Archive for Communication

It’s all about social media, except when it isn’t.

I led a training session the other day to further integrate social media into our admission and development work. We considered a range of new uses: student bloggers, a dedicated Facebook page for applicants, Flickr and YouTube channels. Some potential initiatives were certainly exciting to consider.

Here’s the problem. None of the new ideas made the cut when we listed priority tasks for the upcoming year. I asked what were each department’s primary communication goals for the upcoming year, without presupposing the solution. In all cases, the identified goals suggested changes to our existing website, not our social media strategy.

Why? While we have a successful website, it has more room for improvement than does our social media strategy. The main website receives 3,000 visits each day. Our Facebook fan page has about 500 fans. Improvements to the main website will reach far more people.

Also consider that our main website allows users to more meaningfully transact with the school than does our social media pages. For example, you may sign up to volunteer, make a gift to the school, apply for admission, or comment on a student blog. Our Facebook and Twitter pages primarily push content out to people who may be listening and offer some opportunities for interaction. Our main website may have limited opportunities for social interaction, but it offers more opportunities further up the engagement pyramid.

I am glad that we  developed a social media strategy and voice. A small and growing proportion of our audience maintains contact with the school through that vehicle. It improves our ability to engage in a personal way with constituents. However, we will continue to parcel out our time and effort based on the audience size and quality of interaction with the school. We will be able to adjust these efforts as we track the growth in social media page membership and interactions.

Goodbye, Satellite

We are discontinuing our satellite TV subscriptions, which brought French, Spanish, and Japanese television programming into the classroom for the past seven years. Web video has largely replaced the need for live television. A teacher who wants to present students with authentic vocabulary, regional accents, or international current events need only visit a country news website or search for specific content on YouTube.

While this change may seem relatively inconsequential, I find it notable that we are actually discontinuing a technology service on campus. It can often be difficult to convince users of a service that its end has come. When a new technology arrives, often a certain proportion of users adopt the new technology quickly. Penetration increases rapidly enough that it may seem only a matter of time until everyone is using the new technology. In reality, adoption usually plateaus at a certain level, sometimes just a small fraction of all users, sometimes a majority, and in rare occasions nearly everyone.

Most technologies reach peak penetration and then eventually decline, as users lose interest, or the technology does not live up to its initial promise, or a newer technology comes along and takes its place. Still, a certain proportion of users find comfort in continued use of that technology, and this at which point it can be difficult to discontinue a service. Some number of people still rely on that technology and want the school to continue providing it.

With satellite television, peak penetration was fairly low, because the service was limited to foreign language television, and so only the language teachers used it. In addition, only the upper (high) school was cabled for satellite TV in the first place. When use declined, only one or two teachers continued to use TV in the classroom, and they were very gracious in recognizing that it would not be cost-effective to continue subscription and maintenance for just a couple of classrooms.

Contrast this with teacher voicemail extensions. Our current phone system has been in place for seven years. All employees have a phone extension, but most teachers of eighth grade and below do not have a physical phone. They have a voicemail-only extension. Use of voicemail-only extensions has declined sharply, as teachers and parents now communicate mostly by email. However, it will take more work than for satellite TV to consult with a larger user base and reach an informed decision on changing our telephone practice.

How many fan pages do we have now?

As a result of Facebook’s new “Community Page” feature, our school now has two fan pages, one which we control, and one which we do not. Do you think this will confuse users? Why isn’t the community page feature just a tab on our fan page?

The Best Press

Sometimes, we work really hard to get some press coverage. Sometimes, it just happens. This time, credit the terrific accomplishments of these two students.

Visiting Reed

Four of us spent the morning at Reed College, asking questions to CTO Marty Ringle and members of the Computing and Information Services department. In my career, I had never previously spent an extended period of time with college-level IT staff. The differences were striking. The college has 140 faculty members and 300 staff, the reverse ratio of our school. These 440 employees serve just 1400 students. Our 200 employees serve 730 students. Reed Computing has 32 employees. We have six. One possible conclusion: employees require a lot more IT support than students!

I was really impressed with the department’s governance process. They have seven different organizational groups that meet regularly to facilitate the process of democratic decision-making. Top-down decision-making is rare. We may bemoan the number of meetings we already have, but I left Reed thinking that we need to have more—we just need to structure them better. Our hosts also spoke to the benefits of meeting regularly with faculty members, individually or at “brown bag” lunches, building trust and familiarity that pay dividends later.

