Opening the channels of communication

Tech has traditionally been seen as a barrier between generations. How might we instead see the dawn of a new, digitally-enabled Age of Communication?

Parents often remark that their children, especially teenagers, appear to belong to a different species. One that communicates almost exclusively in sullen stares, uncooperative mumbles and contemptuous tuts. This gulf of communication is not just cultural. Research by Temple University suggests that adolescent brains behave differently from adult brains: the brain continues to mature as people reach their early 20s, and the regions controlling impulses and making plans – the frontal lobes – are the last to develop. As Laurence Steinberg, who led the study, argues, this development explains why teenagers can be moody and reckless. Speaking to the Guardian, he said: “The kinds of capabilities that connectivity contributes to – emotion regulation and impulse control – probably plateau in the early to mid-20s.”

The difficulty that parents, guardians and educational institutions alike are finding is that technological innovation has the potential to exasperate these inherent biological divides. With issues like data protection and online communication now fundamentally woven into pupil and student experience, even impinging on their health and safety, the challenges of navigating the age of communication are unignorable. But equally Graham Cooper, Head of Education at Capita, a professional services company, thinks that its opportunities should also not be neglected: “Nowadays everyone lives their lives using their mobile devices and communicating with schools is no different. With the range of communication tools available to schools there’s no barrier to communicating about any topics, whether that be mental health, social engagements or pupil progress.” 

Often, he argues, it is a school’s attitude to these new technologies that is paramount: “The best schools that I’ve come into contact with seem to focus on communicating positive messages just as much, if not two or three times as much, as the negative ones. They don’t wait for things to go wrong or rely on the normal calendar events like parents’ evenings or school trips to use communication technologies. They’re using them all the time to reinforce good behaviour, good homework or examples of students helping each other out.” In this way, technology can further promote a sense of community, both between pupils and within institutions. Twitter is an excellent tool for this engagement, Graham observed: “It’s increasingly common for schools to create a school trip Twitter account and ask parents to follow that account for any news or updates on the trip.” 

Rob Eastment, Head of Learning at Firefly, an edtech consultancy, agreed that fear of new technologies – and the draconian policies implemented in response to that fear – has the potential to do more harm than good: “It’s perhaps easy to gravitate to the lowest denominator of banning technology or taking smartphones away from students at school, but doing so is to deprive students of information – we, as educators, should be smarter than that in our approach.” However, he cautions that this idealism must be tempered by an institution’s duty of care towards its pupils: “The idea of digital natives vs. digital immigrants is often banded about, and while there may be some truth in it, both teachers and parents have the ability to shape how such devices and information for learning is approached by students.” 

The notion of loco parentis is not eroded but reinforced in the digital landscape, regardless of whether younger generations take more intuitively to new technologies. “For progress, accessibility is key,” said Rob. “An important step is to unify communications – there’s nothing more frustrating than having a bunch of apps, channels or approaches for gathering or sending information. Instead, a single portal, easily accessible (e.g. via online and through an app), which ensures no one misses a message works best.” 

Trackability is also important.

“Teachers can easily see if parents haven’t read or engaged with something they have sent out, enabling them to simply send a reminder or nudge,” said Rob. 

Proprietary education apps, like Firefly’s, which combine accessibility and trackability, are increasingly common as schools realise that purpose-built education online platforms are often preferable to retrofitting commercial ones. Even though apps like Twitter can be enormously powerful tools for institutions, especially for marketing and communications, proprietary apps can ‘ensure no-one misses out’.   

Another such app is the iParent, developed by Isams, an edtech company. As Lisa Evans, Head of Marketing, described, communication between parents, pupils and teachers has been comprehensively revolutionised by digital technologies: “Almost 65% of the population of Western Europe owned a smartphone in 2017. Parents can be kept up-to-date with all aspects of their child’s progress – anytime, anywhere, anyplace,” she said. Again, these tools further underlinse an institution’s duty of care and the necessity of providing ‘proactive, preventive pastoral care’. 

iParent fulfils this criterion by “providing a solution to capture all pastoral and safeguarding needs in one place,” explained Lisa. On the app, using a raised pastoral flag feature indicates the severity of a student’s concerns or life event and is shown as yellow (monitor), green (mild) and red (severe).   

This problem of pastoral care is especially marked at universities. As a generation has grown to maturity completely immersed in a digitally enabled world, concerns around how technology impacts mental health have grown acute. Amid an apparent crisis in student mental health, trusted avenues of communication between students and their support network back home are critical – as is the responsibility of universities to support those vital lifelines. 

James Murray, the father of Ben Murray, a Bristol University student who took his own life in May this year, has called for the relaxation of data protection rules that prevent universities from sharing information about students’ mental health with parents. He highlighted that the transition between school and university is a crucial – and sometimes overwhelming – time: “When they were at school we considered them kids. Then at university we consider them adults. What’s the difference? Ten weeks of summer holidays, that’s all. It’s nothing.”

It’s a view that is being echoed resoundingly across the public sphere, including at the highest levels of government. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University, agreed that parents should be able to maintain better contact with their children: “Nothing matters more than preserving life. We need porous walls to save lives,” he commented. Universities Minster, Sam Gymiah, speaking at the Office for Students conference recently, concurred: “When these students arrive, for some… the ‘uni experience’ can be disorientating and demanding, as it should be. But universities need to act in loco parentis, [students should be offered] all the support they need to get the most from their time on campus.”

That these political heavyweights have weighed-in makes one thing clear: a new age of communication is upon us. Learning to navigate its pitfalls, as well as appreciating its opportunities, is an essential task for education institutions. The gulf between generations may be genetically hard-wired and therefore, to some extent, unbridgeable. But far from being a cause of further distance, digital tools offer the opportunity to forge common ground. Schools and universities should embrace them – they ignore today’s age of communication at their peril. 

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