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Notes by Mica Pollock

After many years focusing on face-to-face communications supporting student success in diverse public school communities, I’ve just finished two years of participation in the OneVille Project, a community design research project engaging people of all ages in exploring the potential of low cost/commonplace technologies (cell phones, computers, free software) for connecting students, educators, families, and community members in youth support efforts in the diverse community of Somerville, MA.

Here are some citations to previous research and some ideas/¡Ahas! I've personally been chewing on as PI of the OneVille Project, in conversation with literally hundreds of people featured or mentioned on this website. (You'll see ¡Aha! written throughout this website. It means a moment when we figured out something useful about improving communications in education.)

I've come at all this work as a scholar of equity and diversity in public education -- a person newly trying technology, not as a technology scholar. But the way I now see it, technology can help put equity work in diverse educational communities on steroids.

Here’s an article I’ve drafted that grapples with many of the ideas below: <embed_document>/jeddcohen/downloads/PollockTakesaNetworkedited2012forwiki.pdf</embed_document>


You could say that OneVille's work is rooted in antiracism, or progressivism, or a vision of community cooperation. We believe in tapping the potential of every child who shares a diverse community. We believe in community collaboration in young people's success.

But we have been working specifically on concrete projects improving everyday communications in our diverse community. And more specifically, we've been exploring how technology might support those communications. Why?

Punchline: It takes a network to raise a child!

Here's the most basic logic: If we can’t support necessary communications between the people who share public school communities, we can’t collaborate successfully in student success.

Look at the image above. These are some of the people whose everyday actions affect young people's fates -- the people who share individual students, classrooms, schools, and communities. Let’s call the young person in the middle “Jose.”

Research makes clear that supporting regular communication between these people, with the goal of supporting students' full talent development (Dewey 1897), is key to improving today’s schools. As Daly et al (2010) sum up after a host of studies on communications in education, “increased social interaction among all of the school’s stakeholders, is believed to be at the heart of system reform and school improvement” (362).

That's because these people -- including Jose -- each have ideas, information, and resources that the others need to know as they try to support Jose (see, e.g., González, Moll, and Amanti 2005)

¡Aha! Communication gaps between youth and youths’ supporters are structural cracks in the foundation of partnership.

For example: let's say Jose never tells teacher that he likes to learn science.
Let’s say that teacher knows Jose loves science, but never hears from afterschool provider about a free science fair in the community.
Let’s say that the parent doesn't hear from administrator about how to enroll Jose in afterschool tutoring.
Let’s say the tutor doesn't hear from teacher what young Jose needs to work on.

We speak often of students “falling through the cracks” in education, which implies a momentary gap in a human network of information-sharing, relationship, and response. I now think it's more accurate to speak of structural cracks -- communication barriers that routinely block key people from knowing and sharing necessary information. Think of rare face to face support team meetings, backpack fliers in English in multilingual schools, and paper portfolios kept in inaccessible cabinets: each communication habit risks failing to enable supporters to communicate in necessary ways (or promptly) about supporting young people.

Examples of structural cracks in education’s communication infrastructure abound: across the country, many administrators serving low-income children remain unable to quickly show parents or teachers basic data on students (Aarons 2009). Reliant on rare face-to-face meetings that are hard to schedule, many overloaded teachers and afterschool providers rarely communicate about what students need to work on (Yonezawa, Jones, and McClure forthcoming). Due to translation barriers (Zehr 2011), many immigrant parents remain unaware of educational opportunities available in their schools or community. Many students and teachers rarely exchange information on how students are doing personally, what they love to learn, or what they do outside of school – even as youth of all social groups communicate constantly about both via tech outside of school (see, e.g., Ito et al, 2008: Watkins 2009; Noveck 2009; Shirky 2006; Taveras et al 2010; Mickelson and Cousins 2008).

