Jennifer Larson is co-founder and CEO of Hive Digital Minds, the creators of SchoolBzz. She is a technology entrepreneur, charter public school founder, and mother of four children who is passionate about finding innovative ways to engage parents and supporters in their child’s learning journey. SchoolBzz is the culmination of Jennifer’s 15 years in education, working with thousands of educators and parents on their communication and engagement strategies. Larson has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from UC Santa Barbara and her Executive MBA from the University of Denver. She enjoys speaking on entrepreneurship, parent engagement, and the future of work, and she frequently volunteers at schools in her local community.
How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at SchoolBzz?
This is a great question, and highly relevant to how we built SchoolBzz. A focus on communications has been a consistent theme throughout my career, and I’ve also had the opportunity to open a school and, personally, to become a parent to four kids of my own, so I’ve seen the challenges of school-to-parent communication from every angle.
One of my formative professional experiences was with a software startup back in the ’90s, focused on B2B communications. Obviously the communications element there is relevant, but just as important is that this startup environment taught me to believe anything is possible with the right plan. We’ve carried that into SchoolBzz all these years later. The other experience I consider most formative was my role as a charter school founder in Colorado. We learned that one of the keys to supporting student learning is involving parents. It’s about giving parents a choice and making sure they understand the opportunities available to them. While building this school, and later serving on their board of directors, we had the chance to take our background in marketing and communications and see what execution really looks like at the school level.
Another element worth mentioning is that I earned my Executive MBA from the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver, and this is where we did our SchoolBzz feasibility study. We looked at the parent experience for an entire year, taking a truly deep dive, and by the time we launched our website (two months before graduation, in fact), we were confident we had spent the time to understand the problem from all angles and create a meaningful solution for schools and parents.
What has been the response to SchoolBzz from administrators?
Between our pilot schools and early adopters, as well as other administrators we’ve talked to, they 100 percent "get it." Communication has been a tremendous frustration for schools for a long time, and, really, the more tools that have become available, the more challenges there are. When one school is using email, social media, a website, multiple apps, and flyers, it’s impossible to ensure the right people are receiving your message, the information is secure, teachers know what they’re supposed to use, and parents know how to respond.
Many schools have taken the direction of creating a bigger website, putting everything online and requiring parents to find the information they are looking for. But this approach doesn’t work as intended. Parents don't want to click through a ton of website pages on their phone to find (or, often, to not find) the info they’re looking for. When school leaders think of communication from the parent’s perspective, this makes sense.
So, administrators (and this goes for other leaders, such as parent group leaders) appreciate that we spent the time to really understand parents’ needs. As I mentioned in response to your first question, this was a year-long endeavor. We understood the need for communication to be simplified, meaning everything should be accessible in one place. Between different classes, clubs, and sports teams (combined with the fact that many parents have more than one child in school) if every educator is using a different app, there’s no way to keep up. By providing a whole-school solution that’s easy for everyone to use, it increases teacher adoption and buy-in, making the administrator’s life easier, and greatly enhances the parent experience so they can engage.
Ultimately, no communication can be successful unless it reaches its intended recipient and gives them a clear opportunity to respond to the relevant call to action. If you can’t address this challenge, it doesn’t matter how much information you send, it won’t be effective and you won’t build a community. Administrators love that SchoolBzz helps them achieve these goals, and it doesn’t hurt that more effective communication helps them gain support for their initiatives, as well.
What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?
One trend, which I take from Deb Quazzo, co-founder of ASU GSV, is the need to focus from "PreK to Gray." Learning doesn’t stop after high school, it doesn’t stop after college, it doesn’t stop…
Learning is lifelong and, as an education community, we should equip students with the mindset and skills to become great learners throughout their lives.
A couple of other trends, related to this concept, involve a revamp of current school models. At the high school level, we are becoming better at exposing kids to more opportunities because the jobs of tomorrow are so diverse, and we understand that the jobs our students will ultimately fill may not even exist yet. What we can anticipate is that learners will need to have the skills to adapt, to pick up new competencies, and to become innovators. High school should be a time to explore―to try lots of new things, discover one’s passions, and develop ideas that will drive a purposeful education and career path.
Relatedly, there’s a more intentional focus on culture in K-12 schools. This is something that’s super important to us at SchoolBzz, creating a thriving community, and we do it by supporting a culture of communication that gives parents the opportunity to engage. But it also is evident in many other areas of schools, and what a strong culture provides for parents (opportunity) it also does for students. I believe the next generation of leaders will be those who are creative and collaborative; those who have the emotional intelligence to develop and maintain relationships, to energize teams, and to work through complex problems. That’s not to say STEM and coding skills, for example, won’t continue to hold importance, but the pendulum has swung so far in the technical direction that many kids have been funneled into these fields, almost automatically, without adequate thought being given to well-rounded needs. The focus on culture is a key to ensuring all students have the opportunity to explore their passions, develop the right "soft skills," and build the foundation for long-lasting success. To bring all these areas together, when you combine creativity and the ability to work with teammates with science and math knowledge, even the sky can’t limit a student’s potential.
What, if any, are future plans for SchoolBzz?
We believe schools need their hive to thrive. The hive is the community, made up of administrators, teachers, parents, and students, and the key to making it thrive is communication: everyone on the same page, aware of the opportunities available, and having the chance to engage. A key indicator of student success is parent involvement; kids with a network of supporters do better. Our vision is to increase parent engagement to the point where it becomes the norm in all schools.
Looking over the next five years, we aim to become both the number one communication tool for schools to convey key classroom and extracurricular messages, as well as the top tool to create a true community between the school and parents. We want every parent to have the relevant information so that they can become a confident decision-maker and supporter of their child’s education.
The reason we want this to become the norm in all schools is because school-to-parent communication isn’t an end in itself. When parents have the best information to support their child, both teacher and parent can open up new opportunities. In five years, we no longer want to be educating schools on the importance of parent and community engagement, and instead we want to be focusing on creating partnerships that best support students for the future of work, along with opportunities in their local communities. These are the next steps.
Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter?
This may come as a surprise since it’s outside my industry, but my favorite people to follow on Twitter are astronauts, the International Space Station, NASA... really, anything to do with space! I'm still amazed that astronauts can tweet photos to us live from the space station. I love seeing what they see; it’s the definition of seeing the world from another perspective. And it’s just plain cool! I share these photos and videos with my kids all the time.
Image: Courtesy Jennifer Larson