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U.S. Education Department Offers Tips to Districts, States on Social Media Use

While most states and districts are either using or planning to use Twitter and Facebook, developing the capacity to use those social media platforms effectively—and to expand their presence on newer platforms—remains a challenge, according to research and related documents recently released by the U.S. Department of Education.

In May, the department's Reform Support Network, which works to support states and districts that have won grants as part of the federal Race to the Top program, released the findings of a survey and follow-up research involving 23 states and 11 districts.

Starting last month, the department began releasing a series of "social media tip sheets" covering topics such as "innovative engagement," "building capacity," and "driving success through smart policies."

The documents highlight efforts by a number of state education agencies, including:

Colorado, which has a 14-page "social media plan" that covers background on social media and various platforms; key definitions and explanations  (of hashtags, for example); a listing of key audiences; and proactive strategies for maximizing the benefits of each platform. "Often, and by necessity, social media policies focus more on what cannot and should not be done on interactive social media than what it takes to drive success," the RSN document reads. "States that have the most success on social media take the greatest care in explaining the medium, its unique phraseology, and the rules of the road to internal audiences." Kentucky, New York, and Ohio are also mentioned for their effective social media policies.

Georgia, which the RSN document identifies as a prime example of effective social media use, including on newer platforms such as Pinterest, which allows users to bookmark and share visual images related to their projects and interests. "The Georgia Department of Education's Pinterest page features 24 boards with different topic areas such as 'GA's Awesome Teachers,' and separate folders for Common Core Georgia Performance Standards in mathematics, English language arts, and others." (Georgia is also credited for its social media guidelines for staff and policy of encouraging a variety of staffers to maintain Twitter accounts on topics of special interest, such as migrant education.) Alabama, Arizona, and Florida also make use of Pinterest, which the RSN document describes as a platform heavily trafficked by educators.

Rhode Island, where state education commissioner Deborah Gist has amassed over 9,600 Twitter followers and has been known to tweet as many as 45 times in a single day. According to the RSN tip sheet, the Rhode Island education department "decided to use Gist as their primary social media voice because people are always more compelling to follow than a faceless institution." Kentucky, New York, and Ohio are identified as other states that use a similar "lead storyteller" approach.

It's not all warm and fuzzy in the documents. States also struggle with inadequate staff or time to feed the social media beast (hey, that sounds familiar...) and concerns that the often-informal content and tone on platforms like Twitter can lead to hot water for public officials.

A fourth and final tip sheet from the RSN is expected soon.

Follow @BenjaminBHerold and @EdWeekEdTech for the latest news on ed-tech policies, practices, and trends.

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