Online Reporting to Parents using Google Docs: A Proposal Update

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Back in October I wrote a proposal for the use of Google Docs (as part of Edu Apps) to deliver online reporting to parents at our school. The original blog post proved incredibly useful in sparking some debate about the use of such cloud based tools for reporting to parents. It also brought about some challenges and raised questions in the blog comments, again very useful to help me better understand the whole idea.

I have been exploring the resulting responses on and off for the last 9 months or so and this blog post is an update about the project and some information I have discovered along the way that may prove useful.

Just to cover some background once again, here in the UK the government is planning for real-time online reporting by the target year of 2010 for secondary schools and 2012 for all primary schools. According to the previous Schools Minister Jim Knight back in January ‘08:

Real time reporting will deepen the school-parent relations and is not a substitute for regular personal contact with teachers. Effective technology systems can actually significantly cut the staff workloads – but it has to be to be manageable for individual schools and meaningful for parents.

The aim is to develop a real-time reporting system that means parents will be able to access frequently updated information on children’s achievement, progress, attendance, behaviour and special needs wherever, whenever they want.

One of the very first things that people said would be a problem was the location of data centres and where the data is held according to EU law. The second issue that recently arose was the idea of two factor authentication for online reporting.

I have carefully explored and researched these two things and have summarised what I have found out below.
Where the data would be held. In the BECTA document “Keeping data secure safe and legal” it stipulates that organisations must:

Ensure that personal data is not exported outside the European Economic Area (EEA) unless EU Model Contracts or (BCRs) are in place.

However I discovered something called the Safe Harbour agreement which is intended to regulate the way personal data from the 15 EU states is exported and dealt with by US organisations. Safe Harbour ensures US companies can compete within these regulations and that they meet or exceed the stringent guidelines for data storage. This is not referred to in the BECTA document but in my opinion should be as it is a crucial. Google have signed this agreement and so it provides the opportunity to work with Google Docs within the guidelines of EU law and what BECTA have suggested.

Two Factor Authentication. Again from the same BECTA document it states that organisations must protect confidential information with two-factor authentication and some people have said to me that this is needed for online reporting, and as Google Docs does not have this it cannot be used. However I have found that:

The type and amount of data that will be made available online to parents is such that they should not need two-factor authentication for online reporting.

Taken from “Good practice in information handling: Secure remote access” BECTA. Although two-factor authentication may not be needed it is important to consider the types of data that will be included in the online report, this will need to be outlined with my headteacher as we work out the finer details.

Each of my pupils will have a personal login to Google Docs as part of our work in Year 5 which could be utilised for parents to access the report as well. In this way it will foster the sense of sharing the report between parent and child throughout the year. Generating logins for all of the parents may cause some issues with management and exceed the maximum number of users for the Google Ed Apps domain – but it is not out of the question. I am not certain which is the best option yet.

I am pretty confident from my research into these initial barriers that using Google Docs for online reporting is safe and within the guidelines set out by BECTA. Also contributing to this is further conversations I have had with representatives from Google and BECTA. I am yet to get a firm decision from my headteacher based upon the information, but I am hopeful of a full year long pilot beginning in the next academic year.

Alongside presenting my research to my headteacher I also offered three basic options for the layout and formatting of an online report using Google Docs. The structure of the three reports is similar in that they each have a space for the teacher, pupil and the parent to leave a remark or make a comment. I think this is important as it has the potential to build up a great dialogue about the pupil’s learning throughout the course of the year.

We have to make a decision about how the rest of the document will be organised and how the comments will be structured. Three possible ways include: based upon individual primary curriculum subjects, in much the same way the current end of year reports are organised. I have my doubts about just taking this old way of working because the way we are currently working is at odds to pigeon-holing learning neatly into subject labelled boxes. (Google Doc link)

The second possibility is using curriculum topics. We are moving to shorter curriculum topics for each half term next year in Year 5 and so there will be 6 different spaces for comments. As there would be no immediate distinction about subjects we may need to consider how clear the information is. I think this structure would provide parents with good signposts along the year as to what is going on in the classroom and also from a teacher’s point of view a simple structure to follow. (Google Doc link)

The last option was suggested by my headteacher, who said why not use the 6 areas of learning from the Rose Review. (Google Doc link)

  • Understanding English, communication and languages;
  • Mathematical understanding;
  • Scientific and technological understanding;
  • Human, social and environmental understanding;
  • Understanding physical health and well-being;
  • Understanding the arts and design.

This would be a bold move and would be a great opportunity to link up the assessment and reporting with what is going on in the curriculum. As a teacher it would make me look at what I am teaching in light of the 6 areas and engage with the concept on a much deeper level.

(Please be aware that these three Google Doc layouts are very much version 1.0 – I have yet to refine them, so go easy on me! But your comments and suggestions for improvements will be really useful to help shape what we might achieve with the docs.)

