As the fall term begins, parents will be keeping their fingers crossed that their little darlings don’t have to come back anytime soon for another home schooling session.
But the wish for a more normal school year for most is unlikely to include that desperate gathering in the classroom or gym known as Parents’ Night.
Virtual versions were, in many books, one of the overwhelming successes of distance learning.
Gone is the mad rush to be on time, the confusion over where the math teacher was sitting, and the queues to talk to that particular teacher who never keeps the time.
Parents could drink a glass of wine right off-camera – and more importantly, those separated by divorce or work could both attend without embarrassment.
And it also works for educators.
During the lockdown in May, then-Education Restoration Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins said a particular aspect of school life “would never be the same again”.
âZooming in for parents’ nights is way better than trying to find a parking space on a rainy Tuesday and wait your turn,â he said.
London Borough of Havering’s educational technology adviser and chief inspector Dave Smith agrees the online versions are “here to stay.”
âOnline meetings between parents and guardians have proven to be very successful in schools,â he says.
âColleagues highlighted the benefits for parents / guardians who can connect to meetings with teachers wherever they are – whereas previously they might not have been able to attend a meeting due to of their work or other engagements – resulted in better engagement and participation rates. “
Many systems offer online parties for parents, and alongside established video conferencing services such as Zoom, there are many bespoke platforms such as Iris, Epraise, and Groupcall.
One of the most popular, SchoolCloud, started life, and rightly so, in a school.
But it wasn’t originally designed for meetings.
In 2006, Robbie Beattie and Marcus Fields, 15, attended an information and communication technology (ICT) class, wondering if they could improve the way their school reserved rooms for teachers and students.
âIt was all done on a piece of paper – and classrooms were often double booked,â says Fields.
“It was frustrating for us.”
So they decided to create an online alternative – and it turned out to be a success.
The couple headed him to the school, Mearns Castle High School, in Glasgow, which after leaving for college kept the system running.
By 2014, it had grown to be used by around 1,000 schools.
And one of them came up with the idea of ââusing the system to reserve teachers’ time as well as rooms.
âWhat had happened before with parent’s evenings was that the kids had a letter that was sent home, which often got lost in the back of a binder,â says Fields.
âIf they found him, the parents would fill in the appointments they wanted and send him back – and then the school had to figure out how to make it all work.
âIt was pretty inefficient.
“It was designed to put the power of parent’s night in the hands of parents.”
By 2019, some 4,000 schools were registered – and the couple were starting to win awards for their creation.
Then, in March 2020, schools across Europe began to close.
âIt was a late Sunday night and we wondered what we could do to help,â said Mr. Fields.
Making parents’ evenings virtual seemed obvious.
But first, they wanted to solve another eternal problem with such events – the fact that they often overflowed.
The solution was a countdown and stop for each appointment, at a specific time set by the school, usually after five or 10 minutes – although my personal best was 25 minutes.
Mr. Smith, a fan both as a parent and as a professional, tells me he’s already managed eight dates in 48 minutes.
But he says there are serious issues for schools to consider.
“Some considerations for schools are that teachers should allow enough time in a call to describe student progress, next steps in learning, an opportunity for parents / guardians to ask questions,” says he.
“Additionally, training staff on using the platform and modeling an effective session is vital if the experience is to be consistent across the school.”
And sometimes meeting in person is always important.
âThere are occasions when face-to-face meetings can be better,â said Mr. Smith, âfor example, when discussing sensitive issues or the needs of students with special educational needs and disabilities, where the physical view of their suitable learning space is crucial. “
Restrictions related to Covid
SchoolCloud has grown exponentially, through word of mouth and via social media.
The 500,000 minutes recorded on the virtual platform at the start of March 2021 rose to 15 million at the end of July.
But the system only really took off after schools returned in September last year, when Covid restrictions meant parents were still largely excluded from the premises.
Today, there are approximately 7,500 schools on board and a survey conducted by the company suggests:
All of this is great news for parents who still need an off-camera wine to help them through the process.