The continued explosion of Facebook and other online communication platforms demonstrates both the importance and persistence of social media in today’s communications landscape. Who would have guessed a few years ago that Facebook would surpass Google in total pageviews by the end of 2010? We are faced with more information choices than ever before, and social media offers a variety of opportunities to get ideas on the “information radar screens” of many. Unlike traditional broadcast media outlets, however, which take a more scatter-shot approach to messaging, social media offers opportunities to share much more “targeted” messages with specific audiences. Additionally, the interactive possibilities inherent in social media platforms offer chances for feedback and dialog which are not practical or possible with traditional media forms. In this post, I’m going share some observations about as well as examples of educational organizations using social media. If you’re in the process of starting or considering a project which involves your school or classroom using social media platforms like Facebook, a blog, or Twitter to better communicate with the people you serve, this information may be helpful. I’d also love your feedback on these ideas!

As a large and influential educational organization, ISTE (The International Society for Technology in Education) has had my attention for many months as they continue to utilize a variety of social media platforms to not only “share their message” but also encourage feedback and discussion about a variety of issues of interest to educators worldwide. Two years ago, I signed a contract to blog for ISTE in the initial six months of their “ISTE Connects” blog. In the past few months, I’ve had a series of conversations with representatives of “The Master Teacher” about how social media can be effectively leveraged by educational organizations and businesses to better communicate with constituents, customers, and others using tools like blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter. (Full Disclosure: I’m currently negotiating a contract to consult with Master Teacher and assist them with their social media strategy.)

At some point in the past two years, iStrategyLabs (the company which contracted with ISTE to create the original ISTEconnects.org blog, and subcontracted with me to blog for a six month stint) transitioned management and control of the blog over to ISTE staff. Although I was no longer directly involved with iStrategyLabs or ISTE at that point, I observed this “handoff” of control and have watched with interest as ISTE has used their blog (and Twitter account, @isteconnects) in a variety of ways. Here are some sample posts from the past few months from ISTE, along with a little information about each poster.

Posts by Katie Stansberry (blog / social media manager for ISTE)
“WAITING FOR SUPERMAN” AN EMOTIONAL CALL FOR AMERICAN EDUCATION REFORM
“MY TODDLER USES AN IPHONE: ENCOURAGING EXPLORATION IN THE VERY YOUNG”

Post by Hillary Goldman (ISTE Director of Government Affairs)
“VOICES CARRY: E-RATE RULING HAS PROS AND CONS”

Post by Christopher Johnson (feature article in ISTE’s Learning and Leading Magazine, republished online)
“Design New Spaces for Learning”

Post by Nancy Barlow (guest blogger, regular blog is http://theteachergeek.com)
FROM THE 48TH FLOOR TO THE CLASSROOM DOOR: WHY I CHOOSE A SECOND CAREER AS A TEACHER

Post about Don Knezek (ISTE CEO) and his presentation schedule at the end of 2010. Includes slideshare of Don’s Global Education Conference preso (www.slideshare.net/isteconnects)
“ISTE CEO DON KNEZEK, GLOBAL LEADERSHIP FOR DIGITAL AGE LEARNING”

Official ISTE post about 2011 conference
“HOUSING FOR ISTE 2011 GOING FAST”

Post by Leslie Conery (Deputy CEO and ISTE Conference Chair)
“SOUTH AFRICA VISIT SHOWS POWER OF EDUCATION TO CHANGE LIVES”

As you can see from the examples above, ISTE mixes regular content from their blog / social media manager (Katie Stansberry) with posts from a variety of ISTE employees as well as guest bloggers. The use of guest bloggers to provide new content and attract eyeballs is something many more organizations are doing and trying to do today. TechLearning.com is one organization which has solicited and published guest blog posts for years. EduTopia is another organization which effectively shares regular guest blog posts. Among educational organizations, I think EduTopia has one of the best websites for guest bloggers. I really like the way they call ALL their bloggers “contributors,” and show everyone’s personal icon in the blog sidebar.

