Tuesday, September 25, 2007

using SMS at school

It seems the days of writing absent notes, signing excursion forms and having to convince your kids that they really should tell you when parent-teacher night is on, might soon be drawing to a close.

Now it's all about SMS - instant information for parents and students about what's going on in school.

While the predominant use of this system is still to confirm a student's whereabouts, we're not only seeing the use of it for general information, but more the arrival of advanced systems such as swipe cards and fingerprinting.

Amy Spear chatted to Isabella Reily, a year 12 student at Newcastle High where they have been using SMS for two years now. She also caught up with the principal Peter Kilburn and Vladimir Ostashkevich from attendance system developers Academy Photography.

Isabella Reily says the system is quite effective - you only have to be a little bit late for class and the SMS system will kick into place, informing your parent or caregiver about your absence. However, she does find that this can sometimes be too much.

Her Dad, a busy teacher himself, will often receive messages saying Isabella is absent when she has a free period and is therefore not required to be at school.

There are certainly mixed messages coming from the student body. While many don't have a problem with the system, feeling that it's merely a good thing to embrace technology, some do feel that it can be an invasion of privacy.

Isabella suggests that it should be based on the relationship between a child and a parent - for some, a text message is an effective way to know what they're up to. For others, however, it's an unnecessary precaution. She also knows of instances where students have given a false number (for example, their own or a friend's), effectively making the system redundant.

However most embrace the system for what it is - Principle Peter Kilburn describes it as just a quicker, more convenient update of the old note system, one that can quickly cover 80% of the student population.

He says that the general response from the school's community has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, it's now not just absent notes that are distributed through SMS, but information about parent-teacher nights and other school functions. Guess that means that there will be no 'forgetting' to get the note out of the bag anymore!

Mr Kilburn admits that mistakes can be made, and plenty of parents will tell you that they've received a message when their child was simply on role-duty. However, the school feels that it would rather err on the side of caution, then fail to take up their duty of care.

But what about issues of privacy? Mr Kilburn can't understand how a message could invade privacy - it's simply doing what has been done forever in schools, marking attendance and informing parents.

There are now other systems on the market, such as fingerprinting and swipe cards, which are creating quite a stir amongst some groups, claiming that it is going too far. A sentiment that Newcastle High will stick to now, with no foreseeable plans of this kind of system in the future.

Vladimir Ostashkevich, of Academy Photography and Attendance, is a company who develops these systems from SMSing to student fingerprinting. It became apparent a few years ago that there was a demand for newer student administration technology and, as they already provided bar-coded library cards as part of their photography package, this seemed the logical next step.'

Vladimir agrees with Mr Kilburn, in that the technology is simply the next step forward. When he was in school, attendance was kept in a number of books and notes sent home to Mum. Now it's simply a matter of reading a barcode and a quick SMS - or fingerprinting and card swiping which is being introduced over the next few years. Therefore he too doesn't believe it's anymore of a privacy concern than old systems - it's instantaneous rather than over a period of week or so.

His suggestion to combat giving the school false number or the accidental response of "yes, I'm sick" is to have the parent call, rather than SMS back as often as possible.

It's great to see schools embracing the technological age and now that everyone is so adept at using a mobile phone for example, it certainly is convenient. But whether some measures are going too far will remain to be seen.

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