We also left feeling good about the program we run at Catlin Gabel. We have reached an enterprise level of service with our help desk, wireless security, intranet website, deployment, and other services. It is always refreshing to gain an external perspective on our program. Spending too much time at our own school sometimes leads to myopia.

I learned about the Collaborative Moodle Liberal Arts Project. Reed is one of a number of colleges working together to improve aspects of Moodle particular to needs they share. While the improvements look useful (bulk assignment downloads, better gradebook), I was disappointed that none of them pertain specifically to online learning environments.

Marty summarized the new report on Reed’s Kindle project. Their experience confirmed our initial reaction that the Kindle and similar devices are not yet ready for education enterprise deployment. The annotation, highlighting, and navigation features do not yet replicate enough of the features of writing in the margins of a book with a pen.

I’d also like an assistant and a conference table in my office!

Whither the virtual audience?

studnet speaker

We successfully broadcast Catlin Gabel’s workshop to design the school’s next community event(s). I had the uStream working smoothly, the facilitator played his role perfectly, and we included the contributions from virtual participants in the real workshop. In the two weeks before the event, we made at least eight announcements in newsletters, email messages, and online articles that people would be able to attend the workshop online. We have some 3,000 alumni and 500 current families from which to draw a virtual audience.

Only five people showed up, and two were my IT colleagues.

What happened? What is the potential of live web broadcasting in a school?

I have seen uStream used most successfully in an educational setting to live broadcast major speeches and conferences. I recently tuned into a great presentation at Castilleja School. A Stanford professor was explaining how all websites, but social networks in particular, are vehicles of persuasion. I was the only virtual attendee.

Broadcasting educational technology conferences seems popular of late. The audience is large, widely dispersed, and technologically savvy. Still, having been a virtual participant before, the presentation quality is poor enough that it makes difficult to pick up everything that is going on. Our virtual participants on Saturday made the same comment.

I don’t feel compelled to live broadcast major events at our school. I would rather record with videocamera and then publish the next day, in higher quality than uStream and as a permanent addition to our site. Just last week, I recorded our Martin Luther King, Jr. community meeting (elementary), published it to a private page for our community, and already it has been viewed 70 times.

Perhaps people are just too busy to attend a live, five-hour online event at a specific time. They can play recorded online video at their convenience. Maybe for this event, we should have eschewed live participation in favor of making a highlight reel of the major points in a recorded video format. Or maybe the gesture of opening the meeting to virtual participants was a sufficiently important to justify the work involved.

Perhaps we were competing for audience against ourselves. If the 100 most interested people actually came to the event to participate in person, how many more did that leave to participate virtually?

Have you seen the new Cisco ads showing telepresence in classrooms? Who really thinks that schools will be able to afford high-end video conferencing of this sort? Grocery stores have far more flat-panel televisions than schools these days, and they sell food.

I would like my next attempt at live broadcast to involve a sports event. Sports have the immediacy of experience that demands a live broadcast, color commentary could be fun and interesting, and the project would involve students. However, we would still be competing against ourselves for audience, the potential audience is relatively small, and a lot of people might feel content to just find out the score the next day. It’s worth a try, though, as students studying at home could easily tune in and follow the game.

I could imagine a schoolwide event during which we partnered with one or more schools elsewhere to pursue the same agenda and discuss similar topics. However, I would choose Skype for such a broadcast, so that it would be equally bidirectional.

Have you used uStream in a school with more success? Did you draw an actual audience? Please tell us about it.

The Rummage effect

Last week, our famous rummage event took place. Check out the effect on our website. I don’t know how Google really knows who is a new visitor to the website, but that’s great if it’s true.

rummage graphs

Does anyone read our emails?

Our school switched from paper to electronic newsletters some years ago in order to reduce paper consumption. Since that time, the question has lingered. “Does anyone read the newsletters?” As teachers struggle to keep up with a rapidly growing inbox during free periods, and parents sometimes appear unaware of information distributed to them, it’s easy to reach this conclusion.

Thankfully, we have found a way to collect some data to allay this concern. We installed the Drupal module Simplenews Statistics on our site, and now our main newsletters include an invisible image that sends a request back to the website each time the email is opened. Our kindergarten email newsletter, sent to 40 families, was opened 108 times within 24 hours! Although opening an email does not guarantee that a person reads it or digests its contents, it at least it suggests that email is effective at putting the news in front of our readers.