Actually, all of the major things we want to do in education require better communications. Research on data-driven decision-making emphasizes that educators and service providers need to communicate better about student data (Boudett et al 2005); in the OneVille Project, we built data dashboards to make that easier. Research on authentic assessment clarifies that students need to communicate to teachers what they can actually do (Darling-Hammond and Pecheone 2010); in the OneVille Project, we designed and seeded eportfolios that invited that communication. Research on family and community engagement shows that administrators and teachers need to communicate better with families (Mediratta et al 2009, Oakes and Rogers 2006; Henderson et al 2007); in the OneVille Project, we designed a Parent Connector Network testing a hybrid of phone calls, hotline, and face to face coffee hours to support communication between immigrant families and school. Research on youth engagement and mentoring indicates that students and mentors need ways to communicate rapidly about how young people are doing personally (Yonezawa, McClure and Jones forthcoming; Grossman and Bulle 2006); for this we tried texting, already used by youth for rapid personalized communications.

All this research suggests that when students’ supporters communicate regularly about things the others don’t know but need to know, they are each more equipped to attend to students’ life experiences, to intervene rapidly to reduce moments of failure and reinforce moments of success, and to offer resources available to help.

¡Aha! After the OneVille Project, I suggest that improving public school communications particularly requires increasing the following types of ‘’’necessary communication’’’ about/with Jose and his fellow students, all of which are called for in educational equity research and all of which can be enhanced through uses of commonplace technology:

Ready and reliable information on basic indicators of student progress and service (like we tried to offer with the dashboard project); '
Robust (rather than shallow) information on each young person’s full range of skills, talents, and interests, like that enabled by Somerville High's Eportfolios;
Rapid information on youths’ personal development and well-being (central to Full Circle/Next Wave's pioneering of texting) '
Far-reaching (rather than exclusive to some) information about public resources, events, and opportunities, and public ideas, circulated to all across lines of language, race/ethnicity, income, and tech literacy (like the Healey School's Parent Connector Network effort).

‘’’’More research warrant’’’

So, substantial research shows that to partner in any young person’s development, students and their supporters need to communicate regularly about students’ progress, interests, and experiences and about available resources, offering "high help" to students and communicating with "high expectations" for their success (Ferguson 2008).

More specifically, we know that youth do better when they get regular feedback from teachers and peers on improving their work (e.g., Hattie 2008); teachers teach better when youth tell them what they like to learn, and vice versa (Pleasants 2008), and when other teachers, and administrators offer feedback routinely on improving their teaching (Jones and Yonezawa 2008/2009; Daly et al 2010; Cochran-Smith and Lytle 2009; Boudett et al 2005); parents and teachers support children’s progress better when they communicate often about children’s activity in the other setting (Taveras et al 2010; González, Moll, and Amanti 2005; Lawrence-Lightfoot 2003). Families, youth, and teachers tap local resources better when they talk regularly about what’s available (Mickelson and Cousins 2008). Service providers who share regions are realizing that communicating regularly about efforts to support youth and families is key to partnership (

Most of the above scholarship, and much of the scholarship calling explicitly for equity in education, has not looked so explicitly at the channels (Hymes 1972) through which people in school communities do or could communicate necessary information or build relationships, nor documented active tests of channels for enabling particular forms of information-sharing and relationship-building. Enter social media research, which cares specifically about the forms of information sharing and relationship that tech channels afford.

So, throughout the OneVille Project, we asked the following design research questions:

-To support young people, who in a diverse community needs to communicate which information to whom?
-What are the barriers to that communication, and how might those be overcome?
-Which channels (used how), and which efforts to build relationships, might support particular necessary communications between these people?
-When might specific forms of commonplace technology help increase community cooperation in young people’s success, by supporting diverse students, teachers, parents, administrators, service providers, and other community members to share ideas, resources, and necessary information and to build relationships? What are the limitations to technology use?

¡Aha! A key challenge in public education today is figuring out what "blend" of face to face communication, technology, and paper enables the most effective youth support.

Supporting young people now requires a combination of ‘’’channels’’’ -- ‘’’face to face’’’ communications (like a parent-teacher meeting, an afterschool discussion between student and teacher, or a parent coffee hour where people share information and build relationships), ‘’’paper’’’ communications (like a handout in a backpack, a sign on the wall informing a parent of an opportunity, or a copy of student work at a parent-teacher conference), and ‘’’electronic’’’ communications (like a student checking her grades online or a parent posting a local resource on a school listserv).

