Creating “Tech Envy”: Advice for Getting Your District on the Electronic Media Bandwagon

Evelyn McCormack
Evelyn McCormack

How can you ensure that your school district’s teachers and principals are using the electronic media that’s available to them? Or, if your district leaders haven’t even bought into the value of electronic media, what can you do?

As a school district communication professional, or as a superintendent, you can help set the tone and become the “expert” about the tools that can help your principals and teachers communicate with parents, students and other stakeholders. Spread your knowledge about social media, email, “robocall” phone messaging, text messaging, teacher websites, and other ways that your district can reach out, be heard and listen.

A Little ‘Tech Envy’ Goes a Long Way

What has worked for me is what we like to call “technology envy” — showing superintendents and principals what other schools and districts are accomplishing by making full use of digital technology. Some school districts in my region are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Ustream, Vimeo, Instagram and Foursquare with great success, and that kind of success tends to breed more.

The Ossining (N.Y.) Union Free School District (USFD), for example, is leading the way in suburban New York City in using countless methods to communicate with its constituents. Ossining UFSD uses Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, Smugmug, Pinterest and Ustream, all social media sites, and has developed district iPhone and Android apps. In addition, parents are encouraged to sign up for Oblast, a regular email blast; the district’s Infinite Campus portal, which provides student information, including grades; and eChalk, which permits parents to sign up for classroom email alerts and to see teacher pages. The success of Ossining UFSD has had a “bandwagon” effect on other districts.

Way back in December 2010, I presented to the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, an imposing group of more than 50 school officials. In the presentation, I explained how a handful of districts in our region at the time were using social media successfully, including the White Plains City School District, which then had 1,100 fans (now 1,700); the New York City Department of Education, with its 11,000 fans (now nearly 28,000); and Boston Public Schools with its 1,700 fans (now 6,400). I explained the difference between Facebook fan pages and personal pages, and showed the superintendents Facebook Insights, the tool that lets you track demographic use of your page and what’s popular at different times of the year (budget votes and graduations).

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In the weeks following that presentation, I received dozens of calls, two from superintendents asking me to train their own communication teams on using social media. Dr. Phyllis Glassman, Ossining UFSD superintendent, remembers it this way: “Until that event, I was very, very concerned about using social media,” she said. “I was convinced that it would invite nothing but trouble. But, understanding the difference in the kinds of Facebook pages you can create took away my fear. I took the plunge and trusted you.”

Glassman points out that including social media in your district’s communications permits stakeholders to weigh in on issues, and gives the district a chance to listen. Ossining UFSD also has developed a long-range communication plan that includes cutting-edge technology, and a communication task force guides the district. One of the district’s innovative applications: at Board of Education meetings, the district clerk tweets the proceedings out to community members who can’t make the meeting, or who simply don’t want to sit through a three-hour discussion when they’re interested in just one issue.

Stick to Your Guns

Getting superintendents, principals and teachers on board is a gradual process, and sometimes an uphill battle. But if even a handful of staff in your district believes the tools are important, gradual change will likely take place.

Ellen Lane, communications coordinator at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES, a regional education service agency based in Yorktown, N.Y., has been at her job for just a couple of years but has managed to change the mindset on her sprawling campus in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary way.

“It’s a work in progress,” says Lane. While the administration gave her their verbal support when she first suggested that the organization begin using social media, the technical issues sometimes seemed insurmountable. “We incurred expenses to upgrade the firewall service we were using,” she said, “so that we could tweak permissions and give staff access to social media but still block some sites from student use. That was a battle I didn’t foresee.”

The second phase, she noted, was getting staff to buy in by educating them. Lane’s new assistant superintendent joined the organization this year with a set of goals that included supporting the use of social media by the BOCES staff and in the region’s classrooms. They’ve begun a series of workshops for school administrators on how to use LinkedIn effectively. When they’ve completed those, they hope to move on to Twitter.

“No teacher will be ordered to use online tools,” explained Lane. “But, if you like your job and if you enjoy being a team player, you might be excited about this.”

Model, but Don’t Force

Dobbs Ferry (N.Y.) School District Superintendent Lisa Brady leads by example, offering professional development to her teachers and administrators on safely using social media, writing her own blog, and encouraging “outside-the-box” thinking when it comes to communicating with parents. This leadership by example tends to have a trickle-down effect.

In the fall, she asked me to present at a Superintendent’s Conference Day event on several topics:

  • How teachers should privatize their personal Facebook pages;
  • How they can create Facebook “group” pages for their classes; and
  • How to use Twitter, Pinterest and Learnist.

The liveliest discussion took place when teachers learned how to privatize their personal Facebook pages, as many were shocked to learn that their pages were so public. You can’t expect everyone to know how to set their Facebook pages to “friends and family only,” but you can show them. Understanding is nine-tenths of the battle here.

In Ossining UFSD, teachers are asked to keep their online eChalk class pages updated, but they’re not forced to do so. Still, the district worked closely with the teachers’ association to come up with a plan that specifically provides teachers with time to update their class pages.

“Like anything else,” says Dr. Glassman, “many of our teachers go well beyond the time we’ve provided to communicate through their class pages. But, there are still a few who don’t. We’ll get there.”

‘Just Create the Culture’

Modeling the use of digital media is a good virus that tends to spread on its own.

John Falino, principal at Dobbs Ferry High School, believes that administrators won’t have to force teachers and others to jump on the digital media bandwagon. Falino, a frequent user of Twitter, says: “I’ll tweet and re-tweet great things on Twitter, and my teachers want to learn more. They’re curious and open-minded about using these tools. But, it also helps that I use them.”

Falino, who also blogs and maintains the high school Facebook page, added that almost all of his teachers maintain and update their own classroom pages, and all have Twitter accounts. Some classroom teachers have created class-only Twitter accounts, and at least one has started a Facebook group page for his global studies class.

“You don’t need to direct anybody to do this,” says Falino. “Just create the culture, and you will get buy-in from the staff.”

 

Evelyn McCormack is director of communications for Southern Westchester BOCES in Elmsford, N.Y. and a frequent contributor to NSPRA publications on the use of technology and the NSPRA: Social School Public Relations blog. She can be contacted at: emccormack@swboces.org.