In the aftermath of the May 22 deadly tornado that devastated a large section of Joplin, Mo., school officials faced a communications crisis as they tried to assess the damage inflicted on the district and how they should move forward. Critical information had to be collected and disseminated—which schools had been damaged or destroyed, when or if classes were likely to resume, where people who needed assistance could find it—but the normal channels were disrupted.
Cell phone service in the area had been lost; and many families of students, teachers and staff members had been left homeless. The most effective place for communicating with the Joplin community, as well as those beyond the city concerned about the catastrophe, was the district’s Facebook page.
"Facebook was how we communicated with people," says Joplin school superintendent C.J. Huff. "It was the primary tool for getting information."
Facebook and other social media sites such as Twitter have become a primary information vehicle not just in Joplin, and not just in a crisis. Facebook says it has more than 800 million active users worldwide; Twitter says a billion messages—"tweets"—are sent on its site each week.
With such a prominent place in today’s society—especially in the lives of students—social media sites are a tool that schools and universities can’t ignore as they strive to provide a better learning environment for students and to manage schools more effectively.
"Facebook is where the kids are," says Huff. "That’s where we need to be."
Spreading the word
Joplin had a Facebook page before the tornado struck. It typically included routine messages about coming events or announcements about student and staff achievements. But after May 22, the page became a vital link that helped the community begin its recovery.
"We used Facebook to help locate people who hadn’t been accounted for," says Huff. "It helped us determine the status of all of our faculty, staff and students. People were constantly monitoring it for new information."
In the days and weeks following the tornado, the Joplin Schools Facebook page informed the community that the remainder of the school year was cancelled; it reported which campuses sustained damage and how severe the damage was; it encouraged families of students and employees to call into the district so that all those affected by the tornado could be found and accounted for; it confirmed the deaths of seven Joplin students and one educator; it directed the displaced to people and agencies offering assistance; it told community members how they could apply for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency; it announced the preliminary reopening and rebuilding plans for schools; and it spread the good news when the school system or the city received a donation—whether it was $50,000 from a large corporation or a few hundred dollars from kids around the country holding bake sales, lemonade stands or car washes.
"Just the other day, a request came in on Facebook for a student needing clothes, and we heard from someone in Pennsylvania who wanted to help and overnighted a package to us," says Huff.
Now that school is back in session, and the crisis has begun to ease, Huff says the district will continue to use Facebook to enhance day-to-day student learning.
"Teachers are using Facebook to post class assignments and to communicate with students and their parents," he says. "A lot of students have dropped their email accounts and now use just Facebook."
The district still keeps its web page up to date with the latest information, but Huff says it’s more important to get the information on Facebook.
"We’ll post things on Facebook first," he says. "It reaches more people than our web site."
The rise of popularity of Facebook and Twitter has come very quickly—in many cases too fast for some education institutions to recognize its potential benefits or acknowledge possible downsides. Few schools anticipated the rise of Facebook, so few had policies to guide teachers and students about using it and other social media in a school setting.
Like any tool that schools and universities have available to improve the learning environment, as well as facilities and operations, social media networks can be beneficial if used wisely or problematic if used improperly. Social media have expanded the reach of communication and education, but they also have blurred the lines between public and private, and work and play.
In Georgia, a teacher was forced to resign when school officials were made aware of a photo of her drinking an alcoholic beverage while on vacation. In Manatee County, Fla., a high school teacher lost his job temporarily after allowing students to become Facebook friends and posting comments on a personal Facebook page that district officials considered inappropriate. The teacher was reinstated after a judge ruled that the district had established no policy regulating use of Facebook.
Earlier this summer, Missouri lawmakers, in an attempt to prevent private relationships between students and teachers from becoming incidents of sexual abuse, enacted legislation that in some interpretations, made it illegal for teachers to become Face-book friends with students. Many teachers and others objected to the law, saying it infringed on free-speech rights and prevented teachers from using what was a legitimate and effective way of communicating with students. A court injunction blocked the law from taking effect, and the legislature subsequently approved changes to the law that called upon individual districts to adopt their own policies regarding social media.
Some districts already have adopted policies regarding social media. Regulations that went into effect last month in the Francis Howell district in St. Charles, Mo., state that employees cannot use their personal social media accounts to communicate with students unless the employee and student are related. Electronic communication with students must be limited to school-related issues such as coursework or extracurricular activities. Employees are prohibited for discussing students on social networking sites and must immediately inform their supervisors when any inappropriate electronic communication has occurred.
Administrators can find more guidance about how to develop online policies by … going online. Several educators have created a wiki page—where people with knowledge about a subject are encouraged to contribute information and offer corrections and improvements—to offer suggestions for what should be included in an education institution’s social media guidelines. The overriding theme is that there are no guarantees of privacy.
Among the recommendations:
•Those who identify themselves as employees of a school should ensure their online profile and related content is consistent with how they would like themselves portrayed to co-workers, parents, and students.
•Employees using social media sites in a professional context should create two pages—one for their professional activities, and one for their personal affairs.
•Recognize that what is published on a social media site will be public for a long time. Even if items are posted on a "personal" page with the most stringent privacy settings, what is published online can be disseminated quickly and widely without the author’s involvement or permission.
•Before posting photographs, employees of an education institution should consider how the images reflect on their professionalism.
Where it all began
The popularity of Facebook pages for education institutions aren’t in the same league as the pages for Eminem, Lady Gaga or other pop icons, but many universities have attracted sizable followings. It’s somehow appropriate that the higher-education institution with the most "likes" on Facebook is the place where it all began: Harvard University.
As of the end of September, the Cambridge, Mass., school had accumulated nearly 800,000 Facebook users who "liked" the university’s page, according to PageData, which keeps track of the most popular pages on the social media site.
Mark Zuckerberg was a student at Harvard in 2004 when he and some of his classmates began putting together what has become a social media colossus with hundreds of millions of users around the world.
In addition to a general page for Harvard University, the school’s "All Harvard Social Media" web page lists more than 50 other Facebook pages related to the school—entities such as the Harvard Book Store (3,561 likes), the Harvard Graduate School of Design (8,350 likes) and the Harvard Office of Sustainability (547 likes).
Harvard also has a substantial official presence on Twitter. The university’s web page lists more than 100 Harvard-affiliated Twitter accounts.
Sidebar: Fund raising with Facebook
William Jessup University in Rocklin, Calif., used social media sites last month to raise more than $33,000 in a one-day online fund-raising effort. University officials say the program, dubbed "Give:24," used social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to urge people to give $24 on Sept. 8.
The one-day staff and faculty effort encouraged every university employee to contact 24 friends, neighbors and family members, asking them to give just $24. The school conducted business as usual throughout the 24-hour effort; all contributions were solicited via email and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which drove participants to the university website.
Half of the funds raised will support programs at the university, 40 percent will be dedicated to scholarships, and the remainder will go to charities selected by individual departments at the university.
"Social media is a powerful tool to connect with our community and build relationships," says Eric Hogue, William Jessup’s Vice President of Advancement. "We know that a large number of these contributors are new financial supporters of the university, significantly increasing our existing donor base."
|U.S. universities with most Facebook "likes"|
|Louisiana State University||497,096|
|Ohio State University||386,390|
|University of Michigan||364,608|
|University of Florida||339,000|
|University of Texas at Austin||330,419|
|Texas A&M University||296,766|
|New York Film Academy||276,383|
|University of Alabama||265,355|
|University of Oklahoma||228,671|
|Source: September 2011, PageData|
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].
After the EF-5 tornado destroyed Joplin High School, the 11th and 12th grade students will be moving into a former retail space located at Northpark Mall.