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Joel Gagne Headshot

Public Schools Must Embrace Social Media

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The disrupted digital status quo introduces compelling new opportunities for schools. Central to the ongoing digital revolution of the past two decades is a clear lesson. Those willing to embrace an evolving digital landscape thrive; entities that refuse to engage collect dust. The need for schools and school districts to be amenable to adopting the new channels of communication could not be overemphasized.

School districts and society at large traditionally have relied on more formal, centralized means of communication. These include newspapers, press releases, mail campaigns, and town-hall style organized meetings. But in the last ten years, these kinds of messaging have become less effective. Newspapers face shrunken circulation numbers and reduced staff; mail and phone campaigns are lost in the commotion of advertisements and spam; and the demands exerted by the dismal economy on our time make meeting face-to-face nearly a scheduling challenge.

Fortunately, social media's ascendancy in this climate should actually strike a hopeful tone for school districts. Unlike print media, the costs of both producing and consuming social media are low. A 2010 Pew study on news content and usage revealed that 95 percent of new information, meaning a story the reader was not previously aware of, came from traditional sources. This suggests social media is being used primarily to share content that has already been produced by their conventional counterparts, rather than as a vehicle for original journalism -- making the two more like partners than rivals.

In a few short years, it has expanded from a pursuit limited to social frivolities and segmented across communities to the fastest source of releasing news, the cheapest means of exchanging that news, and a growing medium through which we consume that news.

The simple and regrettable fact is that many of public our schools are antiquated institutions. While the debate on education reform is critical, we often miss smaller refinements that schools could easily adopt to improve quality education across America.

Fundamentally, education is a service industry. Educators and administrators provide a service to students, families and communities. It goes without saying that what they do is of the utmost importance. But in other sectors of the service economy, businesses and organizations have leveraged social media in a way that puts education to shame.

Among the various interests that would naturally align with the emergence of social media, businesses and politicians are particularly fits, considering the importance that controlling the message implies for both.

Businesses have matured beyond their initial reluctance to embrace social media and the many ways it can strengthen their ability to market and sell their product. One important way this can be accomplished is through advertising. To name just one example, Burger King pitched a discounted Whopper sandwich through its Facebook page in order to encourage free exchange of the news and buzz on the network, and 20,000 users eventually adopted it.

Another service social media can provide a business is by giving them the capability to be more interactive and personal. For instance, the CEOs of Sun Microsystems and Marriott International maintain personal blogs updating followers on their daily lives and the goings-on of their companies.

Alternatively, social media can also encourage dialogue and feedback about specific products. Take the case of Starbucks Coffee. By creating the "My Starbucks Idea" application, the corporation can effectively kill two birds with one stone. It can test ideas before the costs of implementation and market surveillance through a survey system of determining the most popular additions to the Starbucks menu. But it can also foster a spirit of engagement and community with its consumers by allowing them to submit their own ideas, which in practice actually results in tertiary benefits in the form of successful ideas they may not have come up with on their own.

Yet another realm in which social media has played an enormous and transformational role is that of politics. The 2012 reelection campaign of President Barack Obama may be instructive here. The Obama team faced a radically altered media landscape than the one they had previously tackled in 2008. According to data from Pew Research, in that timeframe social media usage among American adults increased over a third to 69 percent in that four year time frame. Even more relevant to politicos, the Pew study also found that among those using social media, a full two-thirds claimed to engage in political activism online.

Obama's strategists utilized their well-run social media machine to capitalize on these developments through a structured, consistent, and technologically savvy social media campaign. The results were clear: the President garnered twice as many Facebook "Likes" as Governor Romney, and his messages on Twitter were rebroadcast nearly twenty times as much, according to a 2013 article by media psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge.

In governance, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak uses his Twitter account to provide breaking news and developments to constituents. Recently, during a particularly harsh winstorm that brought down trees and power lines, Rybak used his Twitter feed to engage with residents of his city, and help him navigate the aftermath of the storm effectively.

Mayor R.T. Rybak ‏@MayorRTRybak 22 Jun: Knowing how much tree damage there is Park Board has scheduled debris pickup July 1-12

Mayor R.T. Rybak ‏@MayorRTRybak 22 Jun: Storm update: http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/news/WCMS1P-110252 ...

Mayor R.T. Rybak ‏@MayorRTRybak 22 Jun: With so much storm tree damage city and parks will offer free tree debris pickup for residents. Details to come

The experiences of the business and political worlds in recent years have demonstrated the effectiveness of social media in non-traditional applications. School districts, too, stand to join the ranks of media success stories.

The first way that new media technologies can support school districts in particular has to do with community engagement. The current model of district-to-community communication depends overwhelmingly on community members who are already connected to the school -- such as parents, students, and staff. While this portion of the population is certainly more vested in the goings on at the district, the remainder of the community has an equal vote on critical ballot initiatives and funding levies. Content posted on a social media platform such as Facebook becomes available to a much broader viewership. The district may post a video of its marching band performing, for instance, and a mother of a member of the band may repost the video on her page. This video will then be seen by any member of the mother's network, and as the video is reposted and re-tweeted, the opportunity for it to catch the eye of a community member who might otherwise never have seen it increases dramatically. Furthermore, social media is cheaper than a massive print-advertising campaign, and avoids the appearance of "propaganda" if a friend passes a story along via Twitter instead of it being told by a glossy, school-distributed brochure.

The second way in which social media is uniquely positioned to benefit school districts is in the spirit of promoting transparency, accountability, and a two-way dialogue with its constituency. Digitally posting financial filings, budgetary reports, and board meetings contribute to a spirit of openness and trust between the taxpaying community and the district that depends on them.

As schools compete with each other for these ever-scarcer sources of funding, it is imperative to convince the voters that education is a worthy investment of their hard-earned, and short supply of, tax dollars. With its low cost, high usage, and general credibility, social media seems to be the most logical way for schools to accomplish their critical missions.

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