Mind the gap: Edtech and parental engagement

Written by: Tom Harbour | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We must avoid mistaking parental ‘involvement’ for genuine ‘engagement’. Edtech can help us achieve this, as long as providers put the needs of disadvantaged families first, says Tom Harbour

Since spring 2020, education professionals have developed a good understanding of what in the world of edtech works for our learners – and what does not.

It has been especially clear during the past 18 months or so that edtech does have the potential to engage learners and also motivate and empower parents to engage in their children’s learning at home.

But more could be done, especially for disadvantaged students and their families.

Those dark lockdown days taught us that if edtech, such as learning platforms and resource websites, is to be truly effective for all pupils then those who develop and deliver it in all its forms need to be aware of the needs of every pupil and their families.

Put simply, if edtech businesses design for disadvantaged users first then we have a better chance of helping every learner. If not, then there is a severe risk of excluding some of the pupils that need the support the most.

For example, some learning resources may enjoy millions of hits but it is not part of their metric to measure how many students with Pupil Premium are engaging with and using the resource. That, I believe, needs to change.

Another crucial part of unlocking the power of edtech for all is to ensure that parents are fully on-board. We need to prioritise parental engagement in learning over involvement in schooling, as I made clear in a recent roundtable discussion about the topic (Firefly, 2021).

We must avoid confusing parental “involvement” in education with genuine parental “engagement”. A parent who attends parents’ evenings, for example, is indeed involved in their child’s education but they are not necessarily engaged in supporting their children’s learning at home. This can be a particular problem in secondary schools.

The narrative created by the media, and at times the government, about teacher workload being adversely affected by pushy parents does not help the case for greater parental engagement.

We must of course ensure that teacher workload is not driven up by the demands of what some might regard as pushy parents. However, we also need to acknowledge that for some teachers, many of whom work in disadvantaged communities, increased contact with their students’ families would be a very welcome development.

These less engaged parents may be categorised as being “hard to reach” and as not valuing education. These are major misconceptions. No parents see themselves as hard to reach – these parents are in fact the same people who find school hard to reach (Harris & Goodall, 2007).

They may also face immediate financial challenges that make it harder for them to prioritise the long-term gains offered by education.

Parental involvement should be a stepping-stone to greater engagement in learning. And that is where edtech can help.
Edtech could, ultimately, offer a window into what is happening at home – with the parents’ consent, of course – so that schools can support and empower parents based on insights rather than on assumptions, or worse yet stereotypes or prejudices.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have been working with Learning with Parents, the charity that I founded, to analyse parent usage data and early indications suggest that students eligible for free school meals complete their homework on average 30 minutes later than students from more affluent backgrounds.

Armed with this information schools could use their edtech learning platforms to send a “nudge”, reminder or simple encouragement to the student to complete their homework at the optimum time. If you focus on the learning of children from disadvantaged communities and combine that with the power of edtech then special things will happen.

It is important to acknowledge that things are already changing for the better. It was clear from our roundtable discussion that for many parents, greater awareness of the learning progress of their children has been made possible through edtech platforms, and that this was already leading to a transformation in their relationships with school.

We heard that edtech now had the capability to create more open and trusting school-home relationships. “All relationships need that constant on-going conversation,” said one of my fellow panel members, a former deputy headteacher.

They added: “Edtech has that capability to open up channels and give complete visibility so that parents don’t need to keep asking what their child is doing, and if they are happy, because that information is already available.”

And we heard from the Education Endowment Foundation, which advised that schools should conduct a critical appraisal of their parental engagement practice, including considering what is working well, what is not working well (which could then be stopped), and what the evidence-base on parental engagement suggests before setting out concrete objectives.

This was valuable advice for schools that can be acted on right now.

The challenge now is for schools to make sure that they can develop their parental engagement approaches so that they deliver the maximum benefit for their pupils in a post-pandemic world.

Once this is combined with edtech that has been developed with the needs of the most disadvantaged students and their families in mind, this will be eminently doable. 

  • Tom Harbour is founder and CEO of education charity Learning with Parents. He contributed to Firefly’s recent parental engagement report (see below).

Further information & resources

  • Firefly: Even better together: A new chapter for parent-school relations? 2021: https://bit.ly/3soN5dS
  • Learning with Parents: A charity that supports children, with a particular focus on motivating and empowering disadvantaged families: https://learningwithparents.com/
  • Harris & Goodall: Engaging parents in raising achievement: Do parents know they matter? DCSF, 2007.


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