The social network has become a phenomenon so intriguing that even Hollywood has cashed in on the relentless pace of this world of “friending,” “liking,” and sharing. Social networking – connecting with, sharing with, playing with friends, family, and brands – is currently the most popular online activity.
Why, then, do so few schools take the jump into harnessing social networks for disseminating information, connecting with the learning community at large, and, dare I say, for learning? Schools, by and large, have resisted the seemingly irresistible call of social network culture to engage learners in new ways, on new planes.
Neil Hopkin, award-winning executive head teacher in two schools we’re working with in South London, sums up in this month’s kick-off video, above, his top strategies for leaders beginning to think about introducing social networks to their institutions. This post is inspired by his words, and expands upon them.
Every week I get to work with smart tech startups and multinational brands on new product ideas and, the important bit, how they’re going to let people know about them. In some circles, this would be known as marketing. Increasingly, though, in these discussions, the “m” word is largely exchanged for the “F” word – Facebook. Mention the same word in schools or in front of school boards and I might as well have said that other “F” word.
A social network is a website built around the fact that its first members will encourage their friends and families to join them there, and so on in a virtuous cycle of speedy growth. Why do friends and family flock to the network? To catch up on news, photographs, and videos their friends have taken, or think are worth sharing, and to show their attendance at events or allegiance to a pop superstar, fiction writer, or TV show. Basically, all the minutiae of life can be liked, shared, and posted onto the walls of your friends, 24/7.
For education institutions, this may sound like the antithesis of learning: a banal waste of time from the nebulous with nothing better to do. Judging by the uptake of schools harnessing social networks like Facebook for learning, it’s hard to say otherwise. Yet what a social network provides is exactly the “sticky” communication and relationship that many schools seek in other ways (and fail to get) with newsletters and parents’ evenings. Considering the Americans alone spend 53.5 billion minutes a year in front of their social network, it knocks into touch the five-minute rushed meeting between parents and teachers once or twice a year, the torn newsletter at the bottom of the schoolbag, or the straight-to-junk-mail principal’s bulletin.
Can posting the same information in smaller chunks on a social network really make a difference to the sense of community in a school? Can it really add value to learning? And is Facebook the only social network that schools should be interested in exploring in this way, or should we be using “safe” networks or virtual learning environments to try and achieve the same thing?
Facebook’s Relentless Global Growth
Facebook is currently the main social network for much of the northern hemisphere. By the time this school year is out, the social network will serve one billion of the planet’s seven billion souls. It’s even replacing search engines as the place where people “go for a Google”: It’s the U.S.’s second most popular video site after YouTube; in the U.K., using a social network is more popular than using a search engine. And whereas one might have suggested barely six months ago that Facebook was only part of the story, it’s beginning to outpace localised social networks like Orkut in South America, leaving just China and Russia to conquer in 2012.
The Ultimate Community Engager
Neil Hopkin, in this short clip, explains from a leader’s perspective why connecting with communities with social networks and other social media is such a vital part of his work.
What a compelling platform through which to engage school communities, if not youngsters themselves, and certainly their parents and wider families. And which school system does not seek to engage more with these groups? In Glasgow, Scotland, one in five parents would like to use Facebook as a more handy, regular means of checking in to see what their child is learning and how their child is doing.
In the U.K., at the time of the General Election, students in one school experimented with the same engagement tactics as the politicians, running mock elections in their school, and harnessing Facebook to generate interest, share news, point to other (genuine) General Election sites, and gain votes for their mock parties.
The Virtual Learning Environment that Leaks beyond School
Devin Schoening’s school in the U.S. have used Facebook to engage parents in the learning of first graders. Status updates regularly reveal what has been learned in class that day, and the process of condensing learning into short updates is an ideal synthesis activity for learners. Event invitations mean parents have less chance of missing out on a letter sent home. Notes allow teachers and management share longer, more formal news with parents and private messages allow the school to interact directly with a parent without having to request hundreds of e-mail addresses at the start of the year. Videos and photographs of student work can be shared in a click.
Most of this functionality is available, of course, on “safe” education platforms. But the importance is not on the tool or technology – it’s in understanding that information is only useful when it’s used, and to get it used it has to be shared in the social spaces where people already hang out. And at the moment, at least, that space is Facebook.
Fairfax Public School District is one district that has seen success in choosing to go where their community was already hanging out online, rather than making the community seek out a Fairfax Public Schools website. Their Facebook Page has more than 25,000 subscribers. Every time the school publishes an update about the school to its Facebook Page, those 25,000 people receive the information in their Facebook news stream, when they log on to see whatever might be new. Instead of posting information on the district website, and making people come to them, they take the content to the community on a platform that they already visit every day, several times a day.
And from there, conversations with the community can begin around that content. The news content, the photo, or the video is no longer just an anonymous press release or news bulletin – it’s a social object around which the community can discuss learning, schooling, and education in its broadest sense.
Facebook is compelling for one reason in particular: It’s meeting parents, carers, and learners in the space where they “hang out” already. None of these groups have to make an effort to sign up to a new social network (a disadvantage of creating “new” social networks on platforms such as Ning.com or on your school’s Virtual Learning Environment), yet they can “accidentally” bump into content and interact with the school on a far more regular basis than they currently do. For those schools with tight budgets, you also cannot over look the fact that Facebook is free to use.
Life beyond Facebook
Not all schools and districts using social networks are using Facebook. One of my own examples predates Facebook and continues to grow today, six years after we created it. More in my next post on GETIdeas.org …