Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 7, 2013, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17045, Date Accessed: 4/9/2013 3:47:36 PM
It Takes a Network to Raise a Child: Improving the Communication Infrastructure
of Public Education to Enable Community Cooperation in Young People’s Success
by Mica Pollock 2013
Background/Context: In this essay, I propose a design research agenda that braids
equity research and technology research in education. More specifically, I propose that
researchers join educators, youth, families, and community partners in tackling a central
challenge for education research today: figuring out how and when low-cost and
commonplace technologies, in combination with face-to-face talk and paper, can support
necessary communications between the range of supporters who share students, schools,
a district and a diverse community. I call such work improving the communication
infrastructure of public education. This Essay discusses this research agenda as forged in
the OneVille Project, a participatory design research effort engaging people of all ages
in exploring the potential of low cost and commonplace technologies (cell phones,
computers, free software) for connecting people in youth support efforts in the diverse
community of Somerville, MA. In the OneVille Project, educators, parents, young people,
and research partners together designed and tested new communication infrastructure,
including new data displays for communicating ready/reliable information about young
people to educators, students and families, online portfolios for sparking robust
communication about the whole student, student-teacher text messaging for affording
rapid/routine communication about students’ well-being, and multilingual phone and
face-to-face parent networks for enabling far-reaching communications across language
and technology barriers.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In education, much research
suggests that to support young people’s talent development, students and the diverse
people who share education communities need to communicate information regularly
with student support in mind, and to build relationships supporting this communication.
But often a support network goes underutilized -- like a city at night, with half of the
bulbs gone dark. Who in a diverse community needs to communicate what to whom in
order to support young people? What barriers prevent such communication? Which
channels and habits of communication might enable these necessary communications?
Encouraging others to ask such questions in their local school systems is the purpose of
Research Design: In the OneVille Project, we attempted a key design task in education:
testing how, if at all, low-cost and commonplace technologies might enable necessary
communications to support young people’s success. We found people motivated to
improve a specific necessary communication -- teachers wanting to view student data
more easily or reach absent students; administrators, teachers and students wanting to
communicate more about students’ learning interests and lives; parents wanting to
communicate across languages -- and then shaped specific design projects around these
Conclusions/Recommendations: In the OneVille Project, I came to understand how
when educators, youth, and families help design and embed tools and strategies for
enabling necessary communications in their own diverse schools and communities, they
can make it more normal for ready and reliable, robust, routine and rapid, and far-
reaching communications to happen. Technology can’t be treated as if it will
automatically enable such necessary communications; instead, researchers and school
community members need to test which channels, which detailed designs of channels,
and which habits and ground rules for using channels enable specific communications
necessary for student support.
In this short essay1, I propose a design research agenda that braids equity research and
technology research in education. More specifically, I propose that researchers join
educators, youth, families, and community partners in tackling a central challenge for
education research today: figuring out how, when, and whether to add technologies to
diverse educational settings, particularly to support young people who have not yet
succeeded in school.
Having long studied face-to-face communications across diverse educational
communities (Pollock, 2004, 2008), three years ago I finally noticed the explosion of
commonplace technology, used by millions of diverse Americans to communicate outside
of school (Watkins, 2009). Along with teachers, parents, young people, and others, I’ve
since been asking a specific question about such technologies as a design researcher.
How, if at all, might low-cost and commonplace technologies enable necessary
communications to support young people’s success, between the range of supporters who
share students, schools, a district, and a diverse community? Encouraging others to ask
this question in their local school systems is the purpose of this essay.
By “necessary communications,” I mean communications that enable people to partner in
each young person’s full talent development. Any educational community should ideally
be a social network working together toward this goal of developing students’ talents
(Dewey, 1897), but often the network goes underutilized – like a city at night, with half
of the bulbs gone dark.
In education, social network research (e.g., Daly et al., 2010) and social capital research
(see, Putnam, 2001; Lin 2001, on a long tradition) suggest that to support young people’s
talent development, the people who share educational communities need to communicate
information regularly and to build relationships supporting this communication. As Daly
et al. (2010) sum up, “increased social interaction among all of the school’s stakeholders,
is believed to be at the heart of system reform and school improvement” (362). Such
research suggests that creating new bridges and links between diverse people of all ages
spreads the wealth of local information and connections, key to supporting youth
(Putnam, 2001). It also suggests that to deepen youth support relationships,
communications between diverse stakeholders need to be “denser”—more regular, rather
than rare (Daly et al., 2010). Much equity-focused research in education argues further
that the diverse people who share individual students, classrooms, schools, and
communities (Image 1) each have ideas, information, and resources that the others need
to know as they try to support young people, but too rarely do, due to barriers of
relationship, language, and social position (see, e.g., González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005).
All such literature asks us to inquire whether potential partners – including, the young
people – can communicate what the others need to know when they need to know it. If
not, can these people really take informed and rapid action to support young people’s
Image 1: Possible necessary communication partners in a young person’s life.
We speak often of students “falling through the cracks” in education, which can imply an
unexpected, momentary gap in a human network of information sharing, relationship, and
response. I think it’s more accurate to speak of structural cracks – communication barriers
that routinely block key people from knowing and sharing necessary information, and
from building relationships of partnership.
The people in Image 1 are a conceptual sample of the sorts of people whose everyday
acts affect “José.” Each, including José, may know something that can be useful in
supporting him (González et al., 2005). Now, think of rare face-to-face support team
meetings between “specialist” and “counselor”; backpack fliers in English from
“administrator” to recently immigrated “parent/guardian”; and a “student” rarely asked
by “teacher” what he enjoys learning. Each communication habit likely fails to enable
potential partners to communicate in necessary ways or in a timely manner about
supporting José. If “teacher” knows José is absent regularly but has no idea why, or
knows about his love of science but not about a free summer science program for local
youth, or if “administrator” doesn’t tell José’s father about an afterschool opportunity
available for José, there’s a crack in the infrastructure of their partnership.
