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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Transforming Your School with Digital Communication

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Learning to use social media can enhance your school's public image, your community connections, and your students' learning.

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In 2009, as principal at New Milford High School in New Jersey, I made a small change that ultimately transformed my leadership style and my school. I shifted from using traditional forms of communication with families and community members—newsletters and e-mail—to using social media. With a click of a mouse, I set up my Twitter account and changed the course of my instructional leadership.
Twitter was my first step in a social media communication strategy that expanded to include a range of tools and approaches. What made these tools different from any I'd used before was their power to reach in all directions. Whether sending updates on school cancellations or tweeting about great student projects, with a few keystrokes, I could share ideas and information with students, students' families, community members, and the larger world—while inviting everyone's responses.
This transformation involved more than new tools. My colleagues and I had to make pedagogical and philosophical shifts, which had a deep impact on New Milford's students and our community. Each of these transformations was powerful for me personally. Watching my colleagues and me learn new things, reach out across geographic divides, and take risks offered a powerful model for students.
As I leveraged social media to enhance our school's impact on learning and our image, I discovered key principles for effectively communicating through digital tools: transparency, flexibility, and accessibility.

Tapping the Power of Transparency

The power of using social media rests in the ability to engage stakeholders in two-way communications. Tools like Instagram, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube let me share information about New Milford more frequently and accurately and provide updates in real time—which engaged more stakeholders than traditional methods had. Teachers, parents, and even outsiders began contributing ideas to New Milford's work.
For this to happen, I had to commit to a new level of transparency and openness. This sometimes meant sharing challenges as well as successes and opening myself to feedback from anyone.
This was the case when I tackled the grading culture at New Milford High School in 2012. At the time, our grading policies were similar to those of most U.S. schools. However, after reviewing the latest research on grading and considering what was best for our students, I knew our current behaviors had to change. Getting detailed information to everyone in the community would be crucial.
The grading shift was one of the most difficult changes to make. When I broke the news to my staff that we were going to revise our grading culture, they reacted with questions, skepticism, and resentment. During initial conversations, I presented up-to-date research, some of which I gathered through social media, to serve as a foundation for changing our system. Social media also enabled me to share with staff perspectives on grading from other educators across the Unites States. Showing teachers how their colleagues in other schools were tackling grading to make learning assessments more beneficial for students went a long way in moving this change forward.
Together, we tackled difficult questions (What does a letter grade actually mean? How do you measure student learning?). A group of teacher volunteers helped establish new grading guidelines and support structures focused on student learning. These included
  • Using multiple forms of assessment.
  • Promoting retests and retakes.
  • Eliminating zeros; students had to keep trying until they got a score of 50 or higher on any graded assignment.
  • Requiring teachers to meet seven criteria before they gave any student a failing course grade.
To ensure that parents and students were fully aware of the changes and why we made them, I began posting about these new policies on my principal's blog. Before adopting social media, I would have written a traditional memo about the new policies—that might or might not have made it to parents—and placed the information on the school's website. Visibility and access to the information would have been limited. We did place the information in the student handbook, which was linked to from the school website, but blogging enhanced the chances that the entire school community would see it. I pushed out the message using an arsenal of social media tools and our school app, with a hyperlink to my blog posts included.
I received a tsunami of tweets and comments on the blog. Many comments were from other educators offering insights on grading philosophy, including feedback from colleagues around the world as my posts were shared. A handful were from parents asking for more clarification. One student commented openly in support of creating a system that focused more on learning than on quality stamping effort with letters and numbers. A greater discussion on effective grading practices transpired before my eyes.
Reviewing and responding to this feedback took time, but as a leader looking to improve ineffective practices, I felt it was time well spent. The transparency and open dialogue allowed us to build stakeholder support.
Many comments supported our rationale for creating a different system, comments representing different points of view challenged my thinking and afforded me the opportunity to further refine the grading changes we'd made. One comment focused on the importance of avoiding a situation in which one major project has the potential to very negatively affect a student's overall grade. With this information in hand, we made sure to shape our policy to avoid this scenario.

Flexibility: Checking How Our Community Wanted to Communicate

One important aspect of our approach was involving students, parents, teachers, and community members in shaping the tools and processes we would use to communicate. We invited many stakeholders into our leadership and decision-making process.
Students, teachers, and administrators collaborated to develop our school communication app in partnership with a company called Beeonics. The only way we could create a tool that met everyone's needs was to invite representatives from the community to lead the design process. This team shaped the app's requirements and features, a process that involved both face-to-face brainstorming and eliciting feedback through online tools like Facebook and Google Apps.
The result was an app that supported communication in every direction: between students and teachers, between families and school staff, and across the faculty. It enabled students to check grades and submit work, teachers to share assignments and information, and parents to easily connect with teachers and view student progress. It also made it much easier for me to share updates and announcements quickly with all members of the school community.
This experience helped cultivate leadership skills across our student body. It also made clear to families that they were a valued part of the school community. And modeling transparency in school policy changes set an expectation of transparency across the school. Students' focus, too, shifted to sharing work and getting feedback at all levels, including creating work for a wider audience. This increased the quality of work across the board.

