Digital Communications Grows Community

Remarkably, there are few accounts for viewing schools as educational (self-) publishers operating in the current highly disrupted publishing industry.

Through our four-year project of creating publications in the teens and young people’s literature category on Amazon for Clare-Rose Trevelyan, I have participated in integrating aspects of self-publishing technologies for teachers and students. What I have learnt, I believe, greatly benefit school leaders, as well as curriculum writers and managers. Indeed, our creative team has achieved some profound understandings of how digital communications must be first and foremost audience-focused.

Remarkably, there are few accounts for viewing how schools are educational (self-) publishers. The exception is Muriel Wells and Damien Lyons’ (2017) study of the vital connection between teaching and writing. Indeed, they uniquely explain how teachers are now positioned to take advantage of Web 2.0 and self-publishing opportunities to reach audiences previously unimagined. (2017, p.32)

Confirming the importance of teachers as writers

For me, Wells’ and Lyons’ research re-invigorates the view of ‘teachers as writers’, a subject which, arguably, has a six-hundred-year history of accumulated knowledge, from the time, for instance, of Martin Luther’s use of Gutenberg’s printing press to publish his protestant catechism. In fact, after a heady period of freedom from publishers, I’ve witnessed many stalwarts of the self-publishing industry now advocating highly disciplined ways of operating. Certainly, self-publishing technologies eliminate many aspects of the Industrial Age’s ‘gate-keeper’ publisher culture.

However, self-publishing processes are now shaping up into a dynamic discipline in its own right. In its simplest form, its workflow can be illustrated as a ‘concept- to-market’ model, with each of its three parts holding vital processes and techniques.

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In the ‘Concept to text’ phase, the focus is on creating ‘the first edit-worthy text’. The second phase of ‘Text to publishing’ is overwhelmingly concerned with editing and designing to transform the author’s text into an engaging and attractive artefact. The final stage, ‘Publishing to market,’ is, as the label implies, all about gettingthe book to its intended audience. The trick, however, is to understand that the process is not linear, as the digital connections with real audiences begin before a word, sound or image of a published work is formed or written.

Learning in a real school

For the past three years, we’ve be trialling different processes through our interactions with Wooranna Park Primary School. Most importantly, we’ve been making the case that the transformation of past educational content forms and resources are not straightforwardly replaced by substituting print for digital texts. Instead, as Leschke and Friesen noted of textbooks, while print is in decline, what is taking its place is not a new medium, but rather a radically new kind of ‘media systematicity’ (Leschke and Friesen, 2014, p.184).

In fact, as the digitisation of educational materials occurs, we are witnessing a huge need in schools to deal with the characteristics of different media forms. From our experience too, schools are far more likely to be concerned with working in the ‘Creative Commons‘ zone. They ask themselves different questions about funding of publications than for-profit indie publishers or surviving book companies. Not in the least, school leaders and teachers determine how elements of writing and publishing should be part of their roles in education. 

Nonetheless, the ‘concept to market’ workflow, diagrammed above, contains important ‘pit-stops’ that are worth considering. In applying it, five school-based publishing scenarios emerged.

  1. Work to extend the school leader’s influence as a ‘thought leader’ through e-books, which in the past has been in the form of essays, journal articles, newsletter articles and school strategic plans.
  2. Publications related to supporting the communications of the school’s vision by creating an interactive e-learning program explicitly intended for the school staff to use as a reflective tool.
  3. Innovative educator’s publications showing their classroom and whole-school practices.
  4. Pedagogically focused ‘school stories’ by teachers and students on blogs or zines. 
  5. Co-authoring as a form of mentoring of young teachers (teachers in the first five years of their careers).

When new knowledge is required.

Lowenthal et al’s (2016) reflections on creating an intentional school web presence through utilising a school website are very pertinent here. Engaging in social networking, contributing and sharing resources and artefacts and attending to search engine optimisation (SEO) all take time. In turn, such a use of digital properties and tools cannot happen without school leaders and teachers having some understanding of three areas of online communications:

Through these, the ever-increasing connectivity of digital technologies gives educators access to knowledge, data and narratives in multimedia forms. 

