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The New Backpack Mail: District Mobile Apps

A well designed mobile app can enable more effective district communications

Today’s interactive parents are mobile and always connected, and they expect the same of their school districts. They want access to real-time, personalized information about their student, and they want to know that you can reach them when it counts. More and more, school communication plans must incorporate mobile to more effectively and efficiently connect with digitally fluent parents and students. In this web seminar, originally broadcast on March 3, 2015, presenters discussed some key strategies for successfully developing and implementing a mobile app for any district.

STEVE OSTLER
Director of Parent Engagement
Blackboard

As we look at the amount of time Americans spend accessing the internet, we see that mobile apps are taking the lead in terms of how parents want to access information and communicate. Mobile technologies have a number of advantages.

When we first started developing mobile solutions, we looked at all the channels where parents could get information about their students: social media, school websites, calendars, news feeds and more. We looked at one district as an example where there were 576 places that parents could go to get information. At Blackboard, we set out to develop mobile solutions that bring all this information together, so that parents could access it in one place.

STEPHANIE SMITH
Public Relations Director
Fort Osage R-1 School District (Mo.)

I have been the public relations director at Fort Osage for about 12 years, and I have been in school communications for just over 15. Several years ago we sat down to review our comprehensive school improvement plan. We talked with the committees, parents and staff. Everybody had a different idea of how they wanted to get their information, so it was a challenging task to determine how to streamline that. As a school district, we use many channels to get to parents. We have our district website, each school has a website, and teachers used to have websites. We delved into Facebook and Twitter to reach out to some of our parents. Then we had our traditional methods to communicate: we sent home newsletters and flyers, and we had a phone call system. Despite all these channels, we realized we needed to incorporate mobile communication. There are 6.8 billion people on the planet, and 4 billion of them are using a mobile phone. When you compare that to the only 3.5 billion people who use a toothbrush, you begin to understand the power of mobile technology.

We looked at what would make a mobile app valuable for our parents, and after considering our options, decided Blackboard ParentLink was the right solution. We liked that we could pull everything into one platform: text messages, phone calls, social media and calendars. We send home a letter with the parent’s login and password. This way, we can be their support network. The other thing we liked about the Blackboard ParentLink system is that mobile and computer share the same interface. This helps to encourage that home-school partnership. In this first semester alone, 98 percent of our student population downloaded our app. We have seen 2,000 parents log into the app in the past six months. We want to empower students as well, so we teach our kids how to download the app to their phone and log in with their student email address. Thus far, we have had 1,050 students log in.

We also use it as a two-way communication tool. We empower our teachers with a feature within Blackboard ParentLink called Teacher Reach, which lets the teacher use a quick mobile communication system to get information out to their students’ families. We use the mobile app to post our attendance. We have set up our sports groups and activities as well. This allows our coaches and activities sponsors to be able to gain, reach out, and share that information. We have a number of parents in our community who don’t want to be on social media. Luckily through the mobile app, by integrating our Facebook and Twitter feeds, they can still get the same information. Kids are also communicating with us through the app. Including school lunch menus was a huge hit. Now, rather than clicking a link and being redirected to our website, they can click on school lunch menus and immediately view a PDF of the menu. We have district contacts that make it very quick and easy for someone to communicate with any of our central office administrators or our school buildings. We’ve had parent requests for bell schedules for our high school.

Also huge for us, of course, is the snow day notification. We review our comprehensive communication plan once a year. We sit down with Blackboard ParentLink and look at statistics, asking questions such as, “What are people looking at?” “What are the number of views?” and “What are things that we can get rid of?” Our tip line in our app has been hugely popular with students, particularly in helping to fight bullying. We’ve prevented a number of small fights and other incidents because kids were using that tip line to communicate with us. Our transportation department is also on board with the mobile app. Next year parents will be able to get their kids’ bus number, plus their drop-off and pick-up spots and times. We are also using our mobile app to communicate with our diverse population.

Although we have only 5,000 students, there are seven languages that are spoken. Even though it equates to only about 100 of our students, translating is just not cost-effective for us. However, with our mobile app, we don’t have to—parents can change the language setting in the mobile app. We are also able to quickly respond to students, parents, staff and community members on questions they have. In our latest surveys, parents have told us they felt more informed about what is taking place not only within the school district, but specifically in their child’s school and classroom. They feel more like they can share and give us feedback. And parents like that they have access to it no matter where they are. You are welcome to find us in the App Store if you’d like to see what our application looks like. We continue to review and update our mobile app on at least a quarterly basis.

Steve Ostler: At Blackboard, we are very passionate about using communication as a tool for improving student outcomes. When it comes to mobile or communication tools, there are a lot of different solutions in the K12 market. Why work with us? What sets us apart? One of the big advantages of working with us is that we have the most experience in delivering mobile apps to school districts; we have over 500 apps serving school districts in the App Store. When it comes to the user ratings of our applications, we have the most highly rated of all the school mobile apps that you might consider using. We have just over a 4.2-star average rating in the App Store.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: www.districtadministration.com/ws030315

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