Once in a while I get a message to my voicemail about my son being absent from school. This is what it sounds like. Even though that’s not a very empathetic robot voice, it would be great to be informed â€“ if only I had a son. The fact that I don’t, makes these robocalls more of a disturbance to me than I guess they would have been for this boyâ€™s actual parents… So what do I do when I keep getting these messages â€“ and Iâ€™m pretty sure I donâ€™t have a son?
Being an observer of this system from the outside, this is how I believe the parent notification system is intended to work:
Model 1: The school’s goal
The schoolâ€™s goal is to create conditions in which the parent can take action to help change their childâ€™s behavior. The school tries to create these conditions by informing the parent through an automated message. However, if the school for some reason has the wrong phone number, the system breaks.
Model 2: The broken system
When I receive the robocall, I can worry all I want about this boyâ€™s behavior considering that he obviously tends to skip school a couple of days a week. Unfortunately, I am not in any position to influence and improve his behavior. Based on the robocall, I cannot even catch his name, even though I hear some mumbling that I believe is supposed to be the name of the child…
Model 3: I try to fix it
But as an observer of this system, I can try my best to fix the broken link between the school and the parent. Maybe this child’s parents have no idea that their son is about to go down the wrong path in life! I try calling the school, but they simply tell me there is nothing they can do to erase my phone number in the system unless I can give them the name of the child. So the messages just keep coming â€“ about my son being absent, the principal wishing me and my whole family a happy holiday and so on.
This is when I figure that this is the perfect case for my cybernetics final project. I find that I can look closer at the system to see how it can be improved.
Model 4: Communication between school and parents. How the system works now.
The model shows my interpretation of how the school uses the parent notification system, and how it might affect parenting, which again would affect the child behavior. The robocall might not affect the parentâ€™s overall goal of teaching the child good behavior. But based on the messages received, the parent might focus his or her efforts towards teaching certain behaviors such as the value of being on time, respecting the teacher, being nice to classmates and so on. Both the parent and the school will evaluate the childâ€™s behavior, to let that inform their next actions within the system. The childâ€™s behavior might be influenced by â€œdisturbancesâ€ out of this systemâ€™s control â€“ like friends and the media.
Model 5: Communication between school and parents. Opportunities for improvement.
When it comes to the disturbances that affect the messages from the school to the parent, like having the wrong contact info, bad sound quality, and the potential language barriers â€“ I think there are ways to improve this… Another thing that my suggested improvements might solve is the fact that robocalls tend to be very interrupting to the receiver. These messages often require a person to find a quiet place to listen through it because of the bad sound quality, the impersonal and unfamiliar tone of voice, and the fact that you canâ€™t ask the robot voice to repeat any part of the message. If the receiver already knows the point of the message, he or she still has to listen through the whole thing â€“ you canâ€™t skim it like you could with text. So as improvements I suggest the following:
Model 6: The improved system
Quality control of the contact information: To add some kind of quality control of the contact information to make sure the messages from the school actually reach the right person. Making sure itâ€™s the parents themselves that register the contact information, and perform a check once a year or so could be a way to solve that issue.
From robocall to email: If the parent notification is done through email instead of through an automated phone call, the bad sound quality would not be an issue anymore. When receiving the notification in text form the potential language barriers might be smaller too. The parent gets more time to read the message, can use translation tools, and can even print the message out and ask others for help. An email could also potentially contain more valuable information, such as how many times the child has been absent this year, and how close this is to the limit.
Letâ€™s say your child is home sick and you are well aware of that fact, and you still have to call your voicemail to listen to the whole message about your child being absent, just to delete it when the message is finished playing. The very nature of the email would allow the parent to spend less time on the notification. If the parent recognizes what the message is about from the subject header of the email, that could be enough information in some cases, while the rest of the message could more easily be ignored, or be skimmed through quickly. Thatâ€™s why I believe using email would probably not interrupt a personâ€™s workflow in the same way as a robocall does.
The focus of this analysis has been on the parent notification system. I felt these impersonal messages were not really a good way of trying to change behavior â€“ but more of a tool to let the school inform and be done with it. My first instinct when looking closer at the system was to make the teacher call the parent instead of letting a robocall do the job. This way the teacher would know that the message was received, and the parent would get to give feedback to the teacher about why the child might be absent. They could even discuss what both the teacher and the parents could do to try to change the behavior of the child.
However, based on my observations, I canâ€™t really know anything about what kind of relationship or dialogs exist between the teacher and the parent today. That is why I have looked at this system as one piece of a larger puzzle; that the parent notification system is just one way of informing the parent, while I just have to assume that there are other dialogs between the school and the home too.