Virtually There: the rise of cyber field trips

Recently, we shared the experience of one high school student (the daughter of ParentPaperwork founders, Fiona and David) for whom the opportunities presented by excursions and field trips were the most exciting part of being at school.

Time and time again, we hear these sentiments echoed, not only from students but also from educators who often have research or anecdotal evidence to support the view that immersing students in hands-on learning leads to greater retention of knowledge and other benefits. Still, field trips can be a bit of a sore point for some schools as another post of ours pointed out, where worries about liability and legal action has lead to them being banned in some extreme cases, an issue that even Hollywood has tried to tackle.

More commonly though, field trips and class excursions can be overlooked by schools trying to balance an already overloaded budget. Indeed, these trips can be pricey – and even logistically impossible if involving overseas travel – and putting the cost onto parents is fraught with problems of its own.

Enter a new solution, the virtual field trip.

With technology improving with each passing year, transporting a classroom of students to another place (whether it is in a different city, country or even planet) is now a real possibility.

Virtual field trips come in all shapes and sizes and, with so many options to choose from, it can be a daunting task for any teacher to find a starting point. But once you’ve tried out a few, you’ll soon find what fits best for your students and your curriculum, and you’ll discover the possibilities are almost endless.

Some virtual field trips may be a pre-recorded tour of a museum or sanctuary or island with interactive elements, information and activities that are available around the clock. Others can be live video streams with tour guides and real-time Q&As.

Each one is set up differently but all virtual field trips offer the same advantage to students – it can give them access to experiences that would otherwise not be available to them.

In the UK, Martin Crabbe, geography teacher at Glebe School in Bromley, has seen the power of virtual field trips in action and believes in their ability to engage students on a daily basis. Specifically, Crabbe’s students were involved in a global online project about water conservation. He said of the experience:

“The most engaging and satisfying teaching happens when students are transported beyond the four walls of the classroom and begin to make connections between their own experiences and the wider world.”

“I’m hoping that by the time we’ve finished, my pupils will have a real sense that water use is an issue in every country, not just the UK.”

Some popular virtual field trips include:

Many virtual field trips are hosted and organised by the centre or institute where the tour takes place but there are also many independent operators who create high quality field trips from around the world, which are accessible through a subscription.

FieldTripZoom and EducateVia360 both offer paid virtual field trips while Arizona State University hosts similar content free for users. Projects like Adventure ’15 aim to join classes from around the world into one interactive field trip adventure that takes place over a number of days at the end of each year. These projects are hugely popular and engage thousands of students from around the world in a rich learning environment.

Screengrab from Adventure '15
Screengrab from Adventure ’15

Despite some of the more high-end virtual field trips charging for their services, the costs remain relatively low when compared to the administration fees, bus hire and admission costs of the real world equivalents.

With so many options available when it comes to virtually transporting a class to a different time or place, virtual field trips seem set to only become more popular and more intricate. For many schools, even those who are able to take students on real world adventures, the convenience, low cost and breadth of experience they can bring make them a worthwhile way to explore education.

30% of parents complete and submit their ParentPaperwork forms within 4 hours

We’ve been delving into the ParentPaperwork database, looking at how quickly parents complete and submit the online forms sent to them by school – and some of the numbers are taking our breath away.

The chart at the top represents data from the 5,000 forms most recently completed by parents. What it shows is that 10% are completed within the first hour of the email notifications being sent, with 30% submitted inside the first 4 hours.

This might also explain the statistics we see about the devices parents are using to submit their forms. In general we see the following breakdown:

  • 60% – Desktop web browser
  • 30% – Mobile phone
  • 10% – Tablet

So around 40% of parents are using some kind of mobile, or non-desktop/laptop device to submit their online forms. Which suggests to us parents are often submitting their forms whilst out and about, sitting in meetings, on the train and so forth.

Contrast all this with paper forms. At best a teacher handing out paper forms to students in class can expect them back no sooner than the next day, and often it’s considerably longer than that.

ParentPaperwork’s online forms mean more than 55% of forms returned within 24 hours – without the teacher or school administrator having to lift a finger.


Duty of Care with Data Capture: what happens when things go wrong?

Name, address, date of birth, medical conditions, bank account details, tax file number – it seems like most of us are filling out forms for ourselves and our loved ones all the time.

Handing over all of the little details that make up our identity is just a given when signing up to a new service, joining a club or enrolling in school. It is such a common part of daily life we don’t often think about where our details are stored, who has access to them and if they may be shared without our knowledge.

So, how do companies ensure your data is safe and what happens when there is a breach of your sensitive information?

Privacy laws around the world

Privacy is, in the most part, taken very seriously. Stringent privacy laws in the western world mean that companies do have a duty of care when it comes to your data, and any non-compliance can mean serious consequences.

