Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier recently pointed out a troubling fact: About 2,800 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were two or more years older than their classmates. "BIG problem," he posted via Twitter, a Web site that allows him to post text messages and share them with "followers"—other users of the service who are interested in receiving the messages.
Grier uses Twitter to give updates on his meetings with staff and media interviews, link to interesting education news, and share important issues and facts about the district. "It's not only that I enjoy using it as a social networking piece," Grier says. "I like to use this to help communicate what I'm about as an instructional leader or administrative leader."
He's not alone among district officials, and many business people, in embracing social networking Web sites like Twitter and Facebook to get their messages across to hundreds of others within seconds.
Although Facebook began primarily serving college students, the social media site has become increasingly popular with adults. Thirty-one percent of Facebook users are 35 to 55 years old, according to recent research by InsideFacebook.com. And adults are increasingly using Facebook to connect with friends and share information, says graphic design specialist Delaina Beirnstein. "Facebook is my personal newspaper," she says.
The Salt Lake City School District began using Twitter and Facebook last April in response to public interest. "Many organizations, businesses and everything else have been moving in that direction, so our parents were expecting the same sort of response, the same notification process that they get from other places," says Jason Olsen, the district's communications officer.
The Salt Lake district has posted on Twitter and Facebook the same information it has shared on its regular district Web site, such as announcements of school awards and events, says Olsen, adding that he believes the services will boost traffic to the district Web site.
The district also links to articles or television news stories concerning its schools and has recently started publicizing its Facebook and Twitter presence on its Web site as well as in school newsletters.
In addition to informing users of upcoming school events and showing pictures from school activities, the district's Facebook site has links to local news stories about teachers, students and programs. It has provided links to the Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's budget recommendations and editorials arguing against cuts to education.
The district recently saw the value of social media services to communicate with parents during an emergency. In November, Salt Lake district officials used Facebook to notify parents that an elementary school was in lockdown as police investigated reports of shots fired off campus, Olsen says. It turned out that the incident was not connected with the school and no one was hurt.
Last December, the district used the same site to alert parents of a bomb threat at a high school and to let them know that students had been safely evacuated, Olsen says. About 15 minutes later, another Facebook message went out explaining that no bomb had been found and that students were back in class. In another example in December, Facebook was used to notify parents of a minor bus accident that resulted in no injuries. "Please drive safely," the district wrote in its posting.
Now that the Salt Lake district has successfully used Facebook as a parental notification tool, officials are hoping to repeat that success with Twitter. "We hope that as the number of people following us on Twitter [and Facebook] grows, this will become a more effective notification tool," Olsen says.
The Bellevue (Wash.) School District, located near Seattle, last fall set up Twitter and Facebook pages to mainly share information about weather-related school closures, says Ann Oxrieder, the district's director of communications. The district, which lost seven school days due to snow during the last academic year, offers multiple ways for parents to find out about school closures, such as a district hotline number, e-mail, or local news reports, says Oxrieder.
A high school student who was interning in the district office suggested that the district add Facebook and Twitter to its notification options, explaining that many students check their Facebook pages daily.
The Tempe (Ariz.) Elementary School District embraced Twitter and Facebook in 2008 "because this was really becoming a way that a lot of people in the world were communicating," says Gary Aungst, the district's director of community affairs and marketing.
After experimenting with the sites, the Tempe district found that Twitter and Facebook are not great venues for sharing in-depth information because of the short nature of the posts, says Beirnstein. The sites should be viewed as channels for "short bursts of information," she says, with links to other Web sites where viewers can learn more.
Each of the district's Facebook and Twitter posts automatically includes links to the district's Web site. Tempe district officials are focusing on three types of messages that they believe lend themselves to Twitter and Facebook: general district information, such as state testing dates; summaries and links to feature stories profiling student work, new technology or other developments; and helpful tips for parents.
As districts continue to embrace social media, what about parents who can't afford computers? Won't they miss out? Although low-income families may not have computers, many have cell phones, which can receive text messages from Twitter, Olsen says. Indeed, nearly 31 percent of adults living in poverty-level households have no landline and rely solely on wireless phones for telecommunication, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People in poorer households are more likely to go wireless-only than other income groups, the survey found. However, cell phone users would have to access a public computer to set up a Twitter account to begin receiving those text messages. Facebook requires the use of a computer, or a mobile phone with wireless Internet capability.
Although the Web is a powerful tool, the Salt Lake City district will not be abandoning traditional means of communication. "The paper newsletter sent home to parents is not going to go away," Olsen says.
Nebraska's Lincoln Public Schools is also placing the same news on Twitter and Facebook as on the district Web site, believing that no one should feel like they are missing out because they don't use the social networking sites, says Brian Fitzgerald, Web communications manager for the district.
The general public is not the only target for districts using Twitter. Some districts are using it to communicate within the organization—with employees. Houston Independent School District's North Region—one of five geographic divisions in the district—has a Twitter account in which principals receive messages about important events, meetings, training sessions or news. "This has just given us an opportunity to share information [with principals] more quickly," says Cynthia Wilson, the North Region's superintendent, whose territory includes about 65 schools and 5,000 district employees.
Wilson also operates her own professional Twitter account, which she uses to share ideas and inspirational thoughts with teachers who subscribe to her Twitter feed.
Many principals and teachers have started "to kind of expect the sort of inspirational thing, and they tell me that it gives them something to think about," she says. A recent message urged teachers to make more connections with students. "I would recommend that other districts use Twitter to communicate with employees, because as our working population becomes younger, they are more in tune with using technology in the work environment," according to Wilson. "As educators we should always seek new ways to stay current."
Fostering Community Feedback
Aungst in Tempe schools says the social aspects of the Web sites offer advantages, including the opening of communication between administrators and parents or other community members. Aungst acknowledges that there is a risk that people will use social media to write inappropriate comments.
Although districts can't prescreen public comments to a Facebook page, they can delete offensive or inappropriate material when it appears. "In the end, I think the fact that we are trying to communicate with as many different people as possible only will help make our schools stronger," he says.
Aungst hopes that the further outreach with social media will help the public better understand the Tempe school district and its goals. Facebook has allowed the district to post details and photos of school activities, inform community members about events, and share important information on the H1N1 issue. "One-way communication allows us to tell our story to various stakeholders," he says. "Getting feedback from this communication—both positive and negative—allows us to assess, evaluate and ultimately improve the educational services we provide."
This risk of inappropriate public comments caused the Lincoln district to approach social networking Web sites with some caution, Fitzgerald says. The district sees the Web sites as venues for district-provided communication, not for two-way dialogues. "We are not looking at this as a two-way street for the community to talk back to us," Fitzgerald says. "We are simply looking for a way to get our news out to the community."
So far, there have been few comments to the Lincoln district's Facebook page, he says, adding that offensive comments would be deleted when seen.
A Constant Evolution
In the fast-changing world of social networking, districts will have to continue to adapt to new technologies, Aungst says. "What we increasingly have become more aware of is that it's constantly evolving," he says. "What Facebook was in its first days is not the way it is today." And it probably won't be the same tomorrow, when a "new" Facebook or Twitter emerges on the scene.
Kevin Butler is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.