Embedded barriers to the school communications necessary for partnership abound,
particularly in schools serving young people who are low income or not white; such
structural cracks can delay potential partners from caring collectively for young people in
schools. For example, any shopper with an Internet connection can Google any
imaginable product today, but when people in low-income schools need critical data
about their children, it is often not so ready or reliable. Research shows that many
educators in resource-strapped schools lack tools (or tech support) for accessing basic
student data quickly (Aarons, 2009; Boudett, Parker, City, & Murnane, 2005), and that
many low-income and immigrant parents are too rarely assisted to see or hear such
information about their children’s progress (Taveras, Douwes, Johnson, Lee, & Caspe,
2010). While youth of all social groups today use social media to communicate with each
other about who they are and what they can do (Ito, 2009; Watkins, 2009), inside schools,
available information about young people’s talents and interests is often not so robust—
the student data we now circulate most are test scores alone (Darling-Hammond et al.,
2010), and so, many teachers still learn about just a fraction of their students’ actual
skills, talents, learning interests, and lives (Pleasants, 2008; Nieto 2000; Delpit, 2008).
Even as many young Americans use phones and computers to communicate nearly
instantaneously about personal well-being with friends and family (Ito, 2009; Wesch,
2008), personalized updates inside public school communities aren’t typically so rapid or
routine: especially with budget cuts, overscheduled educators, specialists, and counselors
talk all too rarely about youths’ personal progress and needs (Yonezawa, McClure, &
Jones, 2012). Finally, the opportunity information circulating in low-income schools is
notoriously not sufficiently far-reaching. Even in an era of global information-sharing
(Shirky, 2008), many low-income and immigrant parents and youth remain unaware of
educational opportunities available right in their schools or community (Mickelson &
Cousins 2008; Yonezawa, McClure, & Jones, 2012), due to gaps in tech access, personal
connections, and translation (even when legally required; Zehr, 2011). This structural
crack is a focus of social capital literature (Putnam, 2001).
Such cracks in knowledge about young people’s situations and available supports are
cracks in partnership for young people’s success. Each crack in infrastructure is caused
either by inadequate or inaccessible communication channels, by a failure to organize
time (or translation) so that people can talk, by low-quality information, or, by a lack of
relationships prompting and motivating people to communicate (and then act) to support
young people’s development. Improving communication infrastructure means caulking
the cracks – helping necessary communications flow between potential partners, to make
successful partnership more likely.
A DESIGN RESEARCH AGENDA: IMPROVING COMMUNICATION
INFRASTRUCTURE TO ENABLE NECESSARY COMMUNICATIONS
By improving “communication infrastructure,” I mean embedding tools, channels, and
habits of communicating in schools and districts that enable necessary communications,
supporting people to partner more effectively in young people’s talent development. A
listserv or hallway bulletin board allowing parents to share information with many others,
an online data view (dashboard) allowing administrators to look up student absences
quickly during a parent conference, an eportfolio (online portfolio) that invites students to
communicate their own “life-wide” accomplishments to teachers, or a multilingual coffee
hour with the principal affording biweekly check-ins across language barriers are all
examples of communication infrastructure I’ve recently explored. Like adding new roads
and showing people how to drive, new communication infrastructure “formally” embeds
opportunities to communicate into the everyday life of schools, shaping the ongoing
“informal” communications that then occur (building on Coburn, Choi, & Mata, in Daly
et al., 2010). Communication infrastructure can steer people to communicate face-to-face
(a regularly scheduled parent-teacher meeting), on paper (a bulletin board), and using
some technology (a tool allowing parents and students to check grades online). Without
such infrastructure, necessary communications are less possible or less likely.
I propose that a key design task in education is to figure out which communications in
educational communities are necessary, and to test how a combination of tech tools, face-
to-face talk, and (for the time being) paper might enable such communications between
diverse people. I suggest above that necessary communications are ready/reliable, robust,
rapid/routine, and far-reaching, but I also suggest that the “necessity” of any given
communication needs to be debated by those trying to support young people. Using a
simple number line (Image 2), we might evaluate any communication’s “necessity” by
asking a single question: Do communications enable people to work together to support
each young person’s full talent development, or not? We might then ask more specifically
who in a diverse community needs to communicate what to whom in order to support
young people and, what barriers prevent such communication; and then, we can test
which tools, channels and habits of communication enable these necessary
Image 2: Defining a Necessary Communication in Schools
NOT NECESSARY NECESSARY
Away from supporting students’ talent development Toward supporting students’
In evaluating communications’ “necessity,” we might remember that not all
communications assist. Indeed, a set of core tensions will plague us as we test adding
technology’s higher-frequency communications to schools. These core tensions include
time (should parents email principals without limit?), privacy (should nurses reveal health
data to teachers?), relationship (should online tutoring tools replace human tutors?) and
money (should teachers hold online office hours in the afternoons to better reach their
150 students, even if some parents can’t afford internet?). We might also remember that
tech or no tech, communications only assist if people communicate with “high
expectations” for each student’s success, while offering “high help” toward that end
(Ferguson, 2008) – and, that building caring relationships between people is one key
toward prompting such communications (Valenzuela, 1999).
The rest of this essay discusses this research agenda as forged in the OneVille Project, a
participatory design research effort engaging people of all ages in exploring the potential
of low cost and commonplace technologies (cell phones, computers, free software) for
connecting people in youth support efforts in the diverse community of Somerville, MA. 4
From 2009-11, along with local families, youth, teachers, administrators, service
providers, community organizers, and graduate students in my own community of
Somerville, I came to ask my own version of the design research questions suggested
To support young people, who in this diverse community needs to communicate which
information to whom?