For example, the European Commission’s General Data Protection Regulation, which is expected to take effect this year, will impose fines of up to 2% of a company’s annual global turnover for failure to protect consumers’ private information.

In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can impose fines of up to £500,000 if they feel data has not been stored securely – no matter how big or small the size of the company.

It’s not only companies that require compliance, schools in particular have to be very careful when dealing with student data, having access to the lion’s share of our kids’ information from a very young age.

Exactly how much data can be stored, for how long and in what capacity is an issue that schools around the world are facing. Standards change from one country to the next. Recent moves in Ireland to store student data until the pupil is aged 30 have been met with widespread backlash.

In the US, President Obama’s proposed Student Digital Privacy Act aims to ensure student data is used only for educational purposes; a proposal that has struck a chord with the Australian Council of State School Organisations who are demanding similar laws be introduced in Australia.

Where is your data stored?

Despite global awareness of the importance of data protection, a lot of companies and schools do not store this information in safe places.

The biggest data leakage threats come not from well-managed databases of gathered information but instead from informal, unstructured collections of data in documents, spreadsheets and even emails. This information is hard for companies to find and audit, and safeguards around access to it may be non-existent.

Most companies and schools also make the mistake of assuming data breaches only happen when their system is hacked. Although hacking is a very real problem (according to the 2013 Norton Cybercrime Report, U.S. consumer cyber attacks in 2013 came at a price of $38 billion), the more mundane cause is often employees leaking information maliciously or, more often, by mistake.

Some of the figures around data breaches are astounding. This infograph from First Data (below) gives a quick overview.

First Data infograph

Things do go wrong

Human error or a relaxed attitude to data privacy can lead to breaches of privacy that can cost schools more than just money.

A recent case in the UK saw sensitive student data being lost at a prison for young offenders, while another had a staff member accidentally send personal details about students with special needs to more than 1,000 students.

These cases were both a matter of error, and when the institutions were made aware of each they were completely transparent with the pupils and parents affected, making moves to rectify the problem. Unfortunately, despite best intentions, once data has been breached the damage cannot always be reversed.

Another incident in the UK brought to light recently was that of University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) – the service that controls admissions to UK universities – receiving more than £12m through selling student data to mobile phone and energy drink companies.

In this case, allowing students to opt out of advertising meant Ucas were not found to be breaking any laws but their use of student data raised the question of any company’s duty of care in regards to private information.

Being proactive about privacy protection

Capturing and storing data comes with risks. Most companies and schools will have some data stored inappropriately. There are many ways to be proactive about privacy protection to mitigate the risks of a potential data breach.

Companies like Nuix specialise in searching for loose data and cleansing it of private data. On a small scale, schools can put in place policies and systems about how and when student data is stored.

It is also important to vet any third party services you use to ensure their privacy policy falls in line with your own standards.

ParentPaperwork takes privacy seriously. For more information on how we handle data, please read our privacy policy

New Feature: Resend Slip Log, plus Resend from Student View page

Back in November last year we announced a new feature, Resending Slips, which enables you to resend the emails to a parent for a specific Student and Slip. We’ve had great feedback from schools – and the number one request has been the ability to know which ones you have resent.

Today we have released an update that fulfills this request.

Every time you resend a Slip to a parent we log this information in the database, and now we give you visibility to that log.

On the Slip page, when viewing the list of Responses, a green envelope icon will display if the email has been resent, hover your mouse over the icon to see the date/time the email was resent.

We have also update the Student View page, the Resend link (and log icon) now is also available on the list of Slips sent to that Student – just to make life easier and saving you having to click back to the Slip View page to resend for a particular Student.


New Feature: Managing Parent and Student Identifiers

We’ve introduced a new feature to ParentPaperwork that should make life easier for schools regularly importing data, both manually and via integration to their school management systems.

The import system is reliant on unique identifiers for Parent Contacts and Students, these are described in our Help articles about importing Contacts and Students. When a record is processed by the import queue these are the identifiers used to look up whether a record already exists in ParentPaperwork – and if so, that record is updated with any changes, for example, if a Contact’s email address has changed.

Until now the unique identifiers have not been accessible to users via the interface, and on occasion this has caused problems. For example, you might have imported your Contacts and Students, and these are all being tracked via their unique identifiers. You might then enrol a new student and manually add them via the interface. But because you could not enter their unique Id, the next time an import runs, you would wind up with two records for the same student – one from the import with the unique Id, and one you manually entered.

We have now added both the Contact and Student Id fields to the ParentPaperwork interface. Please take care modifying these values, if you alter an ID from the one in your import (and thus the one you have in your school management system) the possibility will remain that the system will not be able to correctly uniquely identify each Parent Contact and Student.




Photocopying Money: printing expenditure in schools

One of the main areas where schools have traditionally bled money has been the humble photocopying room.