Blogs | Edutopia

My main complaint about the EduTopia blog is their use of a truncated RSS feed. As you can see in the following screenshot from my Google Reader, this means people CANNOT read the actual blog post being shared without visiting the source website. TechDirt’s post last year, “Truncated RSS Is A Bad Business Decision” as well as Ed Kohler’s 2007 post, “Truncated RSS Feeds Kill Conversations and Long Term Traffic” summarize many of my own views on this topic well.

Truncated RSS Feed

The educational organizations doing the best job of leveraging social media to communicate with constituents and “attract eyeballs” today are finding ways to include varied, diverse voices in their blog, Facebook and Twitter posts. Rather than simply be a venue for direct organizational marketing, however, these social media “shares” provide opportunities to highlight emerging trends, focus on timely news articles, as well as related hyperlinks. Posters can (and often do) amplify organizational initiatives, programs and services, but those “plugs” are shared most effectively in the context of another topic. ISTE wants everyone to attend and register for the 2011 conference in Philadelphia, but the official post from October about the conference focuses on housing arrangements. If an organizational blog looks, reads, and sounds too much like an infomercial, it may turn off prospective readers / viewers. The tone of an effective organizational blog should not be “salesy.” Ideally, I think the tone should be conversational and informational, as well as occasionally persuasive. In many cases, it can be important for readers to know WHO is doing the blogging, the tweeting, or the Facebook sharing. That’s not always the case, but in general transparency is expected and desirable with social media. It’s clear who’s tweeting @isteconnects (see the profile image) but not with @edutopia. Both approaches seem to be working, but perhaps not as equally well.

The degree of cross-promotion an organization gives to it social media “connection channels” is directly tied to the “followership” and reach of those platforms. In this case, EduTopia is an exemplar while ISTE (currently) is not.

Amplifying Social Media Connections: EduTopia

In the past few weeks, ISTE has made a major shift in its social media engagement strategy by choosing to ditch / eliminate its two year old WordPress site (previously on isteconnects.org) and instead import / integrate all old posts into its primary website content management system. One of the major disadvantages of this move is that past posts on the site are no longer indexed by Google, and the new site (IMHO, of course) is far less functional and user friendly than the older WordPress version was.

site:isteconnects.org "wes fryer" isteconnects.org - Google Search

Organizations of all sizes can have interesting political dynamics, and I am not privy to the decisions which went into this move by ISTE to ditch WordPress. I do know that as a blogger and contributor to the past ISTEconnects.org blog, it was upsetting to see past content move out from its former WordPress home into a CMS which appears less functional and user friendly. At least past posts have been moved, rather than deleted. That’s a good thing. Seeing past posts stripped of Google indexed hyperlinks feels disconcerting, however. It’s like someone peeled away and discarded part of my digital footprint. That’s the prerogative of the organization, of course, but actions like this may have unintended consequences. (It could make it harder to recruit new guest bloggers in the future.)

Social media is an exciting field fraught with opportunities as well as pitfalls. One of the remarkable things about it is that “the textbook hasn’t been written,” so to speak, about best practices with social media. It’s valuable to study different organizations like ISTE, EduTopia, TechLearning, and others to analyze what they are doing with social media and what seems to be working well. Perhaps by studying their examples, we can apply some of their “lessons learned” to our own organizations and classrooms.

In every case, the importance of comment moderation cannot be understated. If you’re “turning on” an organizational or classroom blog, make sure you turn on comment moderation! The last thing most school administrators want is divisive controversy over a new interactive site representing their organization to the wider world. That’s not to say blogs should simply be “echo-chambers” filled with the voices of fanboys and fangirls. Debate and disagreement should be welcome and included. The voices of Internet trolls, however, should be excluded, and comment moderation can enable site administrators to do this effectively.

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