What are the barriers to that communication, and how might those be overcome?
Which channels (used how), and which efforts to build relationships, might support
particular necessary communications between these people?
When might specific forms of commonplace technology help increase community
cooperation in young people’s success, by supporting diverse students, teachers, parents,
administrators, service providers, and other community members to share ideas,
resources, and necessary information and to build relationships? What are the limitations
to technology use?
I also learned how school community members can test and embed new communication
infrastructure themselves, in collaboration with local academics.
THE ONEVILLE PROJECT
Somerville, MA, (population approx. 77,000) is often called a city of three “Villes” – new
immigrants, new gentrifiers, and older working class – and also contains a fourth “Ville”
of university students. The city’s public school population represents the diversity,
complexity, and typical divisions of a large city, in terms of languages (52, with English,
Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole being the most common), racial-ethnic groups
(with large Central American, Brazilian, and Haitian immigrant populations), and
economic groups (with a long working class and college-student history, and recent
explosion of young professionals and white middle class families). According to the state,
63% of all students in the Somerville public schools are members of “racial/ethnic
minority” groups, and 69% receive free and reduced price lunch5. During the OneVille
Project, my own kindergartner was in the public schools as well.
The OneVille Project was supported by the Ford Foundation (Phase 1: 2009-11) with
documentation in the third year supported by the Digital Media and Learning Hub of the
MacArthur Foundation (Phase 1.5: 2011-12). At heart a participatory action project,
OneVille had the public goal of working to enable community cooperation in the success
of each young person in a diverse community, by co-designing communication solutions
linking the people in young people’s lives. This was my own first foray into participatory
“design research,” where researchers participate with community members and
practitioners in trying to design a solution to a problem, while studying the effort and its
snags and redirecting/iterating accordingly (see, Penuel, Fishman, Chang, & Sabelli,
2011; Dede, 2005; Joseph, 2004).
After initial welcome from the Somerville Public Schools and the City, a small initial
team of three current/former graduate students, two community organizers, two local
technologists, and myself undertook a year of exploratory fieldwork and organizing to
understand communication needs and existing efforts in Somerville. Communications
with youth and among those closest to youth, and communications across the “Villes,”
were our focus. To learn by participation, we first explored how face-to-face dialogue
strategies could get diverse parents and their children talking across boundaries hindering
partnership, via multilingual parent coffees and family Reading Nights linking people
across a school’s magnet and “neighborhood” programs; we then began exploring
specific technologies’ potential. I participated as a truly anthropological novice on
existing parent listservs and student data spreadsheets, tried texting and social networks
with youth, and watched youth and teachers test eportfolio websites, while taking copious
field notes on the communications involved and enabled (or not).
Most importantly, in our initial fieldwork we found people who were motivated to
improve a particular necessary communication – teachers wanting to sort student data
more easily or reach absent students; administrators wanting to move past paper
portfolios; teachers and students wanting to communicate more about students’ learning
interests; parents wanting to communicate across languages – and then shaped specific
design projects around these desires. A year in, we divided into six smaller projects
testing specific ways that commonplace technology might afford specific necessary
communications. More specifically, to help people attend more closely to the
development of each young person, we (a) designed a set of “dashboards” (quick online
data view) for communicating ready and reliable basic data from the district’s student
information system, to parents, teachers, and tutors; (b) tested “eportfolios” (online
portfolios) supporting youth to communicate robust information on their life-wide skills
and interests, to teachers and other viewers; and 3) tested student-teacher texting for rapid
and routine personal updates. To help people share information, ideas, and resources
across schools, we 4) designed a Parent Connector Network supporting multilingual
communication across parents and school staff. We also 5) explored methods of
improving citywide information-sharing, to inform youth and parents of local educational
opportunities, and 6) supported a computer infrastructure initiative attempting to get
hardware and computer training to more youth and families. Each design group combined
local academics, youth, parents, educators, technologists, and community organizers.
Efforts tackled these ecological “layers”:
Through trial and error, our participatory design research model became this: to work
with teachers, youth, and families to consider necessary communications in a community
diverse across lines of race/ethnicity, class, and language, and to test low cost tech tools
and communication strategies to see if they supported necessary communications. We
also worked to share our efforts publicly online, even if we were still learning6. All of the
tech used in the OneVille Project was free/low-cost (e.g., we used many Google tools,
and low-cost text messaging) and when we built a couple of new tools because we
couldn’t find an existing free tool (our dashboards and hotline), we used open source
software to do it (software that any programmer can have and adapt). And while we had
begun thinking that a single platform might support all necessary communications at
once, we realized over time that we really sought a toolkit and strategies supporting a
host of necessary communications in a diverse community, via a hybrid of technology,
face-to-face communication, and (for the time being) paper.
All of this work de facto required community organizing as much as basic research7,
because we had to build serious relationships and tap community and district/school
interests to pinpoint desired communications and then, to test anything at all. We worked
on the following aspects of communication infrastructure.
TESTING WAYS OF SUPPORTING NECESSARY COMMUNICATIONS: SIX
1. FOR COMMUNICATING READY AND RELIABLE STUDENT INFORMATION:
THE DASHBOARD PROJECT
In discussions about necessary communications, teachers and administrators said they
couldn’t easily view, sort, or discuss patterns in student data because that data was buried
in different “fields” in the student information system (SIS), which Somerville couldn’t
afford to replace. Administrators had to send data analysis requests to a central office, or
teachers created their own Excel spreadsheets of data from the SIS and analyzed them by
hand. Unable to see different kinds of student data at the same time in a single display,
people wasted hours flipping between screens, file folders, spreadsheets, or drawers. In
addition, as in many diverse school systems (Taveras et al., 2010), while parents could
get passwords and log in to check the existing student info system, many immigrant and
low-income families were often unsure how to find or read such school information on
their children’s absences, grades, or credits. People said all such structural cracks kept
people from finding necessary basic information and wasted valuable time.