Walk into any area dedicated to printing and photocopying and you’re likely to find a machine hard at work, often unattended, printing reams of paper while even more paper sits in the tray seemingly forgotten. Nearby recycle bins are filled with the ones that didn’t make it – the rejects – maybe due to a typo or maybe a formatting error. Stacks of fresh reams sit idly on standby for the unhappy sap that gets stuck mid-print having to refill the machine. And if the toner’s run out? Cue office-wide meltdown and the sending out of a search party for the one person authorised to change it.

The above may be a little bit of an exaggeration but often not by much. The organised chaos of the photocopying room is built for wastage.

Trying to get a handle on how much paper is used on average is a difficult task for most schools. Some estimates in the UK say that 1,000 sheets of paper per student per year is normal, with secondary schools burning through over one million sheets.

Ray Fleming, Education Marketing Manager for Microsoft, says schools often spend more on printing than they do on IT.

“An average school will use 1m sheets of paper a year and spend £60,000 (AUD $120k) on photocopying but only £56,000 (AUD $110k) on IT.”

Reducing the costs of printing and copying presents a real challenge for most schools who find they not only have to seek out alternatives to their current processes but they also have to change people’s habits. The problem is universal, and novel solutions have been introduced to varying success.

One Israeli company that supplies printers and photocopiers for schools introduced an online social network where students could share photocopied handouts and readings online, earning credits when uploading content for others to use.

A US teen also made the news in early 2014 for releasing a study where he estimated the government could save $234 million in printing costs by simply changing their font type.

One change that has made a difference for many schools has been the procurement of contracts with printer and photocopier suppliers, outsourcing the servicing and ordering of their products.

Often, the cost of maintaining old equipment is quite high. Old machines can be inefficient, using more toner than necessary, more power than new models and costing an arm and a leg to have someone repair at regular intervals. Contract services give schools brand new machines that cost less to run while also providing them with a toll-free number they can call for support if the machine breaks down. Many companies also supply toner and even paper at a lower cost for those on a contract.

In Australia, an agreement between the NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) and Fuji Xerox proved popular, with many schools signing up for the contracted service. It is estimated, if 85% of schools in NSW took up the services, the total savings would be close to $127 million. The deal also comes with a buy-back scheme for existing printers, allowing schools to recoup some of their previous expenditure.

Looking outside of the school for printing solutions has helped keep many budgets in check. Centralised management of printing helped save one Florida school $500,000, even with an on-site representative to help iron out any issues.

Other schools in the UK have moved towards digitising their print systems, introducing new ways of managing a fleet of printers and copiers centrally. These technologies have not only help schools move closer to becoming paperless but they have also helped save money by tracking printing costs across the whole network in real time.

The photocopying room may play a large role in school expenses but it can also be an easy place to start when looking for a solution. There are many ways to cut costs and, by auditing your current systems, you can start to identify where to begin in doing so.

Below is a list of general printing tips, which act as a good base from which to work because chances are, if you don’t print money, you’re probably spending it.

Printing Tips 

  • Put in place a goal for your school in reducing paper use. Back this up with a new policy promoting less printing and more electronic media.
  • Make double-sided printing and copying the default setting on all machines throughout the school.
  • Rescue non-sensitive documents sitting in the print recycle bin that have only been printed on one side. Use these as notepaper or for draft printing.
  • Educate the staff, as well as the students, about the economic and environmental costs of using paper. Reinforce ways to conserve.
  • Choose paper products that contain recycled content, not only office and printing paper but also for paper towels and napkins.
  • Put in place a central purchasing system to ensure policies are being enacted, and to help track usage and optimise ordering.

Subscribe to the ParentPaperwork mailing list and receive a free eBook with more detailed information on how to reduce paper waste in your school.

School excursions are the favourite part of being at school for this high school student

Clea Boyd-Eedle is 17 years old and in her final year of high school, she’s also the eldest daughter of ParentPaperwork’s founders David and Fiona, and we asked her for some thoughts about school excursions from the point of view of a student.

Being in my final year of high school, I now am able to truly reflect on my schooling career. There have been many great memories associated with both primary and high school. Although it is important to learn traditionally in a classroom environment, I can tell you there is nothing better than an excursion day, where we learn hands-on, bond with fellow classmates and explore our curriculum in real-life situations. Excursions have definitely been my utmost favourite part of being in school, and I reckon that most students would agree.

Biology becomes so much more enjoyable when you venture to the zoo and meet all the animals you’ve been studying. Exploring the city on an adventure race and utilising what you’ve learnt about public transport creates great travelling skills. And how about indulging in fine French foods and ordering using newly learnt phrases, such as “Je voudrais un sandwich de poulet? et un chocolate chaud si’l vous plaît?” Ordering a chicken sandwich and a hot chocolate was never more exciting or fulfilling.

