Monday, April 06, 2009

Conference Registration Made Easy Using a Wiki

Strengths and Goals Conferences
In the fall our classroom teachers have three-way conferences. They meet with each student and their parents to discuss the child's strengths and to set goals. On that same day, if parents or children wish, they may also schedule a conference with any of the specialist teachers (e.g. art, Chinese, computers, library, music, P.E.)

Sibling and some support student conference are pre-scheduled. After that point, most teachers assigned conference times to the rest of their families and sent home the letter informing families of their scheduled time.

The system worked reasonably for classroom teachers, but not as well for specialists since families contacted the classroom teacher, who then contacted the specialist, who then contacted the family. It often took many phone calls.

Enter the Wiki!
In an effort to improve that process, we decided to try using a wiki so that parents could schedule their own specialist conferences. We decided to use a private Wetpaint wiki. We choose Wetpaint because it isvisually attractive, easy to use, the table feature works well, and private wikis can be accessed with a generic password account. We did not register it as an education wiki so ours had ads along the side but they were no problem since this wiki was not being used by children.

When users visit the wiki, they are greeted with a login screen. A few key users, like myself and the principal had their own account for administering the wiki. Beyond that, I created a generic teacher account and a generic parent account. At first, the teacher account and the parent accounts had the same level of access, but we decided to raise the teacher's level so that they
could lock their page if needed.

The design of the wiki is simple. The front page contains basic directions and links to each teacher.

Clicking on the teacher's link takes you to their schedule. Clicking on the EasyEdit button allows them to add their name to a timeslot on the schedule. Clicking Save records their changes and returns them to the web page.

(Note: When I shrunk my browser window to fit more into this image, the table formatting on the schedule changed appearance.)

Originally, only the specialists were taking part, but as the process moved forward, 18 classroom teachers and a few of the support teachers decided to join the pilot.

Before the wiki was opened to parents, teachers entered the sibling conferences onto their schedule. Our school pre-schedules sibling conferences to ensure those families have back-to-back conferences for their children. Teachers also entered in the pre-scheduled support students conferences to ensure that the support teacher was able to take part. Support families were asked to NOT move their child's conference without contacting the classroom teacher to ensure that the support teacher would be able to attend.

For support teachers with pull-out classes, families were not able to sign up directly for the conference due to confidentiality issues. Instead, the schedules showed which slots were open and which were already reserved, making it easier for families to find a time that worked for them when they contacted the support teacher. One support teacher reported that this was the first time ever that he wasn't double-booked between his push-in and pull-out student conferences.

Concerns and Solutions
We had many concerns at the start of the pilot. The biggest was that allowing families to add their names to the schedule actually meant they could change ANYTHING on the page. The wiki did not allow us to someone lock parts of the page while leaving the other parts available for editing. Someone could intentionally or unintentionally delete large parts of the page. Since we were using generic logins for convenience sake, we would not even know who did it.

Wetpaint (like most wikis) has a robust history section. You can roll the page back to any previous revision. If someone messed up a page, we could roll back to a point where it still had most of its data. As a further safeguard, we asked the instructional assistants to print out their teachers' pages each day during the sign up period so we could refer to them if needed.

Another concern was simultaneous edits of the same page. Fortunately, our testing showed that if two people were editing the same page at the same time, when they tried to save, it warned them. It gave them the option to overwrite or cancel. We told them to cancel and try again. Even if they chose to overwrite,
Wetpaint seemed to be cancelling.

Still other concerns were that someone might accidentally delete
someone else's name, leaving that space erroneously open for a third person to sign into. Our directions at the top of the page told families what to do if they accidentally delete someone's name. It also let them know we were printing the schedule each day so we could check our records to see who had that slot previously. Fortunately, we only received one report that a name had been deleted, and further research showed that was erroneous; the parent had originally signed up on the wrong teacher's schedule.

A final concern was that some families would be intimidated by the technology. The letter that went home told families that they could still contact the teacher via email or phone, but warned that the slot they wanted may be gone by the time the teacher got to their message.

In the month before the wiki opened to parents, I held training session for the teachers and instructional assistants so they could learn how it all worked, and so that I could help them if they needed to change the schedule, since making changes to the table was the trickiest part of this entire process. I created a handout that they could take away with them. It was also stored in our tech help One Note so they could refer to that as needed.

Both trainings went quickly and well. Most participants were surprised at how easy it was to use.

  • January: Set up wiki. Many meeting with my principal to revise the design and the directions.
  • February: Train specialists and support teachers, train instructional assistants, solicit classroom teachers to pilot the process
  • Early March: Train the classroom teachers. Enter the pre-scheduled sibling and support conferences into the classroom schedules. Letter sent home to families. Open the wiki to families.
  • March 16 -17: Strength and Goals Conferences


We were surprised that the sign up process went so smoothly. We expected confusion, mistakes, and technical problems. Fortunately, we had almost none. One teacher reported that everything went so smoothly that she didn't need to make a single phone call to parents. The biggest problem was families with multiple children mixing up their own conference times, but that had nothing to do with the wiki (and probably everything to do with busy families.)

We are in the process of surveying participants. With most of the surveys in, the response from teachers, especially specialists was overwhelming supportive. Using the wiki made the schedule process easier and in some cases, much quicker. They reported that some families who knew each other, even arranged time swaps since they could "see" the entire schedule. Other teachers reported that during the sign up week, they could see some families changing their own time repeatedly as scheduling conflicts arose. The wiki was able to accommodate their needs.

Among the families, the response was also strongly positive. One parent asked, "You aren't going to take this away from us, are you? All teachers should have to use it! It was great!" Of the 10% who did not like it, most wrote a comment regarding that it worked well, but they aren't comfortable with technology.

All in all, using a wiki to schedule strengths and goals conferences was a success. We are discussing whether or not to require it next year. The primary school is not looking at using it because their teachers prefer being able to schedule the conferences without giving families a choice so that they can maximize their own effectiveness as teachers, scheduling the challenging conferences for when they can best direct them.

Are you using technology to allow families to schedule conference times? I'd like to hear about it.