I have also added into the Google Docs above a simple mocked up comment to illustrate the idea about our healthy eating unit and some images that could be used as well. Nothing spectacular about that, but it would provide a simple way for such evidence to be linked with and sit directly alongside reporting to parents.

The last thing that I want to explore is the whole idea of the “report”. In my original post I said that perhaps we need to unlearn some things that have been in place for a long time. Certainly the whole concept of an end of year report is in danger of becoming defunct. The online version will allow parents access whenever they want to check on updates and progress throughout the year.

With this in mind my headteacher said to me on Friday that perhaps it may become a “conversation” rather than a “report”. I suppose he is right and that we all want to build stronger, more meaningful relationships with the families of the children in our care. Simply put, we know that more easily accessible information about what is going on in school will catalyse this. Does it need to always be very formalised? I no longer want it to be a case of me sitting down and writing some remarks at the end of a year and “reporting” to parents with a few days to go. The ongoing and timely nature of access will help improve communication and along with face to face meetings will keep the children’s learning at the centre of what we do.

The name “report” is contestable and you will see in the basic versions I have submitted in Google Doc form that I have used “portfolio” – which is the closest I can get to what I mean. It has the potential to be many things including that of showing off work to parents, but then maybe there are better platforms for that such as a pupil blog. Although not hugely important the name will set the tone for what is being attempted – a “report” is one way, whereas a “conversation” is a shared experience. Maybe a “Learning Conversation” is what is needed that allows pupil, parents and the teacher to share what is going on in the classroom, both the challenges and successes.

I believe that the research and exploration I have done (so far) does open the door to use Google Docs for online reporting, I feel confident that whatever decision we make as a school will be based upon the best information to hand. Importantly the use of Google Docs does allow us as a school to tailor the report to our exact needs, the needs of pur pupils and parents. Additionally it is free to use and online reporting with Google Ed Apps could be an important part of an open source virtual learning environment alternative.

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  • Karen Riding

    Brill thanks

    How is your project coming on? I am considering using Google docs/SIMS and real smart cloud

    K

  • Anonymous

    Hi Karen – not aware of any change but can find out for you and will let you
    know.

  • Karen Riding

    Hi Tom
    I have been told that online reporting is no longer statutory just recommended, do you know whether this is true?

  • tomgbarrett

    Good to hear from you Kevin and thanks for the comment – I am still
    preparing to roll out the work with parents and will keep you posted with
    how things go via posts here. In terms of security it has never been a
    problem, with Postini email security enabled for GMail for Apps it is a
    pretty tight ship. There is a range of admin options that allow different
    controls over communicating in and out of the domain. I have been using it
    for 3 years and I am very confident about the security.

  • tomgbarrett

    Good to hear from you Kevin and thanks for the comment – I am still
    preparing to roll out the work with parents and will keep you posted with
    how things go via posts here. In terms of security it has never been a
    problem, with Postini email security enabled for GMail for Apps it is a
    pretty tight ship. There is a range of admin options that allow different
    controls over communicating in and out of the domain. I have been using it
    for 3 years and I am very confident about the security.

  • http://kevinmace.net/ kevin mace

    I am the technology Integration Specialist at a school here in America and one thing I have been able to do is get the teachers using Google Apps. We communicate through Gmail and Chat and teachers are making Google Docs left and right. I haven't pushed them to use it with their students yet, but that's the next step. But I wanted to ask you about security? I remember this blog post and was wondering how it is going with parent communication and security. Keep up the good work!

  • http://tbarrett.edublogs.org/ tbarrett

    Hi Ray – thanks for taking the time to comment. I can see the distinction you are making between the two types of information relayed to a parent. It wasn’t my intention to make a simple system sound complex. We currently write written reports, this online version is covering our statutory obligation to report to parents, so it is still a report in many people’s eyes. Not necessarily mine though.

    If you look at some of the examples I have posted you will see that I fully recognise that making it available online provides a teacher with greater scope to share work – that is why I titled the examples on Google Docs “Portfolio” and not “report”.

    I don’t think I have “clouded” this process at all – Google Docs is a tool that is currently in place for all our students as part of Ed Apps, and so is an ideal platform to share a portfolio with parents and pupils. A simple solution for us. Even so, the desire to share children’s successes and progress in learning in a better way was the starting point – not the tool.

  • http://www.efoliointheuk.blogspot.com Ray Tolley

    Tom, much against my nature, I held back from responding, assuming that other more-authoritative folk would chip in. I think that your repeated use of the term ‘report’ tends to reinforce the traditional concept of a written report – with all the implications of careful language, grammar, spellings etc along with all the usual hazards of making sure that the teacher really is writing about the correct child etc.