As the workload piles on in our later years, the memories of past excursions grow fonder. My favourite excursion aspect of high school was definitely our schools CUE program, where each second week of year 9, classes would spend the day together using personal skills and learnt knowledge to explore life out of school. CUE was comprised of three areas, community (C), urban (U) and environment (E).

Community placed 2-3 students in different working environments, for example, I worked at a local school for disabled kids where I was lucky enough to spend time with my younger sister and her school friends. Other students worked at immigration centres, elderly care homes and kindergartens.

Urban saw classes visit mosques, explore the city and visit some of Melbourne’s most iconic buildings. In environment we cleaned up Portsea beaches and discovered where exactly our waste ended up, whilst also learning how to solve current environmental issues.

My favourite part of CUE was easily the Big Experience trip at the end of the program, where I spent 3 weeks in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia building a home for a rural community, bartering in markets and really opening my eyes to the real world.

Each year schools organise a multitude of excursions, and it is often that you will see scores of buses lining the front of the school in preparation for an exciting day of learning outside the classroom. Excursions, although an important aspect of schooling life, require a great deal of planning and organisation to ensure that the utmost safety and care is taken for each and every student.

My parents seem to have to handle an everlasting stream of paperwork  – no wonder they came up with the idea for ParentPaperwork.

I won’t lie, even as a fairly organised student, over the years I’ve definitely misplaced my fair few of excursion forms, and now I’ve had a chance to see what Mum and Dad are doing, it makes complete sense to me that schools should give ParentPaperwork a try!

Crunching the Cost: the hidden price of education

Teaching. It’s the only profession where you steal supplies from home and bring them to work.

It may be a little tongue-in-cheek but this old joke is a good way to weed out teachers at a dinner party. They’ll be the ones laughing the loudest and nodding in agreement.

The sad truth is that, over the years, budget cuts to public schooling has affected not only schools themselves but also teachers, parents and students. The crunch is on, and it has trickled down to every facet of our schooling system.

The problem is a global one. In Australia, a recent report from Victoria’s Auditor-General revealed, in 2014, parents paid a total of $310 million in school fees and levies, equating to an average of $558 per child. This figure represented a rise of $70 million in family contributions to schools over five years.

The report showed schools were charging for many items, including textbooks, health checks and stationery, that should be provided free of charge.

In the US, many states are facing budgetary constraints, with parents being out of pocket for similar amounts, which add to costs already forked out for uniforms and supplies such as facial tissue, pens, paper and bandages.

Our previous post on the cost of modern parenting covered a lot of facts and figures on just how expensive it is to educate a child. The costs are not so surprising when considering how tight school budgets have become.

In the UK, recent analysis showed that state schools must save over £1 billion over the next year to balance their budget. Even the costs of private schools have risen by 83% since 2000 while incomes only rose by around 27%.

The following infographic from H&R Block shows a breakdown of what governments, parents and teachers in the US spend on average each year for schooling. Some of the figures are surprising.


The teacher’s burden

While every parent knows how much it is costing them to send their child to school, the money spent by teachers themselves is not so common knowledge.

Teachers are often left to bridge the gaps between budgets and the needs of students. When the money doesn’t exist for everyday supplies, the need for those supplies is still very real. While most statistics say teachers in the US spend around $500 per year on class supplies, it can be much higher elsewhere.

In Australia, a recent survey found that teachers were spending almost $2,000 a year on supplies. Principals spent the most, an average of $2,601 and primary teachers were found to be spending around $450 more than their secondary counterparts.

It may seem hard to believe that teachers can be out of pocket for so much but, when you take stock of their expenses, it can really add up. These include:

  • Classroom supplies;
  • Educational materials;
  • Classroom furniture;
  • Excursions and field trips;
  • Student welfare (lunches, bus money, mobile phone calls, prizes and rewards);
  • Professional reading/training courses (including travel and accommodation);
  • Staffroom items (including mugs, cutlery, crockery);
  • Enhancements to school-issued toiletries and general cleaning equipment; and
  • Sunglasses, hats and jackets for playground duties.

Investing in the future

While there’s not a lot we can do to change the school budget, we can choose how it is spent. When faced with a tight budget, many schools will tighten the purse strings and cut back on new purchases and investments.

However, an investment is just that, and thinking long-term can help set-up a stable future for parents, teachers and students. New technologies, such as ParentPaperwork, can help reduce cash costs by introducing efficiencies to processes.

Recent studies show that 78% of kindergarten through middle school teachers agreed that technology has positively impacted their classroom. Whether it be through aiding an effort to reduce paper costs, opening up new ways of interacting between teachers, parents and students or by freeing up time for overworked teachers, there can be many benefits that help reduce costs for a school.

Investment in computers, software and systems is just one way that forward-thinking schools can make tight budgets work in their favour.

With a little investment and the right solutions, we can hope for a future where the joke about stealing supplies from home will no longer be funny… especially for teachers.