In response, a teacher, local graduate student, local technologists, and I, along with
advising parents and staff at the K-8 Healey School, worked to design three open source
data dashboards —an administrator data view, a teacher’s classroom view, and an
individual view showing data on a single student to parents, student, and teachers. For the
administrator and teacher views, we built on an Excel spreadsheet model created by a
local parent for an earlier Healey principal (Image 4). For the individual view (Images 5
and 6), we incorporated the school district’s existing report card rubric. I had heard both
parents and tutors talk about wanting to discuss children’s skill development more with
teachers, so I pushed for adding comment boxes that could allow parent or tutor users to
upload ongoing questions or qualitative notes on student service that would then go to the
Image 4: Administrator And Teacher View Dashboard
Images 5 And 6: Individualized Dashboard Views
Throughout this effort to support ready and reliable data, we wanted to make a tool that
was “free.” As I learned first from Somerville’s local technologists, many tech tools used
to share student achievement data are made by for-profit companies and require
expensive investment by districts for software, hardware, and tech support. Districts also
pay large fees for other software (e.g., for library computers) and for related tech support.
So, we used our Ford grant to fund several local technologists to create open source, free
tools for the district and then ideally, adaptable elsewhere.
Still, “ready and reliable” data today above all requires reliable programmers with
sufficiently funded development hours. As it turned out, testing existing, consumer-ready
free tools in our other pilots (e.g., texting or Google tools) was far easier and cheaper
than making free tools from scratch8. Our young local developer, while talented, failed to
finish the prototype dashboard views on time for a pilot in fall 2011; an even more
talented young developer in San Diego then spent 200 pro bono hours redeveloping the
administrator and teacher dashboard views to a professional, user-ready level in 2011-12
but couldn’t offer 60+ more hours perfecting final “tubes” hooking the tools to the
district’s SIS for error-free display, again delaying actual testing. We also learned the hard
way that tool creation is not tool adoption: substantial pilot time and ongoing
redevelopment – all requiring additional resources – would be necessary to seed actual
use. I’ve since seen that even in districts with expensive student data systems, many
teachers don’t use the tools, often because districts can’t or don’t pay for professional
development on how to use them.
In all, the dashboard pilot raised core tensions about designing communication
infrastructure for ready and reliable data. Expensive commercial solutions may be more
“reliable” than engaging with open source developers trying to support new forms of
communication about basic student data for minimal cost; but in an era when anyone can
Google any product, for free, there’s also no reason why districts should have to drain
scarce resources to access basic data. Designing and piloting low-cost solutions for ready
and reliable access to data that educators and families want to see is a key way that equity
and tech researchers can together help caulk structural cracks, along with those who need
to view data. The future of open source data display efforts may lie in larger teams of
experienced, funded developers designing such tools with community and academic
Finally, the dashboard project raised another key question about necessary
communications, in an era when many schools seek to add tech tools to share scores and
stats more quickly (Aarons, 2009). What full range of “data” do youths’ supporters need
to share in order to support youths’ talent development? To help youth, teachers, and
mentors communicate robustly about individual students’ full range of skills, learning
interests, and learning experiences, teachers and students at Somerville High School
innovated eportfolios using free software.
2. FOR COMMUNICATING ROBUST INFORMATION ABOUT THE WHOLE
STUDENT: THE EPORTFOLIO PROJECT.
In fall 2009, we had talked to the SHS principal about his growing interest in exploring
electronic portfolios at the school to enable a variety of necessary communications. As
one teacher put it, Somerville High School had a paper portfolio tradition that had been
largely “a cumbersome collection of paper four times a year.” Portfolios, kept in a locked
cabinet, largely contained five-paragraph essays curated by teachers, and were rarely
shown to anyone except for formal accreditation visits. In comparison to paper folders,
online portfolios could hold more documentation of student skills (videos, links) and,
allow students to communicate their skills to more supporters (mentors, admissions
Over a year and a half of careful groundwork with the School Site Council, and then two
semesters of participatory afterschool design sessions with a small OneVille team and
dozens of students and teachers, SHS’s own diverse youth and educators tested out free
software (Googlesites, Wikispaces, and Posterous) for communicating who they were and
what they could do. They decided not to simply post school assignments by subject
(“Algebra,” “English”), but to use a “Verified Resume” rubric (developed by Arnold
Packer) that offered categories for communicating youths’ 21st century skills across
subjects. These new categories for posting evidence of one’s skill at e.g. “creativity,”
“teamwork,” or “acquiring and evaluating information” also encouraged students to
communicate what they could do outside of school. Student portfolios presented in a
spring 2011 community expo included what participants deemed truly new
communications about students’ identities and strengths: videos of students narrating
their original poetry, solving math equations, doing physics, and learning to skateboard;
interviews with teachers evaluating students’ negotiation skills; photos and commentary
on students’ original art and work experiences, including their skills in engineering,
carpentry and dress design; and class assignments students found particularly valuable to
One early student designer spoke of the communications about students’ skills and talents
that the eportfolio infrastructure newly made possible9. As a student put it in another
presentation, an eportfolio allowed her to “show all of the sides of who I am, in one
place,” to communicate “little cool things about me” as well as evidence of “being a good
student.” A teacher noted how getting such new information could transform teaching
practice: if students entered his class at the beginning of the year with eportfolios
communicating their skills and interests, learning would be “so much more
individualized” (see also Klimczak et al., forthcoming).