    I don’t see ‘on-line reporting’ as anything of this nature. If my car engine were to overheat I am sure that I would get a red light flashing or a simple message to check or drive more carefully. On an F1 race-track a black flag would tell me to pull off into the pit-lane. This is how I see on-line reporting – a flagging device that shows some sort of concern or commendation – without a long detailed explanation.

    The practicality of this is relatively simple and need cause teachers no keyboard induced RSI. Teachers are well used to entering marks and even short comments which are stored in real-time on the school’s MIS. These grades can be aggregated and displayed graphically in a simple and easy to understand way. Some assessment tools, like SmatAssess do just this. These on-going results are then displayed whenever the child’s parent/carer accesses this through their Remote Access facility. Any obvious causes for concern are made obvious and indicate that parents should ‘pull over into the pit lane’.

    The above simple system is in contrast to another area that you refer to and is best accommodated through an easy to use e-Portfolio system. When displaying artefacts, possibly with the invitation for comment, the e-Portfolio is the best tool to manage the formative feedback and even repeated ‘conversations’ without the need to clutter up the MIS. This is where the progress in, say, handwriting or practical activity can be documented so much more naturally and, even, across different schools.

    I fear that your starting point with Google Docs has possibly clouded what, in my mind, can be a very simple solution for teachers and parents alike.

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  • http://www.hccweb2.org/mrsking Angie King

    Hi Tom, thank you for putting your ideas out there. I follow your thoughts here with great interest. I have been attempting to open parent-teacher communication with my Year 2 parents and have created a Moodle site in an attempt to showcase what happens during our day and begin some online dialogue. Here in NSW Australia, we currently report using the 6 areas of learning. The work load to do this would be considerable and becomes a whole other topic. Our school tends to thoroughly comment on English and Maths areas then be more topic orientated in the other Key Learning Areas that do tend to overlap at times. I think student reflection is vital but does it have to be for every subject. As this is ongoing, could it not be more I am confident in ….. I still need a little help with my …. and I would like to learn how to…… which would then generate a focus for the child for the next week, month? Just a thought.

  • http://tbarrett.edublogs.org/ tbarrett

    Hi David thanks for the comment – the ePearl system looks interesting, thankyou for bringing that up. I thin kit is vital that these new opportunities generate new ways of working. Taking what we know is important and crucial in the realm of reporting to parents and making the most of the potential that is newly available.

    IWB could do lots of old things in new ways but it was always the transformed learning experience that was important to me. For example not just doing handwriting on the IWB like any old blackboard or whiteboard – but transforming it through the use of notebook recording software and video playback of writing demonstrations.

    Much the same is needed here, something new. But we still have to ensure it is practical and manageable from the parents point of view. It has to build upon what we know is good not just completely reinvent. There has to be a fine balance and I hope over the summer I will be able to find it.

    I would appreciate your thoughts on the overall structure of the report and what you would consider to work well in this way.

  • http://tbarrett.edublogs.org/ tbarrett

    Yes the Safe Harbour agreement is an important piece of legislation and strangely missing from BECTA guidance which gives an incomplete perspective on using these tools.

    I am pleased you consider this post important and would appreciate your thoughts on the style and structure of the report itself.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • http://tbarrett.edublogs.org/ tbarrett

    Thanks Jenny, I think the informal, regular feedback will be beneficial to all involved. It is not always possible to speak with parents all of the time and I hope this approach will help with that. Lots of people have said they have concerns about workload – but we will have to see about that.

  • http://edubuzz.org/blogs/david David Gilmour

    Tom,

    Thanks for digging into the “safe harbour” topic. I’ve been trampling about in that area, and what you’ve learned is helpful to me.

    You’re right to be wary of computerising the existing batch reports system. New technologies, if we’re not careful, are too often used simply to do the same things, but we need to think what new possibilities they enable.

    I agree with your use of the term portfolio, and am struck by the way your re-thinking of reporting is starting to look very like ePearl, a system I learned about from Dan Isele when he visited earlier in the year, and which we’re planning to try out. As you’ll see from the site, ePearl starts not from a technical approach, say by aiming to build a VLE, but from what we know is pedagogically effective, and uses tech to support those effective activities. These include goal-setting, peer feedback and parental involvement, for example.

  • http://dougbelshaw.com/blog Doug Belshaw

    Tom, this is an extremely important post and one that I’ll be sharing with lots of people! Your exploration of using Google Docs/Apps for a new version of reporting to parents is fantastic.

    I really am rather buoyed by the ‘Safe Harbour’ information you’ve discovered and now my mind’s buzzing with ideas.

    Thanks Tom! :-)

  • Jenny Ellwood

    Tom – a really useful article! Great piece of research on the whys & wherefores behind online reporting. I would agree with your comments re. reporting; formal feed back to parents half way or near the end of the year is not what’s needed- an informal more or less continuous approach is so more appropriate. I look forward to hearing about the next stage!