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Unshackle Your Team

Teacher-unshackleHaving guidelines and rules for public dissemination of information, photographs, video and even text is something every organization needs to do in some fashion. But if the obstacles you put in place for self-publishing and communication are so formidable, the normal human reaction is to do nothing or the resulting content is so bland and vanilla that no one consumes it, and I'm afraid that the latter is most often the case in the K-12 websites and external communications I, and others I know, have reviewed.

In the spring of this year I took several hours over multiple weeks to review the websites of the top 100 school districts. After having reviewed thousands of "Web 2.0" sites over the last 3+ years, I've developed a keen sense of what it takes to deliver a robust, easy to navigate, and communicative website that's intuitive and simple to use, and wanted to see what they looked like and offered.

For the most part, most of these districts delivered content well and with good navigation. What I was stunned by was the lack of any conversational tone in the writing or of the use of blogs as any kind of primary communication mechanism. If the latter was available (and a few sites did link to blogs) in every case I found the link I clicked jumped out to a Blogger, Wordpress.com or Edublogs hosted blog. They were not integrated within the site itself which, of course, says two things to me:

1) Blogs are not important enough to be integrated in to the website or core to district communication

2) These districts are still rooted in yesterday's communication paradigm: anything published has to be vetted, well scrubbed, and delivered in a mostly static way.

In conversations I've had with district operational and instructional technology leaders, the one thing that pops out over and over again is the necessity to limit and severely restrict the ability for teachers and staff to self-publish. 

The private sector has already dealt with that problem and is well past that paradigm and on a way to a new one: trust in employees coupled with an absolute minimum amount of guidelines, rules or regulations.  

Ballmer When corporate use of blogging was new back in 2005, Microsoft had leveraged it for their evangelism group and a young guy, Robert Scoble, was instrumental in starting "Channel 9", a videoblog, and he did this interview with Steve Ballmer, CEO, in July of that year.

In it, Scoble asked Ballmer why he allowed Microsoft employees to blog. "It's important to be able to communicate to our customers and we trust our people to represent our company. There's no more risk with blogging vs. going out to see customers...and it just touches more of them with a blog. It's just a great way to communicate."

He did mention that "...and if they need more help in understanding what is and is not appropriate, we'll train them..." which is also key to helping people understand what is appropriate for a blogging venue and mitigates the risk for the organization allowing people to blog.

I've heard many, many variations on this theme over the years with "We trust them with a telephone, fax and email, don't we?" to "We publish guidelines and point out specific things to avoid and trust they'll adhere to them. At the same time, we point out specific things that could get them terminated (e.g., trade secret release; posting or linking to pornography; libel; etc.)."

Chief Information Officers (CIO) have long wrestled with employees using outside services and many companies have blocked social networks from even being accessed from behind the corporate firewall (same thing with bandwidth intensive sites like YouTube). Knowing that many of these services would be used anyway -- and that they can't block the world of websites and still enable people to get work done and participate online -- means that this is a constantly shifting space.

My advice? Start with a public message to all teachers and staff that you are radically changing the communication priorities and now encouraging them to blog.

Set forth blogging guidelines and place guardrails along the road toward these superior communications. Your teachers and staff undoubtedly know exactly what can and cannot be disclosed publicly, but you still need to create a set of guidelines and be specific about what is acceptable, what is not, and what could get them terminated (though much of the last one can simply refer to policies you already have in place for inappropriate or illegal acts).

Here are some solid resources and food-for-thought to get you going:

a) 50 Useful Blogging Tools for Teachers

b) Blogging in Education: Practical Theory

c) IBM Social Computing Guidelines

d) Harvard Law School Weblogs Guidelines

e) Copyright and Fair Use in Teaching from the Center for Social Media at the School for Communication, American University

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.