But the tech tool itself – e.g., a Googlesite – was only one part of enabling such necessary
communication; an eportfolio could just have hosted students’ five paragraph essays
online. Alongside the new rubrics encouraging students to share their full range of skills,
students clarified the importance of face-to-face conversations with supporters who
motivated young people to recognize and share their own talents. One student, a Spanish
speaker, felt encouraged by teachers to post her original poetry online (her first time
sharing it with anyone at all); peers started to praise it and to want to post their own. She
called the experience transformative, precisely because no one had ever seen or valued
this set of her talents publicly. And as encouragement to communicate work publicly
motivated next students to share quality work, the skill to communicate via eportfolios
also spread virally across the school as students and teachers showed next designers how
to use software. Impressed by youths’ products and excitement, administrators started
talking about making eportfolios a schoolwide requirement10, thus embedding newly
robust communications about students’ skills and interests into the school’s standing
Teachers noted that eportfolios catalyzed more running communication about student
work online, but not everyone in Somerville was using computers enough to facilitate
truly regular communication with young people using this channel; many youths
themselves could access computers only when at school or the library. Further,
eportfolios, as sites of best work, were not necessarily places where youth would share
their full range of ongoing personal struggles. For such rapid and routine communication
about young people’s overall development and well being, we tried technology’s most
common denominator tool: texting.
3. FOR RAPID, ROUTINE COMMUNICATION ABOUT YOUNG PEOPLE’S NEEDS
AND WELL-BEING: THE TEXTING PROJECT
A core OneVille goal was to figure out how to assist as-needed communications between
youth and their key supporters, a group we envisioned as a personal “support team” for
every student. In a district summer school English class in 2009, we had first tried
unsuccessfully to seed an online social network allowing youth, a “support team,” and
teacher to communicate on demand. Participating students argued both that empty online
social networks weren’t compelling enough to spark communication and that text
messaging was the quickest and most reliable way to reach them. Two teachers and their
40 students at Full Circle/Next Wave, Somerville’s alternative high and middle school,
decided to test how one-to-one texting might support students, teachers, and mentors to
communicate rapidly and routinely about students’ personal needs. Many of the school’s
students were absent from school often and in need of ongoing personal support, and the
principal had himself noted that students responded to texts more quickly than any other
We showed the teachers how to use GoogleVoice, a free texting tool, met with students
and teachers to brainstorm basic ground rules for appropriate texting (don’t expect a
response after 10 p.m. or before 8 a.m.), and encouraged teachers and students to text
whenever useful. GoogleVoice self-documented all texts, allowing teachers, a lead
doctoral student, and me to review texts by students’ permission. We conducted regular
focus groups with students and teachers to discuss texting’s effects, and we anonymized
texts for collective review over two “Research Days.” Soon, teachers and students were
texting rapidly and frequently about coming to school on time, completing homework
and requirements, and participating in school activities. Texts showed banter and over
time, deeper revelations over personal struggles, failures, even a rehab placement. Texts
included typical examples like this:
Teacher: Everything ok? 9:30 AM
Student: Ted? 10:39 AM
Teacher: Yup 11:02 AM
Student: Everythings alright I guess im gonna b in tm .. Is there anything I can do to put
my grade up for your class 11:05 AM
Teacher: Be on time tomorrow, we'll talk then.
Student: I just left my house right now so I'm going to b late 7:47 AM
Teacher: And I need to know this? 7:48 AM
Teacher: Hurry up! 7:49 AM
Student: Because I don't want you to worry 7:49 AM
Teacher: You miss school regularly silly goose 7:51 AM
Student: I came in all this week and collected points 7:54 AM
Teacher: Get here, we can celebrate 7:55 AM
Student: Hahaha okk I'm on cross street now 7:58 AM
Over time, through call and response on this simplest and hardest to ignore of channels,
students and teachers at first skeptical about texting built relationships that many students
said made them want to come to school at all (Pollock & Amaechi, 2013). In data
analysis discussions throughout the year, student and teacher participants analyzed their
own texting practices and determined that texting afforded both individualized, timely
student support and the ability to strengthen student-teacher relationships in ways that
improved interactions in school. Texting afforded short bursts of information that could
reach students “any time, anywhere” and also facilitated two-way communication –
particularly, student response. Texting prompted informal banter in both directions, and
soon, information about “school” mixed with lighthearted communication about student
needs and notably, explicit statements of personal support (“you’re a smart kid”; “you can
do it!”). Students and teachers said that this ongoing supportive exchange, combined with
texting’s seeming privacy (even as all texts were recorded on Google Voice for student
safety), made both parties care more for the well being of the person on the other end of
the line. Teachers also noted that far from replacing face-to-face communications, texting
outside of school often served as a portal to more informed face-to-face communications
inside school. Now, new teachers and students are joining in trying out texting, with some
testing a group texting tool to enable multiple supporters of students’ choice to
communicate at any time. Other youth-serving organizations in the community want to
learn more about what texting can afford rapid youth support.
The texting project raised obvious core tensions about potentially harmful
communications: students’ safety/teachers’ liability (how might ground rules be set up to
shape safe and positive uses of text messaging?), privacy (is it always good that a parent
can request a child’s private support texts?), and teachers’ time (should teachers be
expected to communicate with students outside the school day?). Still, refusing tech
because of these uncrossed frontiers is sort of like refusing the printing press because it
could produce dangerous books: The design task for schools is to determine acceptable
habits of using tech channels. In the texting project, students and teachers set initial
ground rules for their own use of texting; both felt that no “inappropriate” texts were ever
sent, and both sides described feeling inspired by the polite and mutually supportive tone
of student-teacher texts. There is also no simple answer about technology and time use:
While allowing anytime communications expanded the school day, absent students would
often answer texts seconds after they were sent, saving teacher hours. Even when tiring of
texting, teachers noted that building effective relationships through texting was a net time
saver because it made collaboration with students more possible when face-to-face. All of
these core tensions about enabling in-school communications through out-of-school
technologies are to be debated by design researchers in today’s schools.
