Twitter’s user base grew to more than 75 million subscribers in 2009, with its number of unique visitors increasing by 1,382% from 2008. Through its explosive growth and mainstream acceptance over the past two years, Twitter now offers schools and districts the opportunity to reach stakeholders via a new, preferred communications method. Adults over the age of 25 are Twitter’s fastest growing demographic group, a key audience for educational institutions serving parents, community members, and business leaders.
During the recent CoSN 2010 Conference, we hosted a Birds of a Feather Roundtable session, “All a ‘Twit About Twitter,” on using Twitter as a school and district communications tool. (CoSN is a professional organization for school district technology leaders.) A small online survey that C. Blohm & Associates conducted on Twitter use in K-12 education prior to the conference indicated that while more than half the respondents (district CTOs, CIOs, and other education leaders registered for the conference) and their school systems have a Twitter account, many struggle with how to use the communication tool effectively.
During our roundtable session, educators posed questions about what to tweet, why Twitter is better for communications than other methods and for what purposes, and how to get their school or district leaders to approve its use, since some institutions block the Twitter Web site. These are all important questions to answer before an educational institution or its administrators begin tweeting. Twitter profiles can be kept private and used for communication and collaboration among teachers and staff, for building online communities of practice by connecting with education experts, or for organizing school projects among teachers and groups of students. There are also services like Edmodo that allow for safe use of microblogging tools in education.
The main point we wanted to share with the group and with our readers here, is this: schools and districts (as well as education companies!) can use Twitter to engage stakeholders, foster teamwork, build support, and improve relationships, providing outreach that is critical for a successful education system. Twitter is not just another communications method to incorporate into the mix; it’s a mainstream platform gaining widespread use, offering the opportunity for authentic, two-way communication, and providing benefits unavailable from other media. In a society increasingly bombarded with information and ever more time-constrained, Twitter enables users to seek out their personal interests, and connect quickly with like-minded people through synchronous and asynchronous online conversations.
During the session, we discussed numerous ways educational institutions can use Twitter: emergency notifications; alerting parents, community members, and media to school events; sharing staff and student successes; generating support for critical initiatives; and recruiting new teachers and staff.
We outlined some key guidelines for successful Twitter use, including:
- Establish the organization’s goals for Twitter use (i.e., how often to tweet, what types of information to share on Twitter, results you’d like to see from using Twitter, etc.)
- Limit Twitter messages to 120 characters to allow people to easily retweet your message, which helps your school build visibility and reach a broader audience.
- Include links in your tweets. Send readers to the school or district Web site, to newsworthy stories online, or to great videos or pictures that showcase students and staff in your school or district. Recent research shows tweets with links are retweeted more often.
- Communicate important school news announcements, event information, and reports, but avoid jargon and technical terms – keep it informal and light whenever possible.
- Be community-minded (i.e., retweet, share helpful info, answer questions).
- Post regularly and respond to replies, mentions and direct messages in a timely manner.
- Don’t tweet excessively, or tweet only about you/your school or district.
- Don’t communicate like a robot; offer personal insights, comments; be authentic.
- Track conversations to understand which topics engage your community in conversation. URL-shortening services such as bit.ly enable you to track the number of clicks and retweets.
- Listen regularly for comments about you, your staff or your district as a cue to join the discussion, address concerns, correct errors or misperceptions, or just to say thank you. You can set up searches for key terms or hashtags in many of the Twitter desktop applications, or clients, such as TweetDeck and HootSuite.
We’d love to get your feedback on this topic. Let us know if you find this information helpful, and share examples on how you are using Twitter to achieve your organizational goals.