In education, we need to ask more pointed questions about which communication channels, habits, and norms in schools afford necessary communications. Do teachers share student progress updates with immigrant parents most effectively via phones, email, or in person? Can mentors empower low income youth with college information most effectively via text message, written documents, or face-to-face? How can eportfolio rubrics be designed to motivate youths’ ongoing communication about their full range of talents and interests, with teachers, families, and potential college recruiters or employers? What public norms should be set if diverse stakeholders are to communicate successfully using a listserv, texting, or even just email? Which communications prompt (or threaten) the feeling of partnership necessary to keep partnering, particularly across language, race/ethnicity, and class?

Tech too often rains down on school communities instead. I've heard stories of teachers just walking in to their classrooms to find chalkboards replaced by smartboards, without training. We've specifically worked to test technologies in collaboration with diverse educators, youth, and families, with local technologists’ support. These are the people who know which communications are necessary for youth support; and involving “end users” in the design makes seeding successful communications far more likely.

I've begun to ask a final question in this project:

-How might school communities embed new communication infrastructure when they don’t currently have it?

So, some more ’’’¡Ahas! ’’’

¡Aha! Teachers, students, and families can themselves add “infrastructure” to make such necessary communications, more possible.

Here’s what I’ve personally been learning on the OneVille Project: like adding new tunnels or roads connecting people, people in schools can add new communication infrastructure, to enable necessary communications where they work and live.

By adding “communication infrastructure,” I mean embedding tools and strategies prompting people to communicate (an eportfolio; text messaging), and shaping people’s habits of actually communicating (posting on eportfolios; sending texts).

Like adding new roads and showing people how to drive, new communication infrastructure “formally” embeds opportunities to communicate into the everyday life of schools, shaping the ongoing “informal” communications that then occur (building on Coburn, Choi, and Mata, in Daly et al 2010).

¡Aha! To me, improving communication infrastructure means working to ensure that on a daily basis, the people who need to communicate information and ideas so they can collaborate in young people’s success can do it.

Communication infrastructure can steer people to communicate face-to-face (a regularly scheduled parent-teacher meeting), on paper (a bulletin board), and using some technology (a tool allowing parents and students to check grades online). Without such infrastructure, necessary communications are less possible or less likely.

I've now seen that if teahers, youth, and families consider necessary communications where they live and then test and seed free/low cost communication tools and strategies to enable specific necessary communications, they can make it more normal for new forms of partnership to happen in their own school and community.

That is: through the trials and triumphs of the OneVille Project, I have come to understand how design research methods can catalyze fundamental equity work in education. Horton and Freire speak of community organizing as “making the road by walking” (1990), and in three of our most robust pilots, by following the lead of community members excited about particular communications we actually began embedding communication tools and habits in actual schools and, so, reshaping everyday communications to better help support the success of each child in a diverse community. Invited to design eportfolios displaying what they could actually do and who they actually were, Somerville High School teachers and students seeded totally new infrastructure for discussing students’ talents. Brave enough to test a channel many others ban, Full Circle/Next Wave teachers and students began demonstrating the benefits of rapid updates on personal well-being. The Healey Parent Connectors helped normalize the need for standing infrastructure for translation and idea-sharing with immigrant parents. We also had pilots that didn’t yet successfully catch on: the dashboard design required too much of a young local technologist (and so the dashboard is just now being piloted, thanks to the pro bono efforts of another young technologist in San Diego), we lacked time to do justice to the issue of citywide info-sharing, and our computer infrastructure efforts also ran out of dollars. Our most successful efforts tested already-made or user-ready free tools already in people’s hands (e.g., texting), stipended teachers, students, and project leaders to work freely on designing something they cared about that could then seed as a template (eportfolio) or tried new ways of tapping people’s energy to volunteer and organize their community (like Parent Connectors); each began embedding communication infrastructure for partnership into the everyday operations of a diverse school.

Related ¡Ahas! from a prior tech novice:

¡Aha! Face to face, on paper, or electronically, people will support children most effectively if they communicate with the goal of enabling young people’s full talent development.

Eportfolio teachers still had to encourage and support young people to present "their best" to a caring audience, now digitally. While encouraging student-teacher texting at Full Circle/Next Wave made texting possible, teachers still had to send small, caring text messages to young people; then students began to respond via text. "More" communication isn't inherently good: people have to communicate with student success in mind. An eportfolio is just a blank page, after all; students and teachers could send anything over text message.

