the option of adding a comment for an individual student or an entire class. Messages sent to a student's home from more than one teacher are bundled together; parents receive no more than one message per student per day. The messages can also be personalized with both the teachers' and the students' names.

"We saw that teachers were looking for ways to communicate more directly with parents but being constrained with the amount of time it takes to do that," Engkvist said. "With growing class sizes, how busy people are, with it being less likely for people to attend parent-teacher conferences, with report cards coming out only four times a year, a lot of teachers are looking for more immediate ways to [provide] feedback. So it seemed a natural extension of what we've been doing with mass notification to take that functionality and apply it to an individual teacher's daily life."

Engkvist said that the service requires "some front end work on the part of the administration," but once that's done, automated integration with the district's student information system loads class information for teacher access. For that reason, the company is targeting existing customers of Blackboard Connect for the new service--1,700 districts, representing about a quarter of the total United States K-12 school population.

The newest feature was beta-tested by 2,700 teachers who sent about 1.4 million calls to parents in the last year. "What we heard was that the system was very intuitive," Engkvist said. "We built in videos to allow somebody to learn how to use the system online. Within 10 minutes they can get started with the system. They like the ease of use. They like how they can string together several messages and have it sent out in multiple languages. The main thing that teachers said was that it saved them a lot of time and it allowed them to communicate with parents in a way they weren't able to before."

"Blackboard Connect for Teachers has been a tremendous tool for parental involvement in our district," said Blake Chism, IT director at Orange Unified School District in California, which has been working with Blackboard to test the system. "It's especially helpful for parents in our lower-income schools and those who don't have regular access to e-mail during the workday. Now teachers can reach every parent through a phone call that is sure to reach them quickly."

Cecile Nedellec, World Language Department chair at Junipero Serra High School in the San Diego Unified School District, used the service to send 2,500 messages last year to families representing various cultures and languages.

"This is the first time in five years as a teacher that I've been able to reach all my students' families, regardless of the language spoken at home," said Nedellec. "If a student is falling behind in class, I can send a message and by the next day find that the student is on task, working harder in class, and has completed the homework assignment. Parents regularly thank me for keeping them informed, and students appreciate the positive reports I relay back home."

The company said the top five "affirmative messages" used by beta testers were:

  • "Is cooperative and well behaved";
  • "Is a pleasure to have in class";
  • "Your parental involvement is appreciated";
  • "Received a high score on a recent test"; and
  • "Demonstrates interest in learning and tries hard."

The top five "proscriptive messages" included:

  • "Did not turn in homework today";
  • "Is in danger of failing";
  • "Was not properly dressed for Physical Education today";
  • "Did not turn in an assignment today" and
  • "Behavior is disruptive and inconsiderate."

During the beta testing process, teachers suggested that Blackboard figure out how the new function could be used to help the schools apply for federal funding. "Some said this would be helpful for kids at risk, special ed kids, schools entitled to Title I funding," Engkvist said. "Those teachers asked us to work with their administrators to ensure that messages we were delivering would apply to those funding and reporting requirements. That's feedback we've injected into our product development roadmap as a result."

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