Technology and the Power of Connection

Anupama Vaid on the value technology can provide in connecting parents and schools more effectively—as well as the state of education today.

In fall 2010, when Anupama Vaid’s second child started elementary school, she struggled to keep track of the various communications being sent home from her kids’ school. She realized what was needed was a school-home, 21st-century communications system—and the idea for ParentSquare was born. Her willing-to-tackle-anything technical background and must-continuously-innovate spirit led her to start this journey.

‘I thought: There has to be a better way to streamline this communication and connect families and schools.’

In this interview, Anupama explains how her solution took shape, and she describes the value that technology can provide in fostering a stronger home-school connection. She also shares her thoughts on the state of U.S. education and where some schools might be misplacing their focus.

Could you explain what prompted you to put your ideas into action?

The teachers at my kids’ school were still sending flyers home in backpacks. Every day, I had to go through their backpacks to look for important communications from the school. There were fundraising fliers, PTA notices—all of this was going on independently, and it was a lot for parents to follow.

I thought: There has to be a better way to streamline this communication and connect families and schools. I wanted to unify all of these separate messages, while also fostering a stronger connection between parents and teachers. That was the origin of ParentSquare, which has become a safe and secure digital platform for all school-home communication.

At that time, there were next to no tools for helping teachers communicate with families, most often PTO communications were used, but those didn’t solve the problem of disparate communications across the building and districts. What I envisioned was a digital tool that would support communications between schools and homes. I researched all the tools that existed in this space, and there wasn’t much. I talked to the principal at my kids’ school, and she loved the idea of a technology-driven communications platform. She actually connected me with two teachers to help build the product.

‘I talked to the principal at my kids’ school, and she loved the idea of a technology-driven communications platform.’

Developing the whole child has to be the shared responsibility of teachers and parents, and that happens more easily with a collaborative approach to communications. If we can involve parents in their children’s education more effectively and make them full partners with their child’s teacher, that’s a huge key to improving education.

How has your solution changed since you started the company a decade ago—how has it evolved?

We started with email and soon after added text messaging and a mobile app, expanding the ways that parents could access information. We have seen during the pandemic how many families don’t have a home computer or Internet access. We realized that communications equity was central early on in the company’s development, and we were committed to making our tool accessible to families from a mobile phone. We have also added support for multiple languages, again so there are no barriers to using the system.

From the very beginning, we wanted to keep the platform simple so that everyone would feel comfortable using it. When we added text messaging, we made it an “opt out” feature instead of opt in. While I strongly agree that companies need to respect their users’ privacy, we figured that if schools have obtained permission beforehand and the parents want to receive information, let’s make it easier for them. Even if opting out is more expensive for companies to manage, it’s an expense we’re willing to take on because parents might not know how to opt in and could miss out on benefiting from the system.

More recently, we have made a key change that allows parents to view all of their children’s information from a single login, even if their children attend different schools. That’s a huge improvement to the system. Traditionally, parents would have to have different logins for children at different schools, because the schools would have to keep that data separate. It took us several years to design and implement a solution for that. It all happens behind the scenes, but it makes the users’ lives easier while keeping the data private, separate, and secure for each individual school. Security and ease of use are often at odds with each other—but we’ve found a solution.

What have been some key highlights in your journey forward with the company? 

When we first started, we thought the product would gain traction very quickly. From the get-go, we saw amazing engagement from users. Everybody who used it was very thankful.

However, we didn’t account for the fact that selling to educational institutions is very different from selling to businesses. In education, the decision makers are not typically the users of the product—and there’s often a committee that decides what to buy. It’s very different from a B2B sale.

About six months in, we realized: This is really tough. For the next three years, it was mostly persistence that got us through. We were winning one industry award after another, but sales weren’t following.

But then in 2014, a chain of events began that turned things around. The principal I had initially approached with the idea for the product had moved on and become an area superintendent for the Aspire Public Schools in Los Angeles, and we were adopted there. We also found our first set of investors who were willing to invest the money we needed to scale our operations, and we were able to hire a director of sales. Everything started coming together then.

What advice would you have for other edtech startups?

Success is about persistence and passion. Never lose sight of why you started in the first place. The great thing about education and edtech is that it’s one big family. It’s not a competition, it’s about how we can improve the lives of children. There’s enough room in the sandbox for everyone to play and to learn from each other.

‘Success is about persistence and passion. Never lose sight of why you started in the first place.’

It’s also very important to stay true to your clients. Don’t ever lose sight of your users and what their needs are.

What message would you like to give to parents, especially in light of these past few tumultuous years?

It has been such a tough time for everybody, with kids having to stay home early on in the pandemic. Maintaining positivity is very important because children pick up on what you’re feeling. They take their cues from you.

Stay engaged with your children. Communicate with your child’s teachers and take a few minutes out of your busy day to read the communication coming from your child’s teachers. It’s really going to benefit your children. Don’t be a helicopter parent but be involved.

What are your thoughts on the role of technology in education? 

Technology can do so many things, but it can’t replace that human connection. It’s there to make life easier, freeing educators from mundane tasks so they can spend quality time with their students. ParentSquare allows educators to focus on what’s most important, which is teaching students and connecting with families. It allows the whole village to come together in support of each child.

How would you describe the state of education today? 

Coming from India, where I was educated in a different way, I have a much broader perspective about the state of education in America today. In some respects, American education is really superior. For example, I like how kids in middle and high school can choose their own journey. In India, we didn’t have that freedom. I chose computers, and that defined all the courses I took.

However, the problem is that we’re still not evolving in education. While we’re teaching our students to be lifelong learners, the institutions themselves aren’t following that learning philosophy. They also need to learn and evolve like we expect our kids to do.

That was my frustration when I started ParentSquare: Schools are teaching students technology, yet they don’t always use that same technology themselves.

If you look at the numbers, the U.S. is quite far behind. We’re 11th out of 64 nations in science and 30th in math. That’s crazy. Yet, when you look at per-pupil spending, we’re the highest in the world. We should be setting an example for the rest of the world.

How do you see education moving forward? 

That’s a tricky question because how I would like education to move forward and how I see it moving forward aren’t necessarily the same.

What I want is for schools to embrace what they teach and become learners themselves. And I want the educational system to test on the right things. I understand the importance of testing, but you can’t test on knowledge, because knowledge is now available from Google. You have to test on skills.

We need to start producing “producers,” not just consumers. If you give a child a phone with apps, they’ll learn to use those apps very well. Even a two-year-old can do that. What we want students to learn is how to create new technologies and other innovations that can benefit everyone.

‘We need to start producing “producers,” not just consumers. …What we want students to learn is how to create new technologies and other innovations that can benefit everyone.’

From an early age, students are taught what’s wrong—and they become scared of failing. If you look in a kindergarten classroom, there is so much creativity and risk taking going on. But somewhere along the way, students lose that, and it’s because of how we’re teaching them.

Let students choose their own projects rather than telling them what to do. Teach students how to think and how to ask open-ended questions. Give them a framework for learning, and then let them take ownership of their own learning.

What key takeaways would you like to leave for educators?

Bring parents and guardians into the fold and amplify their voices—they are partners in their students’ education. Educators don’t have to do it alone, and when everyone comes together, that collaboration helps a child realize their potential, and you can really see the difference in those kids.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]

 

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