So, we tested texting because it was the most common-denominator technology in the
community; almost everyone who wanted to text had phones. But many of Somerville’s
low income and immigrant parents didn’t text or use computers yet, or even speak the
same language as other partners in youths’ development – which is why to pursue far-
reaching communications in our design work with parents, we began with face-to-face
and phone call-based communications.
4. AFFORDING FAR-REACHING INFORMATION: THE PARENT CONNECTOR
Many parents and staff at the diverse K-8 Healey School in Somerville were already
excited to innovate school wide information efforts engaging the school’s families (a
collection of all “Villes”); the OneVille Project launched parent efforts at the school the
year the School Committee decided to integrate two longstanding, class-divided school
programs. We began with the face-to-face parent dialogue strategies of Reading Nights,
sharing literacy strategies across both programs’ Kindergarten classrooms and a Special
Education K-2 classroom; multilingual coffee hours, in which parents took the time to
translate to and from the principal in four languages so that all parents could both listen
and speak; and parent issue dialogues about the integration decision facing the school. In
this, we soon realized the extent of a commonly known problem: language and tech
access barriers, and related barriers of relationship, kept many low income and immigrant
parents (predominantly, speakers of Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole) from being
equally informed about and included in school events, school improvement efforts, and
educational opportunities. An English-dominated listserv had long enrolled only some
parents, and many not on it were unaware of key issues facing the school community;
many handouts streaming home were only in English. While many English-speaking
parents emailed teachers and administrators regularly for personalized attention, some
immigrant and low-income parents felt they tried at length and in vain to reach their
children’s teachers or administrators.
Design research offered a way to tap parents’ innovation and bilingual skill in efforts to
cross barriers of language, tech access, and relationship. After meeting in multilingual
coffee hours and Reading Nights, bilingual Healey parents and several staff focused from
2010 forward on designing the Parent Connector Network, an effort to tap parent
bilingualism in parent information efforts. In the “PCN,” bilingual volunteer parents
(“Connectors”) started making phone calls to recent immigrant parents to explain
important school information, hear parents’ questions about the school, and introduce
themselves as generally available to help. Several also began to translate key school wide
information onto a prototype open-source hotline that a MIT technologist, Leo Burd,
designed for free at the suggestion of parents brainstorming how to reach parents not yet
on the Internet. Burd also developed the hotline further to allow parents to leave phone
messages, to be relayed to school staff by a hotline monitor. Connectors also convinced
the school to support a part-time bilingual Parent Liaison at five hours a week to
coordinate Connector calls (and hotline translation), run the multilingual coffee hour, and
help schedule interpreters for parent-staff meetings. In 2011-12, parents and staff were
testing the entire infrastructure model and considering holes in it. The district then funded
parent liaisons at each school, who continue to design next infrastructure themselves. Our
original conceptual model is below.
Image 7: Modeling Necessary Infrastructure For Multilingual Communication
Finally, while the OneVille Project lacked capacity for serious additional efforts, we also
networked and brainstormed with city residents and other local researchers interested in
citywide information-sharing and supported some Somervillians to begin producing
multilingual public videos enabling more youth/families to hear about community
resources and events. We also supported some local technologists who were working on
low-cost improvements to Somerville's computer infrastructure by refurbishing
computers, testing free educational software, and teaching multi-age classes in a housing
project, so that more people could access basic technology and gain basic technology
skills to make such communications even possible.
Please see our website for more discussion of each project’s efforts:
A DESIGN RESEARCH AGENDA
Improving communication infrastructure means working to ensure that on a daily basis,
the diverse people who need to communicate information and ideas so they can
collaborate in young people’s success can do it. Through the trials and triumphs of the
OneVille Project, I have come to understand how when educators, youth, and families
name “necessary communications” and then help design and embed tools and strategies
for enabling those communications in their own diverse schools and communities, they
make it more normal for ready and reliable, robust, routine and rapid, and far-reaching
communications to happen.
Horton and Freire speak of community organizing as “making the road by walking”
(1990), and the phrase applies well to participatory design research: In three of our most
impactful pilots, by following the lead of community members excited about enabling
necessary communications, we actually began embedding new communication
infrastructure and so, reshaping everyday communications. Invited to design online
portfolios for communicating more robustly about what they could do and who they
were, Somerville High School teachers and students brought in totally new rubrics for
communicating students’ full range of skills. Brave enough to test a channel many others
ban, Full Circle/Next Wave teachers and students began normalizing a tool that could
offer rapid and routine updates on personal well being, practically for free. By creating
explicitly multilingual phone networks and coffee hours, Connectors helped normalize
the habit of tapping local bilingualism for far-reaching communication. We also launched
design efforts that didn’t successfully catch on – particularly, when we underestimated
the financial and human resources necessary to support a given pilot, as in our effort to
design dashboard tools from scratch. Our most successful efforts tested already-made or
user-ready free tools already in people’s hands (e.g., texting); provided stipends to
teachers, students, and project leaders to design something they cared about that could
then seed as a template, while simultaneously seeding local leadership (e.g., the
eportfolio project); or tried new ways of tapping people’s energy to innovate ways of
including new partners in school work (like Parent Connectors). By actively enabling
necessary communications, each effort began embedding communication infrastructure
for partnership into a diverse school’s everyday operations.