¡Aha! Information-sharing and relationship-building are two key processes of youth support that can be made easier with technology.

As people share information about issues relevant to young people's overall well-being, they can build relationships as partners in that well-being; and as they build such relationships, they can share more information necessary to their successful partnership. Research on social networking (Daly et al 2010) and social capital (Lin 2001) have each demonstrated that information-sharing and relationship-building are particularly necessary processes in youth support, that are inextricably connected in education: people won’t share information if they don’t have relationships, but sharing information can help build the relationships necessary to sharing. Research on social media typically finds that technology affords both. Above all on tech channels, we build relationships and share information (Ito et al, 2008: Watkins 2009; Noveck 2009; Shirky 2006).

We’ve indeed seen that communicating proactively about student success can lead TO relationships (a caring text makes you text back; new information about students’ interests can inspire a teacher to teach material targeted to those interests) and good relationships lead to communicating about student success (as Connectors reached out to parents, more started calling back). If you post a resource about a free science fair on a listserv for other parents, it makes the next parent more likely to post another resource. Making new communication tools available in schools (e.g., allowing texting) can help spark communications that spark relationships that buoy the motivation to communicate further. A text can make you smile and tell you about a resource; either act makes you want to text back.

Other ¡Ahas!

¡Aha! Infrastructure can support various “teams” of people who need to communicate, to partner in young people’s success.

People need tools and strategies helping them to communicate about supporting the individual children they share (What does Jose love to learn? How is he doing on credits toward graduation?); about the classrooms they share (what’s the homework? Who has an idea on the assignment?), about the schools they share (what afterschool opportunities are available for children? What actions would improve the school?), and about supporting youth across the community they share (where’s the free science fair? How might we improve education here?).

¡Aha! We could do way more in public education to test specific tools and strategies, to see when "adding tech" supports such necessary communications and when it doesn't.

It seems pretty clear that the communication infrastructure of partnership in public education is pretty underdeveloped, in an era when commonplace and free technology could make necessary communication and information-sharing in education easier than ever. But at this point in the development of technology use in education, the challenge is not simply to “add more” but to test when blending in technology might enhance necessary communications.

¡Aha! If we’re going to use tech in education, let’s use inexpensive technology so everyone can use whatever works.

Some schools and districts are investing in expensive technology for information-sharing between partners. We've wanted to test the potential of free and commonplace technology and low-cost communication strategies for supporting diverse partners in young people’s lives to collaborate. So, we’ve been working to test free, open-source, and low-cost tools and strategies for linking diverse partners in desired communications. So far, we’ve built new tools (our dashboards and hotline) only when we found no free tool available to test.

I'm currently agnostic on whether it's better to create tools from scratch. Building "free" tools still requires very responsible and skilled developers (who have to be paid to create things "free" to others) and, even "free" tools require reliable tech support that also typically requires compensation. Is it better to buy expensive tools off the shelf that come with built-in tech support, or to make your own "free" tools? I'm not sure, but in an era when you can Google any product and contact any friend for free, districts and schools really shouldn't be paying huge fees just to help people communicate basic information.

Our most successful projects have tested existing free tools or, worked with very experienced open source developers. We’ve tested Google Voice in our texting pilot, and tested Google Translate, Googledocs, Google spreadsheets, and Gmail in our schoolwide communication efforts. Students and teachers tested Googlesites in our ePortfolio pilot, as well as Wikispaces and Posterous, and we’ve used Wordpress to blog out and Mediawiki to organize our ideas for this website.

We've also been seeing the obvious need for better and more available hardware and internet access in public schools too. In the eportfolio project, it became clear that software blocking, and old hardware, literally meant that students without home computers could communicate less about who they were and what they could do. (We worked around this, but students shouldn't have to.)

More ¡Ahas!

I only started thinking about tech’s role in school communications in 2009. It's clear to me now that,

¡Aha! Commonplace tech helps with a crucial limited school resource today: time. For one, obviously, tech helps communities connect when they can't meet face to face.

