Thursday, June 18, 2009

Create a free e-newsletter service for parents using a Moodle forum & Feedburner

Communicating with parents

Email Subscribe by derickkwa - used under Creative Commons license.

In Buckinghamshire we don't currently encourage schools to give out parent usernames for their VLEs, so having a "log in to the parents area" section is difficult, other than doing it anonymously via a Moodle course with an enrolment key set and Guest access allowed for those who have the key. The enrolment key can be communicated to parents via the usual channels (letters home, open evenings, etc.) and this provides a simple way of opening up part of the school's Moodle in the same way sections of the school might be opened up during a normal open evening.

This can work well, but doesn't really send the information to th e parents - it requires them to "log in" by entering the enrolment key every time they want to access the information. RSS Feeds are another method of "syndicating" content from Moodle - especially forums - however those parents savvy enough to subscribe to an RSS feed would probably be comfortable with logging in to an area dedicated for parents, so those might count as methods which replicate one another.
BlackBerry Bold by edans - used under Creative Commons license.

A final option is email - many (though - crucially - not all) parents have email addresses, and might be keen to receive messages on their phone, computer (at home or work) or other device which might access email. However, as previously mentioned, parents don't have accounts on the VLE, so won't be emailed automatically from forums, as staff or students might be.
However, there is a way around this problem - and, up front, credit must go to Paul Adams, working at a couple of our schools, for inspiring this.

What is outlined below provides a simple (and free!) alternative to something like ParentMail, which sells itself as "help[ing] you meet Government targets on parental communications" - well, I guess what's outlined below does a similar thing, except it doesn't cost anything (cough)...

Setting up the forum

The first thing to do is ensure that RSS is switched on for foru ms on your Moodle site - this is done through your site admin (if that's not you). On a Moodle 1.9 site, go to http://yourmoodlesite/admin/settings.php?section=rss and make sure that RSS feeds are enabled. Then visit the Forum module admin pages at http://yourmoodlesite/admin/settings.php?section=modsettingforum and make sure that RSS feeds are set to "yes". Once those things are set, add a new forum for whatever is wanted to inform parents about. It might be the monthly newsletter, it might be emergency school closures - it's up to you. Make sure that in the settings for this forum that RSS is enabled - with as many / few items as you want. Complete the other settings as you need to - then view the f orum. If RSS has been enabled then you'll see the orange RSS icon - click on this to see the feed. This will initially be blank - especially if you've only just created the forum. Copy the feed URL (it should end in rss.xml).

Enter Feedburner...

Once the feed has been created, what we're going to do is put it into Feedburner - a free service (acquired by Google in recent times) which allows all sorts of subscription options to RSS feeds - including (crucially) via email. Once you've set up a feed and added it to Feedburner (you'll need a Google account which the feed is associated with - bear that in mind if you leave the school) you'll see the Publicize tab, under which is the Email subscriptions item. This allows you to copy the HTML form code to embed the subscription form on your VLE, or you could simply copy the link further down the page. Parents & carers will be able to subscrib e to the service once they've given a valid email address, and responded to the confirmation email.
What this means is that every time an entry is made in the forum then it will also be emailed to those who have subscribed - you can even customise the output to include your school's logo, format it nicely, even change the wording of the confirmation email which parents will have to respond to - much of which is explained in the Feedburner email FAQ. It's definitely worth testing this out yourself by subscribing to your own feed and posting a couple of items in the forum, just to see how they arrive in your email box. Feedburner works on a daily digest model - so multiple postings in one day will arrive as a single daily email. It also provides statistics of who's clicked on what, which country they were in (useful if you did an newsletter fo ex-pupils), how often it was read - in fact probably Too Much Information, but someone will be pleased all of that data is there...

A few pointers

This is quite straightforward to set up and provides the functionality of paid-for services which are sold to schools to enable them to "engage with parents". However, there are a few points to bear in mind if you're doing this:
  • bear in mind that, if you publicise your subscription area in a public place, anyone will be able to subscribe to (and hence read) whatever is sent out in this forum. The Subscription Management tool at Feedburner allows you to see who's subscribed, who's confirmed (and remove anyone if you feel the need to);
  • as this forum will be read publicly, it's important to know who can post to it. You should use the Roles options for the forum to ensure that only staff who you have asked to can post to the forum. Critically, if the forums are held in a course, make the course non-enrollable (in its Settings) so that students can't reply to messages in the forums - which might be sent to all parents!
  • bear in mind that any attachments (PDF etc.) made in the Moodle forum might be referenced as being "inside the course" and might require parents to access the course - so if that's not something you want then you could publish any newsletters as something more "sexy" at Issuu or Yudu and simply place a link to the newsletter on that site in your forum post.
  • you can have as many Feedburner subscriptions from as many forums as you want to - parents would need to "opt-in" to each forum, as you'd hope. They could also unsubscribe when they wanted to.
  • if you wanted to make this slightly more private, you could hide the links or subscription forms in a Moodle course which had Guest access enabled but was (slightly) protected by an enrolment key (which you'd make available to parents, but not outside the school). Once parents had got into the course, they could then access the links to subscribe, then they'd never need to visit the course again.
  • ...and of course, you can do this with any VLE or other tool which provides an RSS feed - I use it for this blog - so it's definitely a transferable, adaptable tool. The most difficult thing to do is posting something interesting, timely and relevant in the forums!
Do you used Feedburner or similar tools to communicate with parents? Have you had any problems or successes? How does it compare with paid-for newsletter services?

1 comment:

  1. Nice post Ian. Thanks.

    Definitely a good move for Moodle use that solves some of the problems related to parental demand to see inside Moodle. Also, a good idea to start the ball rolling for digital newsletters rather than the traditional paper method.