Expanding Access to Learning

Digital connections helped me grow professionally. Through Twitter, I discovered like-minded, passionate educators from all over the world. When struggling with a challenge, I could collect diverse ideas—more than my staff and I could have generated—from these colleagues. I engaged in conversations that ultimately improved my professional practice. How liberating to acquire new knowledge, resources, ideas, and feedback from anyone anywhere—while sitting at home in my pajamas!
For the longest time, I felt that professional development was something done to me. It lacked meaning and rarely helped me acquire skills and knowledge that enabled me to create a better school culture. Social media put me on a path to becoming the driver of my own professional learning.
Inspired to offer this kind of learning to my entire school, I began sharing with groups of teachers several ideas, strategies, and tools I'd acquired from my personal learning network. We worked as a team to create a shared vision for integrating social media to enhance teachers' learning, with an emphasis on free web-based tools. At targeted learning sessions after school, I demonstrated how to integrate these tools to enhance learning. Teachers chose from a variety of topics throughout the school year. I followed up with teachers who attended—and used social media to celebrate their successes! As we removed the fear of failure and provided necessary support for a culture of experimentation, teachers began to leverage their newfound autonomy and online tools.
Soon, instructional practices shifted and students also began to harness social media to support their own learning. Rather than limiting themselves to the expertise available within our school, students became part of a global classroom, drawing on expertise from leaders and thinkers around the world.
To provide students and teachers with access to this global classroom, I also needed to make sure the path was clear. Many districts block social media sites to "protect" students. Policies like these can be counterproductive; students will access social media outside school, so why not provide a supportive environment in which they learn to use these tools productively and safely? Digital leaders' work involves helping community and district leaders understand the power of social media for learning and creating tech policies that support access.

Sharing Positive News

From Communications Boost to Public Relations Strategy

Once students and staff embraced this shift of learning from—and sharing with—a wider network, my job was to communicate this positive change far and wide. New Milford's communications strategy evolved into a powerful public relations strategy of targeted blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates. These communications about the work taking place in our school caught the eye of national media outlets, which began producing news stories focused on our innovative practices.
Educators make a difference every day, but mainstream media often focus on the negative stories. Subtle but hopeful stories—such as a teacher's conversion to a paperless digital learning environment—go unseen and unheard. Social media give school leaders the means to shape and share their school's narrative on their own terms, to highlight the everyday successes and hard work of students and teachers.

Amplifying Students' Stories

As well as raising New Milford's profile and enabling school leaders to tell a more nuanced, optimistic story about our work, digital communication tools empowered students to tell their stories to new audiences. This was the case with a presentation created with digital tools and shared through social media by sophomore Sarah Almeda.
As part of our Academies program, in addition to the added coursework students must complete to receive an Academies certification, students engage in authentic learning activities—field trips or special projects—outside the school day. For one such project, students read Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative by Ken Robinson (Capstone, 2011); watched a video on the importance of creativity in learning; then created a presentation sharing their creative experiences with their Academies group. Students could use any format they wanted—a written document, poster, collage, pin board through Pinterest, or any other media or combination thereof—as long as they answered these questions:
  • Tell about your creative self and how you are creative.
  • When do you feel the most inspired?
  • What stifles your creativity?
  • Tell about (at least) one other person whose creativity you admire.
  • What do schools need to do better to enhance students' creativity? Provide an example of something that helped you be more creative—or that would have helped you.
In the resulting presentations, student after student explained the essential role of creativity in their learning—and how they yearned for freedom over how they might demonstrate their present and emerging learning. All students shone as they presented meaningful learning artifacts that reflected their own choices and voices.
Sarah's video (created with a graphics tablet, Bamboo Pad, the iMovie editing program, and QuickTime to record, on the computer screen, Sarah in the act of drawing) was one of the most thought-provoking student presentations I've seen. Not only was it created entirely through self-directed learning, it also sent a strong message about the power of creativity. In the video, Sarah articulated how schools strip creativity away from students and how schools could change this situation.
Social media amplified Sarah's voice and took her project to a whole new level. She uploaded her completed video to YouTube, and we were able to share her project well beyond our school community. To date, it's been viewed more than 10,000 times. With her permission, I shared the link to her video through my Twitter and other social media accounts and posted it on the school Facebook page. Other students, teachers, and schools could now see Sarah's exemplary work. Ken Robinson himself commented on Sarah's project on Twitter and posted the YouTube link to it on his official Facebook page.

The Most Important Transformation

To use social media effectively, I had to see myself as a learner, not just a leader. Making the shift from traditional to digital leadership demanded that I question my own assumptions, acknowledge how much I don't know, take risks, and learn from failure. This transition from a fixed to a growth mind-set was probably the most important component of the transformation at my school.
Just as teachers differentiate instruction for a variety of learning styles in the classroom, school leaders should differentiate our communication efforts if we want true partnerships between home and school. As leaders, we have the power to shape the culture of our schools. Using social media and digital tools as a lever, we can open the door to new ways of learning, thinking, and communicating for all members of our community.
End Notes

1 Sheninger, E. (2014). Digital leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times. Thousand Oaks: CA: Corwin Press

2 In 2013, Newsweek identified New Milford High School as one of the top 2,000 U.S. high schools (and I immediately took to Twitter to share the article)!

Eric Sheninger is an Associate Partner and thought leader on digital leadership and learning with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). His work is focused on leading and learning in the digital age as a model for moving schools and districts forward.

Prior to this, he was an award-winning principal at New Milford High School. Sheninger oversaw the successful implementation of several sustainable change initiatives that radically transformed the learning culture at his school while increasing achievement. Under his leadership, his school became a globally recognized model for innovative practices. He is a CDE Top 30 award recipient, Bammy Award winner, and has authored and coauthored several books, including Digital Leadership.

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