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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information about the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.


Communication is at the heart of family–school relationships. Ongoing, two-way communication is associated with students’ academic success (Weiss, Caspe, & Lopez, 2006; Caspe, Lopez, & Wolos, 2006/2007; Kreider, Caspe, Kennedy, & Weiss, 2007) and lays the foundation for many other forms of family involvement (Lunts, 2003). However, family–school communication can be challenging for logistical, emotional, and cultural reasons (Lightfoot, 2003). Educators often ask, “How can we promote more frequent and meaningful communication with families?”

In the Information Age, Internet technology represents an opportunity for increasing communication between families and schools. Previous research indicates that many families and teachers are interested in using email and websites to communicate (National School Boards Association, 2000), and articles in professional magazines suggest that school and classroom websites, listservs, and email are becoming increasingly popular. Until recently, however, few studies had documented how often such methods are used or whether they are associated with benefits for families or students.

Internet-based communication methods, including email, websites, and newer social networking technologies such as blogs, present new opportunities for family–school communication. These technologies may reduce scheduling barriers that pose challenges to traditional forms of family–school communication, can convey information to multiple families at once, and can efficiently share and archive information about student progress, school policies and assignments, tips for family involvement, and other topics (Abdal-Haqq, 2002; Marshall & Rossett, 1997).

However, Internet-based communication also presents challenges. Websites and email contact can be difficult for schools to maintain, may intimidate some families, and lack visual and nonverbal cues (e.g., tone of voice or body language). Most significantly, many families do not have access to Internet technology. Although the “digital divide” is narrowing, Americans with higher incomes and higher levels of education are still more likely to have Internet access, as are White and Asian American families and native English speakers (DeBell & Chapman, 2006; U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002). In other words, the same families who are least likely to be involved in education1 are also less likely to have access to the Internet.

This was the first large-scale study to examine the usage and potential benefits of Internet-based family–school communication. The study used a nationally representative data set, which included several measures of family educational involvement, including communication with schools via email and websites. Given concerns about educational equity, coupled with the increasing use of the Internet in myriad aspects of American life, the findings of this study have implications for both practice and policy.

Research Questions

The research questions were as follows:

  1. How common is Internet-based family–school communication, and what is the average frequency of use?
  2. Are some families more likely than others to use Internet-based communication with schools, based on their income and education level, work patterns, native language, and other characteristics?
  3. Is Internet-based family–school communication associated with positive academic outcomes for students?
  4. If so, how? In other words, does Internet-based communication predict other forms of involvement, which, in turn, predict positive academic outcomes?

Study Methods

Even though family involvement remains important during adolescence (Kreider, Caspe, Kennedy, & Weiss, 2007), many forms of family involvement decline during this period in children’s lives (Eccles & Harold, 1993). The Internet may provide an opportunity to facilitate family–school communication in a way that acknowledges both parents’ busy schedules and adolescents’ desires for independence. For these reasons, this study focused on adolescents and their families.

Participants in the study at its outset were 14,387 10th graders, 92% of whom participated in the study’s second data-collection wave 2 years later.2 Data were also collected from 88% of participants’ parents and 99% of school administrators. Data were taken from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS), a nationally representative dataset from the National Center for Education Statistics, which follows students from 10th grade into the postsecondary years.

Several forms of family involvement were assessed among parents of 10th graders via a parent-report questionnaire. The questionnaire included measures of Internet-based family–school communication (one yes/no item and a 5-item scale);3  family–school communication by other methods (a 20-item scale); parent–student discussion about education (a 4-item scale); and family involvement in homework (a 2-item scale). In addition, school administrators reported on whether any teachers in the school used the Internet to communicate with families (a 3-item scale).

Students completed standardized achievement tests in both 10th and 12th grades, and students reported on their educational expectations in 12th grade. School records were used to determine whether students had dropped out of school between the first and second data-collection waves.

Data were analyzed using a variety of descriptive, regression, and structural equation modeling techniques.4 All analyses exploring student outcomes controlled for students’ prior achievement, as well as general family–school communication (that is, communication by any method) and school-level use of Internet-based communication.


More than one third of families have used the Internet to communicate with schools, but the average frequency of contact is low. Approximately 36% of families reported that they had used the Internet to communicate with schools. Approximately 10% had no access to a computer in any setting, while approximately half had access to a computer but did not use it to communicate with schools. Among families who did use the technology, the average frequency of contact was approximately once or twice per year.

Over 60% of school administrators reported that teachers in their schools used the Internet to communicate with families. Data suggest, however, that school administrators may have underestimated the use of such communications: Among the remaining 40% of schools, approximately 22% of families reported Internet-based communication with teachers or other staff.

More-advantaged families are more likely to have access to the Internet and to use it to communicate with schools when they do have access. Findings revealed interesting patterns of both access and usage. When taking into account a range of demographic characteristics, families with higher incomes and more education were not only more likely to have access to the Internet, but were also more likely to use it to communicate with schools when they did have access. Families with at least one full-time working parent were more likely to have access; however, work status did not predict usage among those who had access. Occupational type did not predict access or usage.

Looking at ethnic and language characteristics, Hispanic families were less likely to have access and less likely to use the Internet to communicate with schools when they did have access. Among African American families, income was a stronger predictor of access than among other families. Native English speakers were more likely to have access.

Only one characteristic predicted frequency of Internet-based family–school communication: students’ gender. Parents of boys communicated via the Internet more often than parents of girls; however, the magnitude of this difference was small.

