Leveraging Technology:
Charter schools need to embrace new and effective online technologies to connect families and prospective students

Written By: Robert Fanger, President and COO of Fanger PR
Published by: Indiana Charter Schools Today; Charter School Business
Date: Sept. 15, 2009

No matter where you turn, technology is staring you in the face. It’s at your home, on your desk, in your pocket or attached to your belt with one of those nifty little clips.

But as technology has exploded and become a pervasive part of our lives, charter schools have been slow to leverage these new capabilities to their advantage. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about software for teacher planning, grading, or calendars. No, I’m delving into the use of technology to communicate.

Nearly 66 percent of Hoosiers have Internet access from some location, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2007. A 2008 Harris Interactive poll shows that 89 percent of adults use cell phones and some major cell phone providers report that about 70 percent of their customers are texting – a number the United Kingdom reached four years ago.

It’s obvious we haven’t reached full saturation, but the growth has risen dramatically from just five years ago. And the trend should continue.

Yet, a cursory glance of Indiana charter schools shows that very few are utilizing their websites, texting, e-mailing, or using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, RSS feeds, or blogs to their fullest extents, if at all.

Gone is the time when a website served as an electronic brochure with static content. Now, these sites should be connecting the school with its families. It should be a place for news, calendars and updates. To take it a level further, the site should bring the families together – uniting them and creating a cohesive network of stakeholders. This would give parents the ability to interact with other parents in the school and strengthen their commitment.

Creating Charter 2.0

Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr have millions of daily users and provide plenty of opportunity for charters to connect families and to keep the community informed of school and student achievements.

An online social networking site that allows users to create profiles, post updates, photos, links and other pertinent information. The site has reached nearly 300 million monthly users. Charter schools can create school profiles and allow other users to become fans.

This application has grown in use due to the number of high profile celebrities, athletes, politicians and corporations that use the site. While smaller than Facebook, its concentration primarily on 160-words-or-less updates lets charter schools keep their followers in the loop.

Have video will travel. This site lets its users post videos that can be shared with others. It even makes embedding the videos into the charter school’s own website quick and easy. This provides an effective way to distribute TV commericials, testimonials and speeches.

Similar to YouTube, except it concentrates on still images. Photographs and captions can be posted to the site by users who create an account. Sharing photos from graduation, sport events, community events, etc. is simple and lets charter schools document their success.

While only 66 percent of Indiana citizens have Internet access, those who do maintain some sort of e-mail program. A regular e-mail communication plan needs to be established with these families – of course the recipients will need to opt in. To pick up the slack on the number of families not using the Internet, which tends to increase the lower the income, charter schools should implement technology that allows for cell phone text blasts. Again, those recipients should be ones who have opted in to receive messages. Numerous providers can be found to facilitate such messaging, but to do so requires a change of thinking in how you collect information and what types of messages to send.

Some schools have implemented above average websites and e-mail campaigns, but few have turned to Web 2.0 applications to further these efforts.

Facebook is an online community, and the largest social networking site, that boasts close to 300 million worldwide, monthly users. The premise is simple. A user creates an account, adds friends, provides updates, uploads photos and completes numerous other additions to build a profile. Additionally, businesses and organizations can take advantage of the capabilities and create pages for their own causes. Not only does this make it possible for charter school families and students to connect, but it also helps keep communication lines open with alumni. And you’ll find that other people within the community, government and media will add your organization as a friend or become a fan.

Twitter operates slightly different than Facebook. Instead of building full profiles, the primary objective of Twitter is to provide your “followers” with status updates, links, or announcements limited to 160-word posts. The profile of Twitter has risen tremendously as celebrities and athletes use the application to update their fans. But it has taken a much bigger role as many news sites, government officials and businesses use Twitter for updates.

YouTube is a widely known site that allows everyday users to post their own videos. For instance, a charter school could create its own channel and then post television advertisements, testimonials, speeches, etc. to the site to share with the world. Another benefit is that YouTube makes it easy to embed the videos in a website, so is an efficient way to post the video, make it available and build traffic.

RSS feeds are a web tool that would be added to a charter school site to help distribute news and calendar updates. Users can subscribe to the feed and receive the information as soon as it is updated on the website. News aggregators like Google News integrate feeds into their search capabilities. This means that if you post a new article and someone happens to have matching keywords, that person will get an e-mail linking them to your site for the article. RSS feeds are also widely used in the blogosphere.

Blogs can either be a website or an application within a website and feature regular, if not daily, commentary, events or multimedia. These also provide readers with the opportunity to leave comments or jumpstart a conversation. A charter school approach could arm its principal with the capability to blog about the school, its events, achievements, etc. on a regular basis.

There are many more applications that are at a charter school’s disposal. For instance, the website Flickr provides a channel for users to share photographs.
The first step, however, is to understand what options exist, then develop a Web 2.0 or social networking strategy. It is important that a clear path be created to drive these efforts. Processes are just as important as the content in order to get the most return on the investment of time and energy.

Take this scenario: a charter school is preparing to release news about its graduation ceremony. In addition to writing the content, photos would be taken at the event, as well as video footage. Perhaps a short interview or testimonial would be obtained and written with the valedictorian. The footage would be posted on the school’s YouTube channel, which could then easily be integrated into the page created on the school’s website for the news. Next, the news update and footage could be added to Facebook and Twitter; both provide links back to the website. The principal blogs about the graduation while RSS feeds pick up the content and push it out further into the community. This all would be done in addition to any e-mail or text blasts that have been sent out.

Internet communications technology and the process associated with it need to be an integral part of any school’s communications plan. When done effectively, more and more people voicing their support for the school will become visible. This will only provide more leverage behind the effort to improve recruitment, strengthen reputation and cement status within the community.