Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Do people really doubt the value of Facebook pages for schools?

An article that was posted on Mashable yesterday sounds like it's the exact information I've been looking for: "How Schools Can Use Facebook to Build an Online Community". Unfortunately, it's mostly a beginner's guide to creating a school's Facebook page.

The comments are interesting, though, since so many of them are opposed to schools having Facebook pages.

I think many people oppose Facebook for schools because they haven't realized that schools have always needed to communicate with their community -- to answer questions, to address rumors, to announce news, and to listen. It's more efficient to handle that communication asynchronously and publicly on a free medium (Facebook) instead of synchronously (on the phone or in-person), one on one (email), or on a pay medium (sending notes home). Those are real savings that can be put directly back towards the classroom. The additional accountability of parents being able to publicly ask hard questions when necessary is just icing on the cake.

Some people seem concerned about student data, but we already have FERPA laws in place to protect student data. All schools have local procedures to make sure those laws are followed. This seems like a thoroughly-settled issue to me, but I can see how they might not know that.

And I guess that's the key -- they just don't know what they're talking about. They don't know that parental support and involvement is a bigger determining factor in educational success than anything else. Teacher quality, curriculum, etc -- nothing beats parent involvement. Schools can use Facebook to cheaply encourage parental involvement, and that's a serious win. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Think schools, not district

About once a month, the person in charge of our district's visual identity gets a request for one or more school logos. Sometimes, the PTA wants to use the logo on a newsletter or printed piece. Other times, it's a company looking to make t-shirts or something else they can sell to students. We get enough requests like this that our graphic designer has the process down to a science: figure out if it's reasonable, make sure the principal is aware and approves, then figure out what computer file format will work best.

The thing is, I can't remember a time when someone requested the school district's logo.

That's the norm, though. There are tons of businesses that "adopt" the schools near their brick-and-mortar locations, but many fewer reach out to help the entire district. When we post on Facebook about individual schools, we get excited replies from parents, but district-wide stories just get "likes" and comments that read like form letters.

People don't connect with school districts; they connect with schools. We care about the school we go to, but it's hard to care about the district because it's not familiar and it involves so many unknowns. Parents haven't interacted with the district office (or even those other schools) every day for years, the way they did when their kids went to the neighborhood school. Worse still, bad news travels faster than good, so sometimes that's all that parents have heard about the district.

District-community connections do exist, though, and it's not impossible to strengthen them. We post tons of news from all our schools, for example, so people get the idea that there are always good things happening at every school. The events that logistically have to happen at the district-level help bridge some of the gaps. And, some things are just easier to go ahead and take care of at the district level.

...but don't spend all your time working on the district website. Take a step back from rigid district-wide templates and let schools develop their own styles and personalities. Even better, look at how the schools work with their community now, and help them build their websites around those ideas. Definitely embrace their cultural touchstones; post pictures of beloved long-time staff members and play up their traditions.

If you can redirect resources toward helping schools strengthen their own community connections, you'll get a lot more bang for your buck. When your district needs support, you'll still be able to make that appeal to the community, but you'll do it through the schools. People will line up to help the district when the teachers they've known for years point out that their own neighborhood school will see the benefit.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Take on complexity so teachers don't have to

For the first few years at my job, after I had learned the ropes, I didn't make any major changes to the status quo: Teachers were expected to do all editing on their classroom websites. We could talk them through it on the phone, but we wanted them to do all the actual button-pushing themselves. The idea seemed to be that the teachers would gradually learn how to do all these neat, complex web editing techniques.

I started to notice that some teachers would ask me the same question about once a year. Something like "how do I change the title of one of my web pages?" At first, I thought that maybe they just weren't techno-savvy, but that didn't sit well for long. I didn't like the idea of noticing this pattern of once-a-year calls, calling it an unsolvable problem, and ignoring the situation altogether.

At around the same time, I started to feel really weird about teachers calling me during their conference time to fix little bits of their website. I mean, they could call at any time, but that's the only time they realistically had in their day for talking with me on the phone. I had learned from the Fed Up With Lunch blog that each minute a teacher has with no students in their room is infinitely precious planning, decompressing, eating, and restrooming time.

Eventually, I realized that I could split the changes that teachers made on their website into two categories:

  • easy changes teachers did often enough to learn
  • trickier changes that teachers did not do often enough to learn
And then, I took a really radical step, never before attempted in any school district ever. I lightened the load of teachers.  I started to do the second category of changes for them.

It didn't make sense for teachers to make the changes in the second category. For example, it wasn't vitally important that each and every teacher see how to change the name of their webpages, because most of them only ever do it once. It also felt really, really right to let teachers report the problem, get back to their work, and read my "Problem Solved!" email at their own convenience.

The cost, though, was more effort from me. I had to spend more time thinking about the solutions, looking at teachers' websites, and guessing at the best one. It took more of my time to write the email back, because I also included instructions of what I had done, in case they wanted to know.

Was it worth my extra effort? Gerry McGovern absolutely nailed this topic a few weeks ago:
"The Web dictates that you put the customer first. That means taking on more complexity yourself." from The price of doing business on the web (March 14, 2011)
That's the whole point, isn't it? My job is to find the situations where a little extra effort on my part will let teachers do more of the real work: education.