If you store email addresses for newsletter subscriptions in your website, this module will even tell you which individuals opened the newsletter, which didn’t, and whether they clicked on embedded links. We don’t seek that level of resolution of data, since just the total is a relief to see, and we subscribe a Mailman listserv address to each newsletter instead of individual addresses.

We learned another lesson from this investigation. Data can really help soothe anxiety over changes that involve technology. Looking at our website statistics helps in a similar way. Data won’t answer all of one’s questions, but it helps challenge some deeply held assumptions about the perceived ineffectiveness of some forms of electronic communication.

Your website or listserv platform may include a tracking feature like this.

Sharing Is Good

In my previous blog post, I shared a video produced by second grade teachers and students about the brain study project they just completed. I also posted a link to the article to Twitter. Two days later, I received a comment from the All Kinds Of Minds CEO congratulating us on the video! She shared it with her organization’s leadership staff and board, bringing our school a lot of attention and rekindling our relationship with All Kinds Of Minds. We circulated the notes around our school, giving the teachers who worked so hard to assemble the project deserved recognition and building more excitement for brain-based curriculum development.

Publicly sharing student work can lead to unexpected, positive consequences!

Amateur Video On Your School Website

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a million. Motion picture and audio better simulate “being there” than a long article or photo gallery. Video may capture the subtle cues of emotional expression and the energy of the moment that help a viewer understand the intangible values of your organization. Now, it is possible to capture video with a small, portable device and transfer it to the web with just a few clicks.

Why isn’t online video more popular on independent school websites? One reason may be the apprehension of some about posting “home videos” on your school website or social network site. Given all the care that we put into our print publications, we may wish to hold videos to the same standard. That would be nice, but It takes many hours (and/or dollars) to create professional-quality video. Perhaps we should hold video to a different standard than written articles. Could a new standard for school website video include amateur content?

Authenticity

In the new web, content has trumped style. YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter have demonstrated the greater value to users of authentic content over quality of presentation. YouTube is the fourth most popular site on the web. The President of the United States addresses the nation via YouTube. Cellphone reports of political unrest and natural disasters run on major network news broadcasts. At times like these, the value of amateur video is the authenticity of the content, not its production quality.

We may apply the same test to school events, even though they may not convey the same impact as mass demonstrations and natural disasters. Take the following video. I shot this at our annual homecoming event, a varsity soccer game attended by alumni and long-time faculty. It may well capture essential aspects of our school better than highly polished writing in a glossy magazine, especially if you studied with these teachers 20 years ago.

Choose to film school events that naturally capture the special qualities of your institution.

Edit as much as time allows

While you may not have the time or expertise to create professional-quality video, you can still produce video of reasonable quality. Depending on how you learn best, you may benefit from attending a beginner’s training for iMovie or Adobe Elements Premiere. Consider using a tripod to stabilize the picture and an external microphone to capture good audio. Develop a basic sense of composition, and timing. Learn to add just enough transition effects that your clips smoothly link together. Cut at least 90% of your original footage, keeping just the very best scenes.

Track your success

Following the progress of your new videos is essential to inform your own publishing choices and convince others that the experiment is working. Social media websites track the number of views of each of your content items. This allows you to track the number of video playbacks, one potential measure of success.

blip stats

If you use Google Analytics on your school website, check out the “time on page” measure. Larger values suggest that more viewers actually watched the video all the way through.

time on page

Determining perceived quality is more difficult. Comments may provide some clue. If hundreds of people view a video and only one person complains about video quality, then you’re probably on the right track.

comments

Start on your social media sites

You may not want to post your first video experiments to your public-facing websites. Facebook and YouTube are chock full of amateur video, so people will expect to see work of lower production quality there. The community pages on your school website may be another good place to start. Yet don’t stop there. Collect data on these first experiments in order to make an informed decision about whether to extend the experiment to the public-facing pages on your main school website.

On perfection

A founding faculty member at a well-regarded school recently retired. In his farewell remarks, he cautioned the community to resist perfectionism.

We are all under the illusion that we can and should be perfect all the time. If we don’t do “excellent” work everyday, then we don’t “measure up” to [our] standards. An awful lot of us impose these unrealistic expectations on our selves, and it’s not healthy. […] Our school culture unduly puts pressures on us to look perfect in the eyes of everyone else. Stop!