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Feature                                                  Pages 44-47

 

Connecting With Social Media 

Through his dissertation study, the author documents the vitality of Twitter and blogging in the hands of superintendents

BY DANIEL D. COX

When I first heard about Twitter a few years ago, I thought it sounded like a ridiculous idea. Why would I care to know whether a Hollywood celebrity was at a fancy restaurant or the hottest L.A. nightclub or working out at the gym? In the same respect, why would I care to know if my friends or acquaintances were headed to the Olive Garden, CrossFit and the like?

I didn’t.

So I chose not to sign up.

By not having a Twitter account, I avoided the triviality that got passed around as meaningful sharing in 140 characters or less. Bullet dodged.

DanCox
Dan Cox (top left), superintendent in Charles City, Iowa, joined high school students while they used Twitter and updated Facebook pages.

But then I started to notice that Twitter might have value for me. Big news events were being shared in real time, like the US Airways jet landing on the Hudson River, the Arab Spring uprisings and much more. Teachers I knew were talking about how they were connecting with fellow educators, authors and classrooms around the world to enhance their own students’ learning.

So in October 2011, I jumped in. I quickly experienced what a valuable tool Twitter could be. Now I tweet, blog and record podcasts and have started a Facebook account for the 1,600-student school district I serve in northern Iowa. A year ago, while working as a middle school principal, I wrote my doctoral dissertation about school administrators who were using social media tools to communicate with their employees, students, parents and community members.

Under the direction of Scott McLeod, formerly an associate professor of educational administration at Iowa State University and one of the nation’s leading experts on K-12 school technology leadership, I interviewed 12 superintendents from across the United States and Canada to learn more about their experiences. As a doctoral student and future superintendent, I was curious to find out more about the experiences of these superintendents and how their stories could assist current and prospective school administrators in their communication efforts.

The administrators I interviewed all used at least two forms of social media. All 12 of them blogged, and nine were active on Twitter. Some also made use of social networking sites, podcasts and online videos.

Theme 1: Transparency
Nine of the superintendents had begun using social media because they believed it enabled them to be much more transparent with the public. Many times, reporters have to pare down long responses to fit within the confines of the time or space that an editor allots for a news story. Or, perhaps more importantly, the paper won’t print the district’s story (or side of the story) at all.

With social media, the school district can bypass traditional media altogether. When a superintendent writes a blog post or creates a podcast, a message can be conveyed in its entirety. A quick tweet or Facebook post with the link to the blog or podcast directs even more stakeholders to the message the superintendent wanted to share.

Tony Voss, superintendent in Hudson, Iowa, asked the editor of the local newspaper to print his weekly blog so that it would reach a much larger audience than just those people who were reading it online. In his blog posts, he shares information about the discussions that take place at school board meetings and the board’s decisions. The response from the community has been favorable. “I hear time and time again from the stakeholders in the community that they appreciate the fact that there is so much transparency. I hear the word transparency over and over and over again,” Voss says.

A superintendent in a Western state shared similar thoughts about being transparent with stakeholders. He recognized that many citizens do not know what superintendents do and question why they get paid so much money. He embraced blogging, Facebook, Twitter and the use of online video as communication tools. In his view, “the more that we can tell our stories about what it is we’re actually doing, I think really helps change that narrative a little bit.”

Theme 2: Impact
Eight of the 12 superintendents spoke at length about the impact that social media tools, especially Twitter, had upon their personal and professional growth and development. The most-mentioned reference was the development of a personal learning network. They valued the ability to select the individuals with whom to interact, learn and grow.

For several superintendents, Twitter had become their primary source for professional development. It became a place to get resources quickly, such as walk-through templates for iPads or ideas on educational reform issues. It also had become a place simply to learn from noted figures in education.

Michael Smith, superintendent in the rural Illinois community of Tuscola, has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter and has tweeted more than 23,000 times. He also is the author of the self-proclaimed No. 1 read superintendent blog in the world!

“Twenty years ago, it would just be me sitting here at my desk doing my work affecting the kids I have in the district,” Smith shared as we chatted about his engagement in social media. “But I have been able to bring things in from the outside and learn things that I never would have gotten an opportunity without a blog or website.” Or, clearly, without being engaged in the Twitterverse.

Theme 3: Interactions
Each of the 12 superintendents in my study either had gone completely digital in their communications practices or had made use of social media tools as a complement to traditional forms of communicating with stakeholders. Superintendents with large, established blog followings or Twitter networks were more likely to achieve two-way dialogue with stakeholders through their postings.

For some, the interactions came through replies to tweets or blog posts. For others, the tweets and blog posts led to an increase in face-to-face communication. Sam Miller, superintendent in Solon, Iowa, has had patrons approach him at the local coffeehouse and remark, “You know, I saw on your blog that you posted (topic). Why do you think that way?”

Miller initially was hesitant to blog. At the urging of his district’s director of technology, he started doing so. “I was too humble to think that [blogging] was a worthy thing,” he said when we spoke in his office. Miller noted that, in his first year of blogging, he generated more than 10,000 hits. “I was kind of surprised at even that level of interest.”

Several superintendents discovered journalists were quick to follow them on Twitter as a way of generating potential news stories. A superintendent from a rural school district in the South had built a good relationship with the local media. With no TV coverage in their area, reporters from the local radio stations and newspapers kept up with his blog and occasionally referred folks back to his site for more information on a given topic.

Theme 4: Expectation
Each of the 12 superintendents either explicitly stated or implied that social media use is no longer optional. One superintendent from the Northeast summed it up this way: “It isn’t like you would use the tools just to communicate with stakeholders. You have to use it to advance your own professional knowledge to operate your organization.” He added, “It’s just part and parcel of the expectation today of how you would operate as a district leader.”

Another superintendent from the South shared this analogy: “It’s like, once the printing press was developed and widely used, why would you use parchment?” Another participant bluntly stated: “I just think it’s going to be a way of life; we’re all connected, whether we want to be or not. We’re going to have to communicate that way.”

Voss, in Hudson, Iowa, injected a little humor on the subject. “Yeah, you might push the wrong button and delete everything or you might post it before you’re ready, but that’s the only way to learn. … You gotta take some initiative and you gotta just try it. That’s my advice.”

Sparking Ideas
“I’m glad you’re doing this study,” a Boston-area superintendent told me as she and I wrapped up our telephone conversation about her use of Twitter and a superintendent blog to communicate with her stakeholders. “I think it’s an important study just to call attention to the topic. Sometimes we can be a bit of a Luddite in these jobs, so it’s good to have people spark our thinking.”

Unlike the Luddites of the early 1800s, superintendents cannot afford to ignore the powerful impact that can be achieved by communicating with employees, students, parents and community members via social media, especially Twitter and blogs. Those sharing ideas and information through one or more social media tools are growing rapidly. Superintendents ought to be among those operating in the Twitterverse.

Dan Cox is superintendent of the Charles City Community School District in Charles City, Iowa. E-mail: dancoxphd@gmail.com. Twitter: @DanCoxPhD. Scott McLeod, director of innovation at Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency in Pocahontas, Iowa, contributed to this article.

 

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