As people in schools design communication infrastructure, technology can’t be treated as
if it will automatically enable necessary communications (Turkle, 2011). Instead,
researchers and school community members need to test which channels (texting, social
network, Google Docs, bulletin board), which detailed designs of channels (the many
“fields” of a dashboard or the rubrics of an eportfolio), and which habits and ground rules
for using channels (think norms for texting, or the in-person encouragement behind great
eportfolio entries) enable specific necessary communications. While the key question of
designing communication infrastructure can remain that suggested earlier in this essay
(To support youths’ full talent development, who needs to communicate which
information to whom? What are the barriers to that communication? Which tools,
channels, and habits might support this communication and necessary relationships?),
we can ask additional questions to keep ourselves on track as we design and test
Are the People Who Need To Be Included in a Given Communication Actually Included?
To work collaboratively, people may have to communicate about the children they share
(did José understand the math assignment he did in class or at home?); about the
classrooms they share (what’s the homework tonight in José’s classroom?); about the
schools they share (what afterschool opportunities are available for children in José’s
school?); about the community they share (when is the free science fair?); and even
beyond the local community (e.g., with others trying to improve schools where they live).
Designers need to ask continually whether necessary partners are able to speak to one
another. Further, what Noveck (2009) notes of web tools is true of any communication
infrastructure’s design: design shapes participation in a conversation, such that designers
need to keep asking whether tools and habits of communicating actually invite necessary
partnership. For example, most data displays in education are one-way: parents or youth
get to see data, but not respond to it or help explain it, and data displays at best prompt
service providers to communicate about young people and families rather than with them.
We thus pushed ourselves to enable two-way communications in our projects: for
example, by creating text boxes on the individual dashboard encouraging parents and
tutors to post comments about data that would then go to the teacher’s email. Or, we used
channels that were two-way by default: unlike handouts home in backpacks, texts helped
spark responses that sparked relationships that buoyed the motivation to communicate
Are People Able to Share Forms of Information They Consider Essential to Youth
Asking community members what opportunity information they need available in order
to support young people is one key move in designing communication infrastructure. Do
José’s parents most need to know how to get him into a popular afterschool program?
How to fill out financial aid forms? About local jobs, or health programs? Designers need
to ask and to design infrastructure accordingly. Less obviously, as we design “data” plans
in schools (Boudett et al., 2005; TCR, forthcoming), we might also ask youth, teachers,
and families to name the information they most want to share and know to support youth
more knowledgably. Such information may include how José is doing on algebra quizzes
this month, but it also might include how he is doing personally today, what he likes to
learn about, or what he does outside of school.
Designing communication infrastructure offers a major leverage point to help bring new
information into the conversation, and so designers need to keep asking which
information sharing truly helps (see Image 2). As with paper or face-to-face
conversations (Mehan, 1996), tech tools’ categories, blanks, character limits, and
instructions shape the conversation about a child. An online (and expensive) “data view”
of a child that shows his suspensions next to his face, as I saw demonstrated proudly in
one area district, could easily prompt a harmfully negative conversation if this is all
educators see or what they see first. (Imagine how the conversation would change if the
first thing seen were the student’s poetry). Somerville parents revolted against classroom
“data walls” publicly sharing students’ (anonymized) test scores with other children,
saying such information distressed and demotivated children rather than motivating them.
But countless “data” projects in education focus on sharing more decontextualized scores
more quickly with more people (Aarons, 2009), forcing us to ask continually when data
“sharing” or “use” harms rather than assists (Darling-Hammond et al., 2010; TCR,
forthcoming). With database linkage across “sectors” now the rage (Aarons, 2009), we
must also keep asking questions about who really needs to see which data about young
people; is it actually helpful if a teacher sees a student’s arrest record, or his parent’s?
(Atlantic Philanthropies, 2012).
When Can Technologies Truly Broaden Access to Necessary Communications, rather
than Widen Disparities of Access?
Most obviously, technology can help people communicate when they can’t meet face-to-
face, enabling inclusion (Shirky 2008; Ito, 2009). But adding tech channels can at times
widen communication inequalities rather than caulk structural cracks (Wilson 2011;
Reich et al., 2012). Access barriers are like fractals, meaning that they keep replicating in
infinite detail: designers seeking equitable access to communications thus need to stay
vigilant. Almost all students who wanted to text had phones, but some lost them and
couldn’t afford to replace them; some ran out of minutes and literally could no longer talk
via text.11 Money affects the data minutes you can pay for and the speed of a broadband
connection; on a closer read, cheap plans enabling broadband access “for all” at times
often enable slower communications for some.12 A school wide listserv required new
parents to get email accounts, access computers, and learn to use translation software (or,
it required peers to translate more information); many recently immigrated parents didn’t
know yet how to use a mouse. Though robocalls went home in four languages at once
(English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole, in that order), many parents’ machines
cut off before the necessary language. (To respond, Parent Connectors learned to record
targeted robocalls in one language at a time.). Old computers surfed the Internet too
slowly and many of the tools needed for creating eportfolio entries weren’t accessible via
the library. Quite literally, students with functional home computers could communicate
more about who they were and what they could do. So, ensuring equal access to
communications each step of the way is crucial to enabling necessary communications –
and more broadly, to supporting partnership for young people’s success.
Are Communications Supporting Partnership between Diverse Stakeholders?
Finally, of course, “partnering” in student success requires above all that those who share
children become motivated to pursue young people’s success collectively. A text or email
can launch a sequence of rapid check-ins with or about a young person, if the check-in is
friendly and if recipients respond. A parent might be motivated to share a resource on a
well-accessed listserv if she’s seen other parents share resources for the collective benefit.
