Mica Pollock from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, an anthropologist focused on education, speaks at the Berkman Center about OneVille, an educational project focused on communication between people involved in young people’s lives. She tells us she’s written three books with one punchline: young people do better when the people in their lives communication about their progress. These communications need to be regular, normal and not extraordinary – communication should be about specific, everyday activities necessary to support student success. Innovative educational ideas like Children’s Zones or promise neighborhoods focus on building communities that nurture children. Building those communities requires conversation.
Pollock tells us that teachers always tell us that they don’t have sufficient time to communicate with students and parents. At the same time, kids are constantly communicating. The average teenage girl communicates her status 4000 times a month via text messages. “How do we normalize this ongoing conversation?”
Her research focuses on her home community, Sommerville, MA, a suburb of Boston. She notes that there are 5,000 students in the Sommerville schools. The majority speak one of four languages – English, Spanish, Portuguese or Creole. There are four “villes” within Sommerville in class terms – a group of immigrants, a group of “new gentrifiers”, a group of white working class residents, and a fourth group of “techies and students”. The OneVille project is an attempt to connect people in the educational community who work with young people and support their learning – parents, teachers, tutors, coaches, other students, and so on.
In the first year of the OneVille project, Pollock focused on learning about existing communications through interviews, focus groups and other gatherings. The group hosted multilingual happy hours so the community could think through issues of language and translation. Community reading hours were useful to bring people together, but made clear how difficult planning events was and how much time the process took. She discovered that a listserv held a critical role for part of her community – the parents involved with a magnet school. During a debate about integrating that magnet school into a larger district, she discovered that the parents on the listserv were far more knowledgeable about the issues than those not connected. Work on data entry gave a sense for what educational data was and wasn’t available. And studying social networks allowed her to figure out that getting young people to join new social networks was unlikely – reaching them via text was the way to go.
She now thinks of communities as ecosystems of communication, governed by who does and doesn’t get different pieces of information. That ecosystem includes the teams who surround a young person, information shared within a classroom, within school communities, and within cities and nations. There’s a lot of discussion about how to share numbers in these communities, but Pollock notes that much more information needs to be shared. The goal is to create a student dashboard that incorporates multiple measures of success and to offer data at different speeds in different settings. The dashboard also needs to overcome barriers of language, and preferably, should use free and open software.
There are now six community working groups that are using “design based participatory research”, a method that focuses on building tools for the community with the community. One focuses on building the aformentioned dashboard. Another focuses on building texting support teams around each student. That process begins with student/teacher texting, and is expanding to include mentors the young person chooses. The communication is based around Google Voice, allowing in-group communication via text messages.
Another team is helping students build e-portfolios, expanding from paper portfolios to online folders that represent a full range of a child’s interests, passions and skills. A fourth team is designing a school level communications toolkit, designed to help bring information to parents. This project, in particular, focuses on language, and bilingual parents are serving as bridges to their language communities, using private wikis to collect inputs from monolingual participants and share them into the dialog.
One team focuses on sharing information across the city – that project focuses on a multilingual community events calendar. And a final team is focused on expanding access to computing infrastructure, working with a project that refurbishes computers and brings them to housing projects, supporting users with training classes.
Bringing technology into the equation has sharpened a set of core educational issues for Pollock. Building a dashboard for student information raises the issue of how difficult it is to get data on student progress. How much can we require teachers to do? Some teachers will put every quiz result online, while some won’t put any information online. How do we show scores in context? If you show someone’s scores against the other class scores, is that motivating or demotivating? Should we share information like disciplinary records, and what are the privacy concerns with sharing that data? She notes that one best practice suggests that students should be able to build support teams from members who don’t know that each other are on the team – this challenges many existing social network models.
There are, of course, technical constraints as well. While using the phone as the fundamental platform has bridged many gaps, what do you do for a student who’s texting plan has run out of messages? How do you help parents learn online skills so they can navigate a school’s website and download the necessary information. The limits of Google Translate have become apparent, and Pollock is now experimenting with paid and volunteer translation systems to allow better translations to take place. Finally, she notes that simply having an open channel doesn’t mean that access to the channel will be equal – a motivated, tech savvy parent can send a hundred emails in the time a disconnected, inexperienced parent will take to send her first message. At a certain point, overcommunication can become an issue, and people will complain about being drowned in communications from a school. (Clay Shirky warns that overcommunication may lead to degradation of a channel, at which point people simply learn to ignore it.)
The really deep issues with a project like OneVille are more conceptual. What’s the line between being supportive and being overly handholding? The notion of support teams for students worries some of the educators who’ve viewed the project, while others believe it’s a critical step in education. Pollock tells us she’s most fascinated by the question of whether people will see the education of other children as central to the education of their children. Unless they do, the community approach she’s advocating can’t fully succeed, no matter what technology comes into play.