Technology has drastically altered the way that we find information, conduct research, and connect with one another. Although it has ushered in many positive societal changes — saving time and money, spurring global connectivity, and enhancing relationships — there is also a dark side, including incorrect information passing as fact, screen time reducing face time, and a terrifying increase in bullying. One area that has become increasingly complex for schools is social media, particularly the impact it has had on how families learn about schools, research their offerings, and connect with them.
Social networking did not burst on the scene, but rather evolved over decades. The first email was sent in 1971, connecting two people in remote locations, soon to be followed by bulletin board systems in 1978. The first official social networking site, Geocities, appeared in 1994, and AOL Instant Messenger launched in 1997. Fueled by the growth of the internet, social networking expanded rapidly, with Facebook launching in 2004. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, according to a recent Pew Research study, “around seven-in-ten Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.” To put that number in perspective, in 2005, only five percent of Americans used a social media platform. The growth has been explosive and pervasive — 68 percent of all U.S. adults are Facebook users, while 28 percent use Instagram, 26 percent use Pinterest, 25 percent use LinkedIn, and 21 percent use Twitter, according to the Pew study.
Social media has introduced new ways to connect globally, but it also has changed how we make purchases. According to global market research firm Mintel’s American Lifestyles 2015 report:
"Americans not only use the internet to stay connected to work, family and friends, but 69 percent seek out advice and opinions on goods and services before purchasing. Of those who seek out advice, shoppers are equally likely to visit user review sites or independent review sites before making a purchase (70 percent), while 57 percent use social media networks for recommendations."
These numbers will continue to rise as Millennials become the dominant generation of parents and employees in our schools. On the positive side, social media allows schools to establish one-to-one communication channels with families. However, on the negative side, it allows families to get information about our schools from hundreds of sources — many of which are giving bad advice and/or providing incorrect information.
In particular, ranking sites and online private and independent school forums have proliferated over the past decade. The ranking methodologies employed tend to be questionable and can be manipulated easily when online reviews are part of the ranking equation. Many online forums allow anonymous postings, so the user has no idea who is responding to the question posed nor the validity of the answer.
Yet this type of social networking site is growing in popularity. Through our own research, families tell us that they make school decisions based primarily on school visits, but many are choosing which schools to visit based on information drawn from ranking sites and forums. What’s behind the desire to use rankings, to seek out the most highly rated school? There are a number of theories on what is driving this need.
In the book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogel analyzes parents’ drive for perfection for their children, which she says is borne out of pride and fear of the future. Psychologists label the former “achievement by proxy syndrome.” In this scenario, parents use their children’s accomplishments to fuel their own sense of security and personal achievement. Dr. Mogel notes that the ever-changing landscape is driving parents’ fear about the future. Because of the barrage of media stories about achievement in a fast-paced society, parents fear that only the “child who excels at everything will survive.”
Malcolm Gladwell, in an infamous 2011 treatise in The New Yorker about the college rankings game, notes that rankings are attractive because human beings like the simplicity of reducing things to a score so that they can compare the incomparable. He goes on to describe how pointless this quest is as all rankings systems use proxies for success; there simply is no direct way to accurately measure a college’s true quality, particularly when you are comparing it to other institutions that are completely different. And, even more troubling, behind those proxies are imbedded ideologies. As Gladwell states,
"Rankings are not benign. They enshrine very particular ideologies, and, at a time when American higher education is facing a crisis of accessibility and affordability, we have adopted a de-facto standard of college quality that is uninterested in both of those factors. And why? Because a group of magazine analysts in an office building in Washington, D.C., decided twenty years ago to value selectivity over efficacy, to use proxies that scarcely relate to what they’re meant to be proxies for, and to pretend that they can compare a large, diverse, low-cost land-grant university in rural Pennsylvania with a small, expensive, private Jewish university on two campuses in Manhattan."
Gladwell's final statement gets to the heart of NAIS's long-standing objection to ranking independent schools: Like each university, each independent school should be evaluated based on what it sets out to do and by its ability to serve an individual child. We, as an industry, are troubled by the pressure that the rankings game puts on children and the negative outcomes that can result. So, how do we change that? How do we use the world of social networking for good? How do we break through all the noise to help parents make good educational choices for their children?
I believe that we need to get in the game. Ranking sites will proliferate as long as people are drawn to them. We need to use social media to tell a different story, that is, what constitutes a great education and how to find one that meets the needs of an individual child. Already there are good examples of how people in our industry are changing the online conversation:
- Some education consultants have posted great articles on internet sites, helping parents to flesh out the needs of their children and find the right environment to nurture those needs.
- School personnel have become industry experts in online forums, responding to questions and offering one-on-one conversations to calm parents’ fears.
- Alumni have posted their stories, outlining their journey from student to adult and how a particular environment helped them to thrive.
Further, I think we can use our expertise to help quell the parental anxiety that leads to rankings. We can help parents separate the signal from the noise by engaging more deeply and becoming trusted voices in the conversation.
In an article in Entrepreneur magazine, marketing expert Susan Gunelius suggests that we need to follow 10 rules to influence the conversation. The most important, she says, is listening. We can only add value to the conversation when we are authentically part of it. Listening requires give and take and building trust. Engaging in a conversation is very different than broadcasting a message for others to consume.
Gunelius also recommends finding the influencers within your community. The influencers are the connectors and the people whose opinions matter to the families you are trying to reach. Many people feel close personal connections to influencers, despite (often) not knowing them in real life. The influencers become trusted sources of information for thousands. Learn who the influencers are and work hard to build relationships with them.
Another approach that Gunelius recommends is “compounding,” or creating content that others want to share. Many independent schools share articles of interest to parents, hoping their followers will share the pieces with friends. Consider also sharing your own original content, such as fun ways to reinforce math concepts with younger children at home or tips to help high school seniors refine their college essays. This type of material helps reinforce the value that you add to students’ lives, and it will encourage your followers to amplify the message of the school.
Through these and other approaches, we can change the dialogue. We just need to be intentional and relentless about devoting consistent resources to social networking and spending the time it takes to connect with families in service to their children.
Donna Orem is president of NAIS.