Social networking solution to rapid school communication problem

I was recently sent the following story from a colleague. It highlights how Social Networking provided a solution to a communication problem and how easy it was to get a message to people through the virtual world rather than using traditional means e.g. the telephone.

You’ve probably experienced the difficulties of communicating a simple message using Chinese whipsers. Following a fire alarm raised when gas was smelt within school we had 800 students on a field, on a cold Thursday afternoon in November.  They were instructed to go home as the school buses had started to arrive, but much to their annoyance many students had to leave their mobile phones and wallets in school until engineers arrived to check the building.

The school office was also off limits until the risk could be assessed and staff returned home not knowing what would happen the next day. Once a decision had been made that school would remain closed on the Friday, staff started to receive information through the telephone tree with department heads contacting their staff. The message that school would be closed was also broadcast on the local BBC radio station, Suffolk radio. Not the students first choice of listening matter.

These established methods were not effective in reaching our students. My experience was:

After arriving home at 4:15 I started to receive messages on my Bebo home page from students asking whether or not school would be open the next day. As I hadn’t yet been contacted by telephone I was only able to assure students that I would post a message to my Bebo whiteboard when I had information. I was contacted by about 6 students through Bebo, using both private messaging and the public comments feature. About fifteen students also contacted me using instant messaging and Email.  One of these students whose father is a teacher at our school, was able to tell me that school would in fact in be closed. After checking this via an Email to this teacher, who was far ahead of me on the telephone tree, I was then able to post on my Bebo whiteboard that school was in fact closed.

Posting the information on a web page in itself was not the most powerful use of the Internet. It was the fact that so many students were connected to each other through Bebo and instant messaging that the news was able to travel so quickly. Many students found out that school was closed  through Bebo and instant messaging before visiting the school website to check the information or receiving an Email.

Once the news was published on the school website was automatically available as an RSS feed and Emailed to pupils and parents. A significant number of these emails bounced back however from unavailable email accounts. Either from these Email accounts no longer being used or our messages being identified as spam because such a large number were sent out.

Bebo and the power of community won. The message was quickly relayed from hand to hand with students then visiting the school website to check the validity of the message.

I received my message from the telephone tree three hours after I’d heard it through Bebo.

A wonderful example of the digital divide was that students without access to the Internet (or who hadn’t been contacted by friends and didn’t listen to radio Suffolk) were the ones who arrived at school to find it closed the next day!

And when the engineers arrived, they couldn’t find any damage to our gas supply – it was most likely a combination of smelly chemicals poured away by the science department 🙂

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