Internet-based family–school communication is associated with higher achievement and higher educational expectations. Students whose families used Internet-based school communication demonstrated more positive outcomes in the 12th-grade data-collection wave—even when controlling for previous achievement, other methods of family-school communication, and other forms of family involvement. These students were also significantly less likely to drop out of school, though the magnitude of this relationship was small.

Although these findings suggest that Internet-based communication is related to students’ academic outcomes, they do not make clear why Internet-based communication is beneficial. Based on theory and previous research, the study hypothesized that Internet-based communication would lead to other forms of involvement (parent–child discussion about education and family involvement in homework), which would, in turn, lead to positive student outcomes. This hypothesis was not supported. Internet-based communication in 10th grade did predict more parent–child discussion about education 2 years later; however, this relationship did not explain the relationship between Internet-based communication and 12th grade outcomes. 
Students from all backgrounds benefit equally from Internet-based family-school communication. Although families from some backgrounds were less likely to use the Internet to communicate with schools, all adolescents demonstrated more positive outcomes when their families utilized this technology. These findings suggest that programs to increase access to and build technology skills and knowledge may represent a promising avenue for the future, particularly among families who are currently less likely to utilize the technology.

Families appear to use Internet-based communication when their children are not having academic problems. Exploratory analyses suggested that families and teachers used the Internet for communicating about positive or neutral topics. When students experienced academic problems, in contrast, families and teachers appeared more likely to use other methods of communication. This hypothesis was supported by several findings: Families whose children had higher achievement in 10th grade were more likely to use Internet-based communication. Also, while Internet-based communication was negatively related to a measure of general parent–school communication about problems, it was positively related to a measure of general parent–school communication about positive and neutral topics.5 Because the context of the communication was not one of the initial research questions of the study, more research is needed to further understand these patterns.


Overall, findings from this national study suggest that the Internet represents a promising but largely untapped opportunity for promoting family–school communication. Despite the fact that such communication is relatively infrequent at the current time, it is associated with academic benefits. It is noteworthy that these patterns occurred in adolescence, a time when family involvement tends to decline. The Internet may represent an opportunity to maintain or even increase communication between schools and families of adolescents.

At the same time, the study also raises concerns about equity. More-advantaged families, who are more likely to be involved in education in many ways and whose children generally have more educational opportunities, are also more likely to have access to Internet technology and to use it to communicate with schools. As the Internet and new social media technologies become more embedded in daily life, it is likely that the use of the Internet for family–school relationships will continue to grow among those who do have access—a trend that could exacerbate existing educational inequities. It is therefore essential that policies and practices pay close attention to the digital divide and work to increase access and knowledge among all families.


Moving forward, this study suggests several critical issues for practitioners, policymakers, and researchers alike:

  • Different media may present unique opportunities and challenges. For example, patterns of use and associated outcomes may vary among websites, email, newer social media platforms including blogs and wikis, and combinations of these media.
  • In order to drive the design and implementation of Internet-based communication initiatives, more information is needed about the process of Internet-based communication, including best practices, the circumstances and topics for which it can be most beneficial, and the potential challenges and pitfalls. 
  • Internet-based family–school communication may function differently for different age groups. In particular, the frequency, characteristics, and outcomes of communication may vary across grade levels, due to children’s and families’ development, changing educational structures (e.g., one teacher versus many), and other factors. 


Abdal-Haqq, I. (2002). Engaging families and communities in the work of schools: Issues and technology-based tools. In I. Abdal-Haqq (Ed.), Connecting schools and communities through technology. Washington: National School Boards Association.

Bouffard, S. M., & Weiss, H. B. (in press). A new vision of family involvement for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project. 

Caspe, M., Lopez, M. E., & Wolos, C. (2006/2007). Family involvement in elementary school children’s education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

DeBell, M., & Chapman, C. (2006). Computer and Internet Use by Students in 2003 (NCES 2006-065). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Eccles, J. S., & Harold, R. D. (1993). Parent–school involvement during the early adolescent years. Teachers College Record, 94, 569–586.

Kreider, H., Caspe, M., Kennedy, S., & Weiss, H. B. (2007). Family involvement in middle and high school students education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

Lightfoot, S. L. (2003). The essential conversation: What parents and teachers can learn from each other. New York: Random House.

Lunts, E. (2003). Parental involvement in children’s education: Connecting family and school by using telecommunication technologies. Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal. Retrieved June 22, 2004, from

Marshall, J., & Rossett, A. (1997). How technology can forge links between school and home. Electronic School Online. Retrieved June 10, 2004, from

National School Boards Association (2000). Safe and smart: Research and guidelines for children’s use of the Internet. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (2002). A nation online: How Americans are epanding their use of the Internet. Washington, DC: Author.  Retrieved June 26, 2004, from

Weiss, H. B., Lopez, M. E., & Caspe, M. (2006). Family involvement in early childhood education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

1 Research consistently documents that families with lower incomes and education levels are less likely to be involved in learning in a variety of ways, as a function of many challenges, barriers, and other factors (Bouffard & Weiss, in press).

2 This study included only students who reported their race/ethnicity to be one of the following: African American, Hispanic, White, or Asian; Native American and multiracial students were excluded from these analyses because these groups were too small to provide stable estimates in cross-ethnic comparisons.

3 Each of these 6 items captured all forms of Internet-based communication and did not distinguish between different forms of communication (e.g., email versus websites).

4 All analyses used appropriate sampling weights.

5 Additional information about post-hoc analyses supporting this analysis are available from the author.

Suzanne Bouffard, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow in Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Longfellow Hall
13 Appian Way
Cambridge MA 02138


© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project