Reflections on our district jumping into social media

May 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Over the last couple of weeks, our district jumped feet first into distributing as much information as we could in as many ways as we could.

I wonder how long it would have taken us if we hadn’t had the H1N1 emergency.

The one thing I love about working in this school district is how progressive and forward thinking we are. I also love that we’re small enough that someone like me can ask a question, and get an answer, get permission to do something the same day.

It helps to have people in key positions who trust their employees and people in key positions who are young enough to get it and old enough to know not to embarrass anyone.

I’ve been quietly collecting information about web 2.0 tools for a long time, and when the opportunity presented itself, I opened up my arsenal and started asking questions.  Can we start a Twitter account?  How do you feel about streaming press briefings live over the Internet?  Podcasts?  Sure, I’d be happy to help edit and post them!

So when I last wrote about it, I mentioned that we had about 30 people watching the Wednesday press briefing. All afternoon and evening Wednesday, I thought about how to improve the quality of audio and video that we provided. When I first tried out UStream, I tested it on a beautiful, 24″ iMac that we have sitting in our office, and one of the things I noticed was that it listed “DV Video” as one of the options.  Thursday morning, I came up to the office early and ran to get one of the DV cams that we used to stream graduation, and hooked it up to the Mac.  It worked beautifully!

I unplugged the Mac and dragged it up to the board room, where the press briefing would take place.  I had been thinking about using a different computer anyway, since the laptop I was on Wednesday was slow and I was having a hard time keeping up with Twitter during the press briefing.  The Mac, with it’s huge screen and 3 GHz processor would allow me to seriously multi-task while the press briefing was going on.

I got it all hooked up, and started streaming just to test it out.  The browser crashed on me a few times, and I started looking at what was different from when I had used it in our office.  The only thing I could see was that I had my mail client open, so I closed it, restarted the browser, and everything started working.  Whew.  Problem averted.

I also embedded the live stream on the district home page every day we did it.  What I didn’t expect was that the number of people watching would grow exponentially every day as word got out, and as people got anxious about whether we would actually open on May 4 as originally planned.

On Wednesday, we had less then 50 people watching.  I think 30 at any given time. Then Thursday, we had over 300 watching simultaneously, and the questions came pouring in from Twitter.  However, I found out later that a lot of the questions were coming from the “social stream” chat on UStream, and some of the people asking questions weren’t even following us on Twitter.  I fixed that on Friday by removing the social stream chat from the UStream page, just leaving the chat room open.

With a larger computer and a better camera setup, I gained a lot of attention from the journalists in the room on Thursday, which I did not expect or really want.  But when the superintendent mentioned what we were doing and how we were doing it, I found three camera pointed at me and reporters asking me questions while the cameras were rolling.  I was glad I had shaved. That evening, I found myself on two of the local new stations, even getting a little sound bite on the Fox affiliate.  I was giddy. Little did I know what a nightmare Friday would be.

Friday, we had the same setup, and the anticipation was that the Superintendent would inform everyone whether we were going to open school Monday, May 4, since all of the other districts in the county had closed through May 11. I knew that we’d have at least as many people watching as Thursday, but I had no idea what I was in store for.

When I fired up the Mac on Friday and tried broadcasting, I couldn’t get the browser to stop crashing.  I didn’t have the mail client open, and I couldn’t understand what was happening.  I searched frantically for a solution before the 1 PM briefing, but couldn’t find anything.  Finally a few minutes before 1, I got it to broadcast and record without crashing for about 5 minutes, and I thought everything was stable.

Less than 5 minutes into the briefing, it crashed again.  We had over 1000 people watching our stream and I knew I had to go to plan B and fast!

I spun the Mac around and started broadcasting using the built in iSight camera, and the built in microphone.  Unfortunately, the superintendent had set up about 5-7 feet away from where the computer was, and the journalists had surrounded her, not leaving a very clear path for the camera.  That, combined with bad acoustics in the room and the distance the mic was from her, made for a very poor presentation that was hard to hear.  On top of all of that, she did not have any information about whether school would reopen on Monday, and I had an angry, albeit virtual, mob on my hands.

Tweets were flying everywhere about how we hadn’t provided the information we’d “promised” or how bad the press briefing looked.  I took a lot of that personally, since I was the one hadling the tech side of things.  However, I also knew that technical difficulties happen and I did my best to rectify the situation. I also knew that we coulnd’t put out information that we didn’t have, and at the time, we just did not have word either way about what to do.

Our web site took a beating.  Our average number of hits per day during a normal week when school is in session is about 2500.  That’s with browsers all over the district pulling up the district home page.  As you can see below, during the first week, the number of hits on our web site were over 10,000 almost every day, and the largest single day total we had was over 31,000 on Friday, May 1.  The web site never went down under all of the stress, and that was great.

monthly stats

We know now that it can handle thousands of simultaneous hits.  We transferred over 200 gigs of information just in that week alone, and if we’d actually been hosting the video feed, I’m sure it would have been in the thousands of gigs.

The other web 2.0 thing we did was podcasting.  The superintendent had done a podcast before, but not on a consistent basis.  But every evening during the “flu-cation,” the superintendent would email me her podcast audio, which I would edit and post to the district home page, then tweet that it was up. She mentioned late in the week how it was interesting that she would say something in her podcast one evening, then hear a response about it from higher-ups in the state the next day.  NPR even asked for an interview with her based on listening to her podcasts!

I learned an awful lot about 24/7 connection during the swine flu outbreak. There were lots of times where I had to bite my tongue and not type some snippy response to someone on Twitter, or in the chat room on UStream when our feed crashed and burned during the Friday press briefing. I knew to have a backup plan, but I had no idea that the backup plan needed to be as good, or better, than plan A. I had no idea that people could be so ungrateful. We did not have to do all of the things we did. Most of the school districts in our area didn’t have a fraction of the information that we put out, and yet, there were people who moaned and groaned when a piece of our information wasn’t exactly what they wanted to hear, or didn’t work perfectly.

To be fair, though, there were a great number of people who sent us emails and tweets of encouragement, and told us that we were doing a great job. Those are what kept me going through the week.

I’m hoping that everything we started over these past few weeks will continue.  Streaming events in our district, like board meetings, is something that can help the public gain information even if they can’t attend.  The superintendent podcasting is a great way for her to give information to our community about everything good that’s going on in our schools.  Our twitter account is another way for the public to get information quickly, and I’ve been updating it as we continue to reschedule things.  Next week, I’ll be turning it over to our Public Info Officer, and we’ll split duties on updating it.

I certainly didn’t start this endeavour to gain attention for myself.  I really just wanted to help the district distribute information as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I hope that I can continue to be part of the driving force behind this district being progressive, and using social media tools to spread the word about what we’re doing.

It helps to have people in charge who trust you to make decisions and be competent.  It’s challenging, but it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to continuing.

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§ One Response to Reflections on our district jumping into social media

  • Scott, what a great post. I have been there and wondered if it would end. You did well. I am looking forward to your future experiences. I am quite interested in how our professional teachers utilize the new technology to supplement their classroom teaching.

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