Applying Social Networking to Public Education

Earlier this week, Eduflack was involved in a discussion with Geoff Livingston, principal of Livingston Communications and author of a terrific business PR blog, Buzz Bin.  http://www.livingstonbuzz.com/blog/  The conversation quickly turned to how effective corporations are at using social networking tools, like blogs, in getting their message out to key audiences.

I’ll leave my opinions on the effectiveness of corporate blogging for another day.  But it begs the question — just how effective is new media in general, and blogging in particular, in rallying key stakeholders and triggering meaningful reforms in our schools?  Are they making a difference, or are we just contributing to the white noise.

Without question, the number of education-focused blogs seems to grow by the day.  Some, like Eduwonk (
http://www.eduwonk.com/) and This Week in Education (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/thisweekineducation/) are must-reads and go-tos for anyone involved in education or education reform.  But what about the rest of us?

The concept behind blogs are really nothing new.  You can even equate them with Saint Paul’s PR activities on behalf of the start-up Catholic Church or our founding fathers’ leafleting the countryside in an attempt to start a new democracy.  Citizen publishers hold a long-standing position in the history of social and political change.

Such efforts worked because they recognized successful communication has two sides to it.  First, we must inform — disseminate information and make sure that key audiences receive it and understand it.  Second, and more importantly, we must use that dissemination to drive audiences to action.  Armed with that information, we must have individuals and groups stand up to demand reform, to push for change, and to ensure improvement.  Only by changing public behavior is reform communications truly successful.

And what does all that mean for education reform?  We have seen it work successfully in the past, and there is no education issue more relevant to it than special education reform.  During the passage of the original IDEA, advocates were expert at gathering supporters and advocates, disseminating information, and using key audiences to push for change.  They were blogging before the Internet, getting information out to key communities, embracing social networks to learn from the successes of others, and joining together to bring about change on one of the largest stages available — the U.S. Congress.  Since then, special education advocates have clearly shown that social networking works.  And now that they are equipped with tools such as blogs, chatrooms, and email blasts, who knows the effect they can have on future IDEA and NCLB authorizations.

It is that sort of lesson that NCLB advocates are still struggling to learn, six years later.  While the law runs from the federal to the state to the locality, successful communication on the law should and must run in reverse.  Using the social networking principles developed and strengthened by special education advocates, NCLB supporters could begin to build a real web of citizen supporters — teachers, parents, business leaders, and the rest — whose voices must be heard during reauthorization.  Those are the voices now embraced by NCLB opponents.  Now is the time to hear from those who are benefiting from the law.

How do we do it?  Three simple steps:
* Online networking — Let’s use the successes of online resources like meetup.com and myspace.com and others to bring together those audiences who have benefited from research-based instruction, better assessments of learning, or improved teacher quality in the classroom.
* Give audiences a voice — Cultivate a network of blogs, listserves, and other communication tools for the parents and teachers who are working hard to ensure NCLB succeeds.  Those voices can inspire and can provide valuable lessons for others working through the same issues or looking for solutions to similar problems.
* Think outside the 20th century box — NCLB advocates remain mostly passive and reactive.  That just doesn’t work in the 21st century media.  Supporters need to take back the message, and redefine the law on their terms.  They need to discuss the improvements.  And they need to confront the dangers of returning to that same old status quo.
 

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