“Partnering” also requires additional action after communication – actually taking a child
to the free science fair after hearing about it on a listserv. So, building the motivation of
others to join in a collective effort to pursue students’ full talent development is really the
key to successful partnership. And particularly in diverse communities, building trust,
friendship, and high expectations for young people via our communications (Tatum,
2008; Cohen, 2008; DuBois & Rhodes, 2006; Diamond & Gomez, 2004) will remain
central to building such partnership even as we “add tech.” So, if people treat one another
as necessary partners in students’ full talent development whenever they communicate,
information sharing and relationship building can work circularly: through helpful
attempts to communicate to support student success, people can come to value each
other’s partnership enough to communicate more. Young eportfolio makers shared
impressive entries when they felt others wanted to see them; parents told us they came to
PTA Night to talk to teachers not just because a robocall invited everyone, but because a
peer who spoke their language invited them kindly via the robocall. As one Parent
Connector put it, “relationships are key and they are what make everything work.”
In an era when commonplace technology makes communication easier than ever, the
communication infrastructure of public education often seems shockingly antiquated. But
at this point in the development of technology use in education, the challenge is not
simply to “add more” but to test when blending in technology might enable necessary
communications. We know a lot generally about necessary communications in school
communities: for example, we know that youth do better when they get regular feedback
from teachers on their classroom performance (Hattie, 2008) and ongoing personal
support from mentors (Yonezawa, McClure, & Jones, 2012); teachers teach better when
youth and colleagues share supportive feedback on improving their teaching (Jones &
Yonezawa, 2008; Daly et al., 2010; Cochran-Smith & Lytle 2009; Boudett et al., 2005);
parents and teachers support children’s progress better when they communicate often
about students’ strengths and struggles (Taveras et al., 2010; González et al., 2005;
Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003); families, youth, teachers, and service providers tap local
resources better when information about those resources circulates widely (Mickelson &
Cousins, 2008; Lin & Zaff, 2010). All of these processes might be enhanced with some
technology. Testing how, when, and if so is a project for design research.
In fact, none of our field’s visionary or equity-minded reforms can occur without
designing communication infrastructure enabling necessary communications. “Data-
driven” decision-making (Lin & Zaff, 2010) requires databases and data displays for
sharing reliable and ready information (Boudett et al., 2005); how should these tools be
designed, and how much should they cost? “Authentic assessment” requires that
assessments prompt students to communicate a robust range of their skills (Darling-
Hammond et al., 2010); which skills should be communicated? Efforts to “personalize”
student learning require getting rapid, routine updates on youths’ development
(Yonezawa, McClure, & Jones, 2012); which updates should be given to whom, how, and
when in the day? “Engaging” communities and families requires circulating far-reaching
information about public resources, events, and opportunities, and public ideas and
opinions; how to circulate such information across lines of language, race/ethnicity,
income, and tech literacy (Taveras et al., 2010; Henderson, Johnson, Mapp, & Davies,
2007; Mediratta, Shah, & McAlister, 2009)? We need more research examining the
channel (Hymes, 1972) through which such necessary communications in schools might
travel: do teachers share student progress updates with immigrant parents most
effectively via phones, email, or in person? Can mentors empower low income youth
with college information most effectively via text message, written documents, or face-
to-face? What habits of communication should be set if diverse stakeholders are to
communicate productively using a listserv, texting, social networks, or even just email?
These are questions for equity and technology researchers to tackle together, in league
with diverse stakeholders in public schools. Designing new infrastructure for
communication requires careful attention to communication details and consequences,
because the communications can become part of the “normal” functions of school. But
there’s no question that expecting partnership in education without actively enabling
communications between partners is like expecting a network of bulbs to glow without a
power cord. It takes a network to raise a child; the tiniest break in the network dims the
bulbs. The design question is how to light the network up.
1. With the input of hundreds over two years of effort in Somerville. Particularly but not
limited to: Uche Amaechi, Seth Woodworth, Susan Klimczak, Alice Mello, Consuelo
Perez, Jedd Cohen, Tona Delmonico, Gina d’Haiti, Sofia Perez, Will Thalheimer, Dave
Sullivan, Tracy Sullivan, Michelle Thompson, Josh Wairi, Jen Capuano, Maria Gemma
Cruz, Greg Nadeau, Christine Rafal, Bern Ewah, Maria Carvalho, Lupe Ojeda, Rachel
Toon, Healey students, Michael Quan, Marisa Wolsky, other Healey parents and teachers,
David Lord, Mo Robichaux, Ted O’Brien, David Willey, Shelia Harris, Obens, Full
Circle/Next Wave students, Sabrina Trinca, Michelle Li, Chris Glynn, Michael Maloney,
other SHS eportfolio students and teachers, Vince McKay, Tony Pierantozzi, Gretchen
Kinder, Jason DeFalco, Purnima Vadhera, Tony Ciccariello, Regina Bertholdo, other PIC
staff, Marlon Ramdehal, Lisa Brukilacchio, Mark Niedergang, EliJAH Starr, Caroline
Meeks, Franklin DaLembert, Lince Semerzier, Stephanie Hirsch, Sarah Davila, Ana
Maria Nieto, Warren Goldstein-Gelb, Rusty Carlock, Barry Stein, Joe Beckmann, Al
Willis, and Mark Tomizawa.
2. See http://wiki.oneville.org/main/The_OneVille_Project
5. See http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/profiles/student.aspx?
6. See http://wiki.oneville.org/main/The_OneVille_Project for some ¡Ahas! sparked over
7. I thank Susan Klimczak in particular for this insight.
8. I thank Uche Amaechi for insisting upon the economics of this point.
9. See https://sites.google.com/site/shseportfolio/eportfolio-video-tutorials/vanessa-s-
11. One survey researcher put it this way: “Back then ‘digital equity’ meant you were
connected or not. Digital equity is now more complicated. It’s ‘do you have a device or
not have a device,’ but also, the features and functionalities of your device vs. my
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