A listserv, hotline, or Googleform can help people quickly share information with many people at once. People can quickly access and sort online data in a way they can’t do with paper folders. With technology, supportive information can come at faster speeds: paper report cards come three times a year or study teams meet once a month, but tech can make even daily check-ins about and with a young person possible.

¡Aha! Tech also allows info to come in more forms.

Posted photos and videos can show a young person’s or teacher’s accomplishments in a way that test scores and grades alone can’t. Instead of a handout in a backpack, knowledge of a science fair can be shared community-wide across hundreds of diverse readers on a well-accessed listserv – if someone cares enough about other parents to post it and translate it.

¡Aha! Tech tools’ design can add new topics and partners to a conversation.

What Noveck (2009) notes of web tools is true of any communication infrastructure: design shapes participation in a conversation.

Think a comment box on a dashboard that encourages a parent to reply: that invites a new partner into the conversation. If the comment box isn’t there, users can’t reply to the data they view.
SHS’ eportfolio rubric now asks young people to post evidence of their 21st-century skills – evidence of their "creativity" rather than just their "Algebra 1 assignment." That invites information about students' life-wide skills and talents, into the conversation. A student can upload a math assignment as evidence of creativity, alongside a photo of a house she helped build in her job.

¡Aha! Tech can make collaboration -- the holy grail of improving schools -- more possible, if you actively remedy barriers to access.

In diverse schools, you encourage “everybody’s” participation on technology only if you actively equalize access: if you ensure access to common-denominator technologies, show people how to use technology, invite/encourage everyone’s participation, and also pursue ways of translating the information being shared.

¡Aha! Schools need to deal actively with the details of access barriers if they are truly to close structural cracks rather than widen them (Wilson 2011).

Parents who already email their superintendent and teachers regularly may benefit more quickly from a new listserv than parents who do not know how to read English or use a mouse. All students who wanted to text had phones, but some lost them and couldn’t afford to replace them. Those with cheaper plans ran out of minutes and literally could no longer communicate via text. Money affects the data plan you can pay for (and so, what you can say and see), and the speed of a broadband connection (faster costs more); cheap plans enabling broadband access “for all” at times often enable slower communications for some. The Healey School began actively pursuing a schoolwide listserv to replace a program-specific listserv, but less tech-savvy parents still needed email accounts, accessible computers, and lessons to join the listserv or use translation software, as well as encouragement to actually speak up on the listserv. So, enabling communications at this level of detail is crucial to jumpstarting partnership.

¡Aha! It’s critical to consider how communications might purposefully engage the others who share children as necessary partners, specifically across lines of income, racial/ethnic background, language difference and tech literacy.

Parents told us they came to PTA Night to talk to teachers not just because they knew about it, but if they felt comfortable socially – often because a peer who spoke their language invited them kindly, face-to-face or via a robocall.

If people treat one another as partners in young people’s success whenever they communicate, and ‘'if they communicate with students’ success in mind, technologies can help people attend to students’ life experiences, intervene rapidly to reduce their moments of failure and reinforce their moments of success, and offer resources available to help.

A Parent Connector put a repeated ¡Aha! this way: “My main conclusion is that relationships matter and they are what makes everything work.”

To conclude:

Technology can’t be treated as automatically helpful to school communications (Turkle 2011); instead, researchers and school community members need to test which channels (texting, social network, Googledoc?), which detailed designs of channels (the many components of a dashboard or the rubrics of an eportfolio), and which ground rules for using channels (norms for student-teacher texting) enable specific necessary communications between necessary people.

I propose that we ask of any school communication the following three key questions:

1. Are the people who need to be included in a given communication actually included? Relatedly, are communication tools and strategies shaped to include necessary partners?
2. What information do people most need to share? Are communication tools and strategies shaped to prompt people to share that necessary information?
3. Through which channels might necessary information be shared across typical barriers? How can technologies truly broaden access to necessary communications, rather than widen disparities of access?

¡Aha! We've also been seeing that innovating communication solutions together in a community itself helps unite people, because people start to treat each other as necessary partners in young people’s success.

¡Aha! Those of us who do research for a living -- me! -- have also been learning that improving communications in a community involves community organizing as much as it involves basic research. No strategy gets seeded, and no tool gets used, unless people are inspired to communicate.

¡Aha! Major innovation energy exists in every school community. Unleash it.

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