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Why communication is hard

I’ve spent this weekend and the week leading up to it thinking about the various ways we, as a school, can improve our communication methods. I went through this process at my last school as well, and after consideration of the problem again I’ve come to this conclusion – setting up the channels with the technology available is easy, but making sure it is both sustained and valued by the community is hard. We’re constantly fighting the battle of content that dates quickly, and the increasing demands on teacher time that ultimately mean a reluctance to write-up content, especially if it needs to be done multiple times for multiple publications.

To combat this, we’re going to be using a set up that I’ve had in place in the past and ties everything we use together very nicely. The school has a number of tools at its disposal*:

  • The school website
  • Schoology (our LMS platform)
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google +
  • A mobile App (for both iOS and Android)
  • An online calendar (powered by Google calendar and Outlook)
  • A WordPress installation
  • Digital displays throughout the school buildings
  • Regular pastoral care sessions with students

* I should point out that for the purposes of this discussion I’m leaving out direct teacher-parent or school-parent communications over student-specific issues – that still tends to occur via email and phone calls and can’t be beaten when there is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed.

Interestingly enough, of all of the above tools the one that is the least flexible for us is the website, and yet for many prospective families looking to enrol their kids it is the website that is likely going to be their first point of contact. So I feel that whatever the strategy, what we need to ensure is that the website doesn’t get neglected – it is the one place where content is most likely to date quickly and become less relevant for our school community.

As we redesign the website, we’ll be making sure that those parts that don’t tend to change often (such as our Principal’s greeting or the rundown of our timetable structure) are kept to a minimum, and instead aim to feed as much of the regular activity that takes place in the school through to a regularly updating news feed that is front and centre of the user’s view.

To integrate all of the above into a single communications channel, here’s how I intend to set everything up:

How the various channels are linked together

How the various channels are linked together

As you can see, when the tools are all linked together data only has to be entered into one of two locations, either the calendar (for dates and events) or the WordPress blog (for news articles/information). The information is then fed, via various plugins, application integration tools or RSS feeds, into our other communication channels, many of which families can then subscribe to in their favourite social application.

Right now there is no easy way to push the updates from WordPress to Schoology, nor is there an integrated solution that I like for a calendar/news solution (although I will be looking into that – a single point of data entry would be fantastic). However, one of the great things the Schoology developers have done is they have made an App API available for other developers to use to integrate their applications into Schoology. I haven’t investigated it in detail yet, but I’m thinking there may be an opportunity to at least bridge one of those gaps in the chain.

So now that everything is linked up, the next step is ensuring regular content is published to keep our community engaged. We’re tackling this by providing every teacher with an account to the WordPress blog with authoring privileges, and providing some professional learning to hep those for whom blogging is new to learn the ropes. Since we need to ensure we’re publishing accurate and quality articles, teachers will submit their items for review, and identified staff in the school will then become our sub-editors, reviewing the posts for any errors, omissions or anything else that may need to be fixed up before publishing.

We want the articles to be both reflective and forward-looking – we want celebrations of the great things the school has done in the past (posted within a day or two of the event), and posts about upcoming events and activities we want the community to engage in. In that way we give everyone a reason to visit, whether it be hearing about an event they were unable to attend or finding out about an activity that is approaching and needs their involvement to be successful.

However one of the criticisms of this kind of approach that I have had directed at me at the past is that there are many families that don’t want to have to visit the website every day, or to subscribe to the site and get a barrage of emails or posts on their feeds each time a new article is posted. Some people still prefer the good old newsletter – either an email or printed copy. Thankfully, there’s a WordPress plugin for that, and we’ll be ensuring that for those people who prefer the good-old-fashioned fortnightly email everything that gets posted to the blog (it’ll do tweets as well!) in the previous two week period is bundled up and sent to their inboxes.

So that’s a run down of our strategy from a technical standpoint – to eliminate the need for extra work required to draft additional items for a newsletter and reformat existing content into a different publication. The idea is that a write-once, publish everywhere strategy will mean staff are more willing to contribute regularly. With the number of staff we have and the number of events that happen at the school, I’m thinking that if each staff member posted one article every month, we’d have a vibrant, regularly changing online presence that will keep all of our parents and community partners interested and engaged in our activities at the school.

Hopefully, and I’m feeling pretty optimistic, we’ll be able to overcome the hard point of communication – the regular updates and ongoing engagement – and take advantage of the power this technical setup provides.