Getting Online Communities – online



Okay, so you’ve decided to let your students interact online, publish, make, do blah … no more passive technology use. Good for you (and them). How do you set it up so that it becomes a norm, not a storm?

Communication with parents is not only about seeking permission … its about seeking dialogue.

Parents view on home internet activity

Parents see kids on MySpace, Bebo, Messenger et al. Lots of parents in the last few years have said to me ‘he’s always on messenger chatting – how do get him to do his homework’. In a general way, teens spend more time at home with their PC for social-entertainment than they do learning. Googling/Wikipedia and slamming it into a Word document is more often than not – the kind of activity that kids do at home. But you want to change that right?. Communication is the key with parents – to change thier perceptions of what their kids are doing with a computer. This is where you kick off your campaign.

Obviously, you are going to send home a note to get permission. Obviously, you are going to ensure that your school has an effective AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) to ensure that everyone is aware of what you are doing. Fianlly, you’ve obviously decided to MODERATE all comments.

So lets get started with a simple, effective 4 step plan to get online and get parents and students talking about technology and the issues that we all know are critical right now.

The note sent home is the first in a line of communication opportunities, not purely a permission slip, and I’ll come to that shortly.

The other thing about working online at home, is that parents physically ‘see’ less paper and books. So they become concerned that ‘he is not getting homework’. This leads to kids getting hassled about that, plus the time they are on the computer … so you have to ease the migration for both student and parent.

Step 1 – Communicate the class goals to parents

Set up a new class email account for parents to contact you. Either via the school system or gmail. Use this as your communication channel to parents. Send a letter home explaining what you are doing in simple language. There are TWO key parent hot spots. One addresses the ‘what is he doing online’ – tell them that he is learning about internet safety and digital reputation and representation online. You might want to mention the 95% of digi-teens on MyFace et al, and how it is important for them to realise the importance of privacy and being appropriate online. The second one is Media Literacy, tell them you are studying this, and specifically the issues about ‘downloads’, file sharing, and copyright. Parents have seen the ‘don’t download’ messages, but often are not sure ‘how or when’ their kids do it.

So right now, you’ve got a draft letter, explaining TWO goals. The third goal is actually, reflective writing – but that one will be demonstrated.

A third point of the letter, is to invite them to communicate with you. Say that over the course of the semester, students will be participating in safe publishing activities online, and if they have any questions (about anything) that they can contact you at your new email address. This opens a communication channel.

Step 2 – Explain specifically what the students will be doing.

Give parents the URL of the place students will be working. I suggest you stick to communities like Ning or 21Classes if this is your first run. If the URL is ugly, shorten it with TinyURL to make it easy.

The next letter home should have an outline of the work, and your expectations of any ‘home’ internet use. I strongly suggest the use of the word ‘may’ – as not all students will have access at home – so you are going to need to make school based arrangements – but for those students who will be online at home in Ning for example … make sure that the parents know your expectation (max) time. Getting parents to help manage the time and activities that students are doing.

In this letter you will ask for basic permission for students to engage in read/write activities – within the boundaries set. Also ask for a parent email address (you might not get one, but ask anyway). Ask if it’s okay for you to contact them from time to time.

Step 3 – Discussion  and Collaboration with parents.

Set some homework task that the kids can’t do alone – but with parents. Focus on the TWO issues you started with – Reputation and Legals. Ask a couple of driving questions such as;

“How can you tell is something on the internet is real or fake” or “What reputation do Teens have in their use of the internet”.

Try to make them short and un-google-able. Ask the kids to discuss these with 2/3 family members and produce a short report on each question – using your new online community. Make sure they use paper and a pen at home, then transfer that to the community site. This will form your initial basis discussion online and allow you to talk about commenting and the other great things that build reflective writers (another skill to learn).

When you’ve had the discussion … post your own ‘blog’ story about the questions, and quote the students and family members (no names). Thread the conversation together making sure you are not making judgements … and prepare for the final step.

Step 4 – Parent Feedback

Send home a short survey – with closed questions – focus on their opinion of how their kids used technology and talked about their project at home.

Include a link to the community site and/or to your own reflection post.

Invite parents to email you any feedback about anything directly. (Access to student works will depend on your schools view of ‘public access’ – but comments MUST BE OFF duing that period).

In class – discuss the survey with students, throwing in any relevant comments you got via email – and then get them to reflect on it in your community site.

What did you think about your reputation as an online learner – what did parents think? – How did you’re use of technology at home change – did parents see it as a beneficial – etc.,

Get the students to grade your first project!


This is not an absolute science … but its very important to recognise that parents want their kids to be safe and to do safe things online. They are often not tech savvy parents, but understand communication. Before setting off, you are preparing some classroom norms for kids and parents.

You will tell them what you are doing online, you give them a method of opt-in communication to ask questions or to share ideas and feedback, and you are removing some of the ‘fear’ that parents have when kids are online – in things like Messenger and MyFace. You are showing parents that you are asking important questions and that you are ‘teaching’ media literacy and safety – along with content. This sets you, the teacher, as adding value and an open communicator.

Parents want to be advocates for their students and it’s important to include them in what you are doing. Your first venture should be simple, easy and relevant to both the students and the parents. This process allows you to do that – and to include manditory policy needs – but at the same time create a sense of ‘always responsive’ communication.

It’s unlikely that you’ll get all parents in to the school for a presentation evening – or that they will understand what you are talking about if you did. This line of communication builds trust and can be managed. At some point you might want to do more … but for your first digital field trip, you need to address parent concerns and demonstrate that you are moving your students to consider repulation, ethics and legal aspects of technology – not just social uses.

You may have grand plans, but as the ‘leader’ you need to make sure you know exactly where your students and parents are in your online activities – create UNITY. This makes what you are doing in your classroom and community both engaging and open – and you will get direction from those groups. Start simple, and keep it simple. It takes a while for parents and students to see what you are doing as ‘normal’.

But it builds, and transforms learning.

2 thoughts on “Getting Online Communities – online

  1. Thank you for the step by step advice. Very timely as our school is just venturing, conservatively down this track. As a primary school we are taking our time and introducing the online community very gently with class blogs. This seems the natural path to let teachers get the feel of Web 2.0 before we launch into student blogging.
    Primary schools seem to approach things collectively so we have to bring other teachers along for the journey when we want to introduce new ideas. So it is not just a matter of inviting parents but our peers as well.
    Thanks again for this comprehensive blog which i will be using personally and with my staff.

  2. Check out my wife’s blog ‘Sue Groom’ on the blog roll – she has got kids blogging in 21Classes, and uses her blog for parents. Well done, glad to hear about new activity!

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