The “I” in IT ostensibly refers to “information,” so IT professionals have expertise in operating and managing information technologies. The roots of the Internet as a venue for interaction among dispersed researchers is well-known. This history, along with the emerging dominance of social media and other messaging tools, suggest the “I” in IT could easily refer to interaction, so IT professional have expertise in operating and managing interaction technology. While “interaction technology” is a term that few would find meaningful, IT managers do recognize that the systems they create and operate are widely used so that faculty, students, and staff can communicate with others within the school and with individuals outside the school. These tools are used by those within the school to initiate contact as well as for outsiders to initiate contact with school employees.
The first tool for technology-mediated interaction to gain widespread use among educators was electronic mail (email); and the number of messages (along with attachments) sent between accounts is astounding. Most messages that arrive at one’s inbox in a given day are SPAM (unwanted email). The work of separating the important messages from the noise of the SPAM has led many technology-savvy individuals to adopt other methods of interaction for important messages. Most colleagues know the best way to contact me in a way that will get a quick response is to send me a text message, others know to contact me via FaceBook Messenger, and still others via Twitter or LinkedIn. Despite the decreasing Efficacious Educational Technology 132 importance of email for professional communication, it is expected that email will continue to be an essential method of interaction for both internal and external communication.
An email inbox points to a location on the Internet; and like all locations on networks, it is unique. Information is sent to this location, then read (or ignored) by the person who has been given permission to see the messages (and send similar messages to other inboxes). Digital records, including those central to web services, are stored in databases, and a requirement of every database is that each record contain a unique identifier. Because they are all different, email addresses serve as unique identifiers in the databases of users for participatory web sites. Also, email address can be used to manage identities, so passwords for participatory web sites can be reset through an email account. For these reasons, email will continue to be a vital, but less important, method for technology-mediated interaction within school populations. In addition, email accounts are likely to be assigned to individual regardless of the degree to which they are used to send and receive messages.
Because email has not been completely replaced as a tool for digital communication, and because many adults choose to separate their professional and personal communication (in some cases they seek to separate multiple professional and personal identities) school IT managers provide email accounts to teachers, staff, and some students. They also tend to articulate expectations regarding how responsive teachers will be to messages received via email. Many parents, vendors, community members, and others expect educators to have access to email accounts and they expect to be able to communicate with educators through email. There are other implications of making email accounts available to members of their communities that school IT managers must recognize and plan to address.
First, school IT managers must decide how to make email accounts available to the public. While it may seem reasonable to publicize email addresses of faculty and staff who are public employees, there are software bots that troll the web searching for that “@” and “.” within a word that characterize email addresses. Once these bots find email addresses, they become the target of SPAM and other threats. While this may seem innocuous, the additional messages can place excessive demand on both IT infrastructure and on professionals’ time as they seek to manage these messages. Minimizing these demands is particularly important once one recognizes that SPAM is a significant point of entry for viruses and other malware into an organization’s LAN.
Second, school populations include those who are under 13 years of age, and their personal information is protected under Children’s Internet Protection Act and the Children’s Online Protection Act each identify actions IT manager and school leaders in the United States must take to protect this information. Regardless of the laws in any jurisdiction, most school IT managers feel a professional responsibility to protect all students from threats through email. At the same time, educators have a responsibility to give students who are young adults experience using email and managing interaction. Further, some students may have no access to an email account outside of school, and this is an important tool for the transition to post-secondary education or to work.
Third, electronic communications can become evidence in legal proceedings; as a result, school IT managers are expected to archive email and other electronic communications. The length of time such records are maintained depends on the local policy and procedures, but five years is generally regarded as the length of time email and other electronic communications are archived. Such records are kept for the protection of both the sender of messages as well as the recipient of messages. Some school leaders are taking steps to ensure those who contact individuals through school email addresses or other electronic means understand the messages are archived and may be used in legal proceedings.
While email will continue to be a part of school IT used to facilitate interaction within internal audience and between internal and external audiences, the asynchronous nature of these messages interferes with some communication. Chat and video chat are methods of synchronous communication in which information is shared over the web either between individuals or small groups. These tools complement email, and they have common uses in education. Chat is widely used in technology support and sales by vendors. IT technicians who are trying to resolve problems or who are communicating with manufacturers’ IT support are likely to be logged on to chat rooms and interacting via typed messages with company representatives. Video chat is a real-time full video link between locations. This is a bandwidth-rich form of interaction, so it tends to be used for very specific activities in which full video is useful.
For many reasons, school IT managers have historically sought to minimize access to chat and video chat. As a result, it was common to find those protocols to be blocked on firewalls and unified threat management appliances protecting school networks in the past. School IT managers can improve interaction with external populations and make these tools available to students and teachers by accommodating requests for chat and video chat in those circumstances in which it is appropriate. They should also be prepared to facilitate both the end capacity and the network resources to use these tools to be robust and reliable in schools.
