Schools and social media
The social media covers a wide range of applications including blogging, wikis, online forums, Twitter and Facebook. Most forms of social media are free and are easy to use. By 2009 Australians had become the world's greatest consumers of social media, according to the Nielsen 2010 Social Media Report, but so far schools have been reluctant to participate in this trend. This article explores some of the ways in which schools might use the social media, and the benefits they could bring.
Two examples of social media with potential for use in schools
A blog (short for web log) is a simple website featuring short or long articles, called posts, written by one or more authors. Other people can then post comments about the original article in a 'reply' box. There are many blogging tools that offer free basic services.
In the school context, the principal or another staff member would 'own' the blog and establish who else can view it and post comments on it. For security reasons school blogs are likely to be restricted to immediate members of the school community. Parents' contribution to the blog can be moderated, ie checked by a designated person first for approval via email, to prevent, for example, abusive language against an individual. Parents, students and other members can also be asked to register under their real names rather than an alias.
In 2008 Twitter had 13,000 users in Australia. This figure rose to 800,000 in 2009 and today sits at 2.5 million users. Twitter messages, or 'tweets', are restricted to a length of 140 characters, making them similar to SMS messages, so Twitter is ideal for short and spontaneous communications. Principals could add tweets such as 'Jonathan Brown from the Brisbane Lions is due at school today – everyone's buzzing', or, ‘Just saw the Japanese garden the year 4s have built – what a wonderful job that will be enjoyed by everyone'. The maths teacher could send weekly trivia questions, the health and wellbeing coordinator could tweet positive messages and healthy eating tips. There might be an English word of the week.
Parents can be invited to subscribe to or, more correctly, ‘follow’ the latest tweets. Followers can reply to or forward (‘retweet’) these messages. There is no moderation process in twitter, but the owner of a Twitter account can establish who is allowed to view the account and who can add and reply to comments.
Other forms of social media may also be worth considering for schools, including wikis and online forums. One simple but valuable application for building a school community is online Footy Tipping. This application is the catalyst for many schoolyard conversations, online chatter and good spirited competition. Every visit to the website means the visitor is exposed to more school content.
The benefits of social media for schools
One advantage of social media in schools is that they give parents more avenues through which they can stay in touch. Parents don't connect in the schoolyard in the numbers they once did – the pace and pressure of modern life has seen to that. Parents are however gaining more extended access to the internet via mobile devices such as mobile phones and iPads, and over time are becoming more open to more frequent connection to the school online.
A second benefit of social media is that the relaxed style of communication they encourage can free up the two-way flow of information between schools and parents, creating a deeper level of communication and trust, and alerting school leaders to concerns in their community.
For example a parent may use the school blog to post a comment such as 'I've heard Mr Smith the year 7 maths teacher did nothing else but teach to the NAPLAN test for 2 weeks leading up to the test itself'. A principal might answer as follows. 'Thanks Sally for your comment. No it's not true but I do know the story has been circulating. Thanks for bringing it out in the open. Over the last 4 weeks Mr Smith has covered 3 new maths topics (Geometry 101, Fun with Algebra and Weights & Measure) all part of the year 7 maths curriculum – click here for your copy'. This sort of response is likely to be more reassuring than a well-crafted formal statement in the school newsletter.
Security and protection issues
Schools can control what is said on their own social media accounts through the security mechanisms that come with the applications, as mentioned above. However schools do not have the same level of control over how the school or individual staff members and students are mentioned elsewhere in the social media, such as on Facebook. School leaders can monitor this external coverage through applications that scan the internet for any reference to selected key words such as a school's name. Social Mention will scan any type of social media site and provide some numerical analysis of results. Google Alerts work in the same way as Social Mention but without the analysis.
School leaders also need to ensure that policies are established to guide both students and teachers in what is safe to say online, and to whom, when there is any connection to the school involved. The policy for students should explain the differences between private and online conversations, and raise issues such as cyber-bullying and privacy. Some of the same considerations apply to teachers' communications. If two teachers wished to share a coffee and blow off some steam about the principal it would remain with them. A similar conversation online could have legal ramifications.
In terms of teachers' online relationships and/or connections with students, the Victorian Institute of Teaching's Code of Conduct offers some guidance. Principle 1.5 (d) in the Code states: 'A professional relationship will be violated if a teacher: d holds conversations of a personal nature or has contact with a student via written or electronic means including email, letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context'. Principle 2.1 states: 'The personal conduct of a teacher will have an impact on the professional standing of that teacher and on the profession as a whole'. (Readers outside Victoria should source policy and codes of conduct locally, as most jurisdictions have similar codes in place.)
Schools have a wonderful opportunity to strengthen their community through social media. As parents become more disconnected with their children's school through the sheer time pressures of modern life, online engagement offers a powerful method of making parents feel part of the school community. At the moment one of the factors holding schools back from successful use of social media is a lack of role models. Hopefully this will change over the next few years.
Subject HeadingsInformation and Communications Technology (ICT)
Social life and customs