Consequently, school leaders have the power to set up a virtuous circle to engage with audiences that are student-focused, involve parents and the whole school community. In Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, Terry Mayes and Sara de Freitas have made the point some time ago that, pedagogically speaking, the challenge is to describe how technology allows underlying processes to all learning to function effectively. They emphasise that educators are witnessing a new model of education, not a new model of learning (2007, p.13).

What’s are you learning? What are you teaching?

John Hattie and Greg Yates draw a distinction between education and learning in Visible learning and the science of how we learn, when they point out how the use of ICT resources do not automatically facilitate either deep or meaningful mental processing. Nor does it alter the child’s information processing (Hattie and Yates, 2014, p.197).

Andrew Wood and Matthew Smith also attempt to understand the tensions between education and learning in Online communication: linking technology, identity, and culture (2005, 2014). They remark, for instance, how the “blurring of technology with our everyday lives” is fuelled by the dynamic between the immediate and the mediated nature of communications. What arises, in their opinion, should be likened to ‘performance art’.

Consequently, they refer to sociologist Erving Goffman’s (1969) use of dramaturgical thinking as a process by which humans enact everyday life. They note, for instance, how “Goffman’s fascination with the theatrical metaphor” has become a pivotal way to explain how people construct identities online.

It is for such reasons that managing both a school’s physical and web presence makes the school leader’s work far more complicated. Ironically, as we came to realise through our interactions with schools, such complications can be productively exploited when its connected to figuring out what actions and tasks you are not prepared to change. What resulted was the application of content strategy, content marketing and the principles of the ‘user experience‘ defined within the roles we held in the team. Here is a visual illustration of what we found to be the most productive way of going forward.

Staying focussed on curriculum expertise

Your role in the team

It follows then that the first step of implementing digital communications strategies is based on valuing your expertise by working, as our team manager describes, at your ‘highest and best’ level. So often with digital technologies, it’s easy for professional people to abandon their field of knowledge and believe they must (or believe they can) turn themselves into technicians, technologists, content strategists, marketers or UX experts. 

As a school leadership team, you will have your own methods for working. We work as a team using Atlassian software of Confluence and Jira. We also use their project management Agile protocols and team-building ‘playbook’. These methods are beginning to be discussed in educational contexts as teachers and researchers consider the implications of ‘agile’ as a pedagogical approach. 

From our viewpoint, having an agile mindset for carrying our team-based work is to attend to cultural imperatives, not just technological ones. The deep sense of an equitable and democratic ethos is needed to understand and practise collaborative skills that define roles and responsibilities, improve listening skills and develop a common vision for tasks, projects and programs.

Know your impact

Small changes for a big impact

From this perspective, the three pillars which comprise Step 2 of our process are most helpful for the implementation of digital communications strategies in the following ways:

  • Reinforcing the importance that the focus of digital leadership in schools must be on the principles of learning.
  • Having a network of experts in digital content strategy, marketing and user experience domain (UX) that understand their connection to educational imperatives. (For example, we use local experts, as well as finding the skills we need through Upwork and Reedsy.)
  • Understanding the notion of a ‘Level 1’ skill set bringing together the issues in the first and second pillars through the perspective of placing a professional boundary around what you will and will not do in the area of digital communications.
  • Learning to use digital tools can be both time-consuming and costly. Therefore, as professionals, we limit ourselves to working in a cross-disciplinary way with other specialists by helping to complete the most generic tasks only, knowing that you can always access trusted specialists when you need them.
  • For instance, I consider that I can design the look of a publication using templates from Canva or LucidPress, using a clean and minimalistic design that requires little more than titles, subtitles and paragraphs. Images are at a bare minimum as well.

Judging how you have ‘just’ enough knowledge

From this position, school leaders move into Step 3 by imagining the journeys which members of the school community take in order to complete different tasks online, for example:

  • read the school newsletter or
  • order lunches for their children online or
  • observe students work samples or
  • view classroom videos or 
  • attend a school event.

They ask themselves critical questions such as: 

How are you arranging those journeys and their call to action for working mothers? For a night-shift or on-call working parent? For a parent with a disabled child? 

How are you helping parents become aware of how you intend to communicate with them? What are you doing to respect the fact that they need time to consider what you are describing? How are you supporting their decision-making, from choosing a time to have a one-on-one meeting with a staff member to you giving your feedback on their child’s achievement and progress?

In short, the purpose of knowing new knowledge is to solve school needs, to avoid becoming alienating from a school leader’s real job.