The World Wide Web was originally designed to make it easy for users to access information. For the first decades of the history of the World Wide Web, it was only marginally used by public institutions (including schools) to disseminate information. As the web has matured, it has become available to much larger portions of the population and it is accessed through more types of devices, so there is growing expectation that schools and educators will have an active web presence. Educators make information available on the web so that it can be accessed using diverse devices. As a result, IT managers are supporting educators who disseminate digital information through a variety of platforms. This information includes both policy and procedure announcements and other seemingly mundane (but very important) information such as the school lunch menu and details of students’ performances.
In addition to being space for members of the community to learn about their activities, a school web site is often the first place members of the general public go to find out about a school community. Many candidates for job openings will visit school web sites to learn about the school and get a sense of values and beliefs of the community, and these become to focus of candidates’ questions to interview committees. Real estate agents visit school web sites to find information for their clients as well. In secondary schools, guidance departments share details regarding college selection and application for students and their families on the web.
Mobile devices, especially smartphones, are becoming the dominant tool for accessing the World Wide Web for many users. Mobile devices differ from computers and laptops in two important ways. First, the web browsers installed on mobile devices have less capacity than the web browsers on computers with full operating systems. Second, the screens on mobile devices are smaller than the screens on desktop computers and laptops. These can affect the way information is displayed on these devices. A growing expectation is that a school web site will be “mobile-friendly,” so school IT managers are adopting strategies to build, test, and maintain these sites. In many cases, the CMS used to create the site can be configured to vary how information is displayed when visitors use a mobile web browser.
Increasingly, schools are supplementing their web presence with a social media presence. Social media are the tools on the participatory web that make it extremely easy to publish information, and that information is pushed to specific audiences as well as being available for the general Internet user. Concerns over bullying, distraction, and other problematic uses led many school IT managers to block access to social media sites on school networks. This is proving less effective in minimizing use of social media during school hours that it was previously as students and teachers access social media sites by connecting over the mobile wireless networks and their cell phones, thus by-passing the school network.
Managing an active social media presence does require a web information be posted to multiple platforms. Of course, there are differences in the nature of the information posted on the various social media platforms. By using the embed feature or by creating widgets, social media masters for schools can ensure media posted on social media platform are available in other online spaces as well. Many social media sites allow users’ content to be embedded in html pages, and those pages are updated as social media content is created. Some of the social media with educational applications are described below:
- Facebook- This social media platform that boasts billions of users. (Of course, it is easy to count numbers of accounts on Facebook, but is not possible to reliably know how many people are users of Facebook.) Users of Facebook post messages (in text, audio, and video) to their space (the name given to the wall or timeline has changed over Facebook’s history); posts are available for “friends” to see and friends may reply or repost or they may tag other users so they see it. One can even stream live video for friends to view. One’s profile can be made public or private and groups can be created so that all members use Facebook to communicate.
- Twitter- This microblogging platforms was originally based around 140-chatercter text posts which were seen by followers. Twitter posts can now include more characters and media; hashtags are also used to contribute to wider discussions and to help curate conversations and posts. Two popular uses of Twitter in schools are to update followers on sporting events and to embed Twitter feeds in web pages so that announcements are both sent to followers and posted to the web immediately. Both of these are examples of “live Tweeting” in which information is posted to the social media to make it immediately available to others.
- Instagram- This social media platform is designed to allow users to post pictures. It was acquired by Facebook in 2017, and continues to be widely used.
- Periscope- This is a social media site that is used to live stream video’ followers can see what the user’s camera is pointed at in real-time (or with a delay of a few seconds). A Periscope feed can also be embedded in a web site, so live streaming can be viewed by any visitors to a web site.
- YouTube- This well-known video site is a social media site that has been part of Google since 2006. Users can upload video (that can be public, unlisted, or private), they can subscribe to others’ channels, and they can post comments that appear on the page where a video is displayed.
- Pinterest- When using this social media site, users “pin” stories, sites, images, video, and web sites in order to build collections of related content. This model emerged from the original practice of bookmarking which found users saving the addresses of useful and interesting sites in his or her web browsers. Pinterest is the latest platform for social bookmarking which finds users sharing their bookmarks over the web.
- LinkedIn- This social media site is similar to Facebook, but it tends to be used for professional purposes. While I post pictures of my visits to baseball stadiums and similar events Efficacious Educational Technology 137 on my Facebook page for my tens of friends and family to see, I post short essays and similar items to my LinkedIn profile for my much larger network of professional associates to read.
As the label of the sites makes clear, social media is designed to facilitate interaction, so comments and reactions from other users is a part of life on social networks. Users have little control over the comments others make on their content, and there is little recourse if comments are uncomplimentary, inflammatory, or false. School IT managers can take steps to minimize exposure to unsavory comments. For example, by publishing to Facebook, but not accepting friends, school IT managers can reduce the potential for (but not eliminate) unsavory comments. Further, school leaders can take be active users of social media and model professional interaction and responding in a public manner.