When it comes to the education sector, what is the future of social media and networking? That was the question that dear ol’ Eduflack addressed at a presentation yesterday to the Knowledge Alliance. But it is an issue that I hear a great deal about, and no one is quite sure what to do with.
Education seems to be one of the last sectors to “join the party” when it comes to what is new and cutting edge. We were late comers to the Internet and websites. We were slow to embrace blogs (though it is important to note how sites like Eduwonk were quite cutting edge, for both education and other sectors). And we’ve been dangerously tardy on on social media opportunities, including Facebook and Twitter.
The latter may be due to the fact that we aren’t quite sure how to use these tools. In a perfect world, social networking sites are designed to help education organizations and educators do a number of things. We share information. We receive information. We start grouping ourselves with like-minded organizations. We engage in discussions, ask questions, and, yes, network. Social media tools are meant to be more than just glorified RSS feeds, where we push out the latest press release or research study. They are mean to encourage dialogue and interaction. No one way communication here, please.
But doing so requires us to give up some of the control. It means opening ourselves up to negative comments (far more than one does by allowing comments on a blog). It means letting others shape our discussions. It means giving our competitors a closer look at what we are doing. And it means holding ourselves up for public scrutiny, where we can be called out for what we post, what we don’t post, and everything in between.
So instead of addressing the future of social media in education, isn’t the more appropriate question really how education can better adopt our current social networking platforms? For instance:
* Facebook — At this point, we are all on FB. But is this really the tool to promote our organizations? Over the past year, Eduflack has noticed more and more of his friends cutting back on their FB access, trying to restrict it to family and friends, and cutting the professional components out. Many individuals don’t want to be friends with their boss, and they certainly don’t want their employer to see those photos from last weekend’s bar crawl or last summer’s Cabo outing. And as much as we want to be “fan” of the organization that cuts our paychecks, what is going up on that FB feed that we don’t already get from our website, intranet site, and company-wide emails.
Yet we see a lot of groups building those Facebook pages and working to boost their “fan” numbers into the hundreds or the thousands. To those doing it, mazel tov. But Eduflack urges you to do it for the right reasons. Simply posting all of your press releases up there is not maximizing FB. You need to use the fan page to engage and start conversations. Don’t just push information out, solicit information. One of the great examples of this on Facebook is Edutopia, which is regularly asking questions and soliciting opinions. They are using FB to truly build a social networking community, and I believe they are seeing the results.
* Twitter — Ah, Twitter, one of @Eduflack’s favorite places. I admit it, I love to play on Twitter. I probably post 10-20 things a day on my @Eduflack feed. But when I started Tweeting last year, I set a few ground rules. I don’t Tweet personal information. I try not to Tweet personal opinion. I use my feed to share all of the education policy news articles, research studies, events, and general activities that I find interesting. So while it goes through that personal filter, I use Twitter to serve as a personal clearinghouse for all things ed policy and ed reform.
But I also make sure I am regularly reTweeting items from others that I trust or generally adore. I will engage in discussions or ask questions of others on Twitter. I show appreciation for the #FF and other notes. I may not be perfect at Twitter, but I am trying to use it for the networking tool it is intended to be. And in a shameless plug, follow me @Eduflack. And check out my “top-ed-feeds” list, including great Tweeters like @Drynwyn, @alexanderrusso, @tvanderark, @edequality, and all of the blog feeds coming from @educationweek.
That becomes the challenge for many organizations. Do you just push out your own information? Do you tweet about competitors’ work? Can an organization state an opinion or engage in a conversation? In working with the American Institutes for Research, we’ve been investing some time in building up a Twitter presence. To do so, we’ve set forward with a basic goal — serve as a one-stop show for high-quality social and behavioral research. And that will mean more than just AIR’s work. It is in the infancy stage, but @AIR_Info is starting to head in the direction Twitter intended.
Twitter also offers some unique advocacy opportunities for an organization. This week, the education technology community utilized Twitter to raise attention to the fact that ed tech programs in general, and EETT in particular, are not part of the current budget negotiations. So yesterday, the ed tech community hosted a Tweet for #edtech day. They urged everyone in their communities to Tweet on the importance of ed tech and the need to restore $500 million in funding for EETT. At the end of the day, organizations like SETDA, CoSN, and ISTE (whom Eduflack has long had a relationship) secured thousands of Tweets with an identified hash tag (like #eett or #edtech). If one factors in the non-hash tagged posts, the number of ed tech tweets yesterday probably doubled, demonstrating a strong, singular voice for a particular education policy issue. Now that is the power of social networking.
* LinkedIn — We don’t often think about LinkedIn as a education organization networking tool, but it has value. For larger organizations, you can see a significant number of employees and former employees who all list the organization as an employer. That gives you a base for engagement. But LinkedIn’s true value is the use of the discussion groups. One can start a discussion group on a given topic, then start inviting participants. You build a small community to focus on an issue. Each day, you get a email in your inbox updating you on the latest contributions to the discussion thread. For those of us who use LinkedIn passively (meaning we only visit when we get a request to link in), the daily discussion reminders can do wonders to help us engage.
Ultimately, though, there is no magic bullet when it comes to education and social networking. it doesn’t cost a lot of money, but it does require the investment of time and the commitment of the organization. It can be tough to quantify the ROI for a CEO. But if used successfully, it can really help with message, engagement, and discussion. And isn’t that the point?