Living Institutional Life Online at Worcester Academy
A most innovative experiment in bringing the life of an institution online began as a project in a creative writing class taught by Antonio Viva, associate head of school at Worcester Academy in Worcester, MA.
Viva had always taught this class, offered to juniors and seniors, using a traditional approach to writing. But he’d been reading Here Comes Everybody and wanted to think differently about creative writing. So, he said, “I gave the class a homework assignment and invited them to write about what they wanted to communicate—and then suggest the best ways to communicate it.”
The result was a class blog - but with a difference. Viva said, “Instead of creating a typical blogwhere I was posting assignments or thoughts and having students commentwe started a blog where the students could post their work. What better way to engage young writers than to say, “Write for the world” — and then give them an audience for their blogging, video, and image content.”
It soon became apparent that the site had a following well beyond the confines of the Worcester Academy campus. “Once we launched the class blog, it became popular. We were tracking it using Google Analytics and started seeing more than 2,000 visits a month, from all around the world. The students got really engaged with the idea that their writing was being read and commented on by so many people from so many different places.”
Viva, his colleagues, and the Worcester students sensed an opportunity. Within a few weeks, the class blog became WAMash, Worcester’s mashup site, which integrates a raft of student student-produced content, including blog entries, YouTube videos, Flicker images—and aggregate tweets tagged with #WAMash. Over the summer of 2009, the academy opened up WAMash to the entire community: four administrators and the middle school will be posting to it. And there are plans to expand it further.
In Viva’s view, WAMash exists to engage Worcester’s extended community – students, staff and others on campus; the parents of current students and alumni; alumni themselves; and members of the community from Worcester and around the world – with the pulse of life at the academy. “We encourage students who write for WAMash to write about what’s on their minds. We have teens writing about all kinds of topics that are important to them and haven’t shied away from controversial topics such as same-sex marriage.”
Visibility creates incentive for students
Posting this work — and making it publichas significant consequences, Viva believes. Because students have an audience for their work, they have real incentives to write, take pictures, or create video. They can see the impact their work has as members of the Worcester communityor, indeed, the public – read it, rank it, tweet it, or comment on it.
Andrew Pogorzelski, a member of the class of 2010 who writes for WAMash, said, “I think it is a great chance for students to take advantage of having a site on campus that is read by people around the world. I aspire to be a journalist, so having my articles and opinions posted for people to see is great. I just hope people enjoy my pieces as much as I like them, even though my writing may be challenging their opinions or confirming them.”
Viva noted, “We’ve already seen that sharing student work this way helps alumni reconnect with Worcester. We’ve gotten great feedback from them. For example, I got a comment from an alum from the Class of 92 who said he loved the stories we wrote and he was going to share them with his classmates. And he remarked that there was no better way for alumni to connect with Worcester than through something that a current student wrote.” Not to mention provide parents of current or future parents a glimpse of student work “I’ve had parents say they are amazed that their student is so funny and articulate.”
WAMash now features more than student content, though student work still plays a central role on the site. Viva sees WAMash as a cornerstone of a reshaped communications program for the school, though it’s not clear yet exactly what that program looks like. “WAMash has forced us to start from scratch and rethink our communications. We began formulating a long-term strategy this summer and want to connect our online and off-line communications.”
For Viva and his colleagues, WAMash has demonstrated the power of using different channels to tell a story. They’re planning to use the lessons they’ve already learned in reshaping Worcester’s communications. “I think we understand our communications channels pretty well. But how do all these channels fit together, what are messages we need to communicate, and how can we develop a consistent theme? How does WAMash fit into our website? How do different areas of our website fit together?”
Good questions all, ones that Worcester is in the process of exploring, with the thought that they will create a new communications plan this fall. “We want to see how everything fits together, what Worcester’s communications ecosystem looks like.”
To Viva, it’s clear that WAMash encapsulates the life of Worcester Academy and will continue to do so. One of the questions the school needs to answer is how its communications director and other staff use WAMash. “Do they post stories to the site? And what about the student newspaper—does it have a separate site?”
Viva even has Worcester’s Board of Visitors contibuting to WAMash: members blogged about what they learned on their recent visit to campus.
A need for standards when everyone’s a communicator
In addition to thinking through how it uses different communications channels, Worcester plans to explore how communications are produced. “We’re sitting down with offices across the school to see how we could redistribute responsibilities and move to a much different approach to communications. We’re looking at staffing and job responsibilities across the board.”
Viva is unfazed by what may be a controversial proposition on many campuses, including some universities: having such a large quantity of student content-produced featured so prominently on Worcester Academy’s website.
“Right now, our policy is that submissions are reviewed and edited. We use a peer review/peer edit process where students share their work and other students review it. This gives them access to each other’s writing, allows them to see different angles. Then I give them an initial set of edits and they work on it—when it’s done they tell me when they want to publish.”
He continued, “But we’ve been talking about this: the nature of blogging is less formal than the kind of work we’ve normally asked students to do. How do you change a 20th-century instruction and assessment process? It’s different now. The work isn’t always perfect. I say to students: ‘Put your best writing in front of the world and if it’s not perfect, you’ll be called on it.’”
He’s also not threatened by what others may perceive as negative comments to posts, videos, or images.
Contributions from so many different people have led to an unanticipated problem: standards. “We’re discovering that we have to establish a set of style guidelines for WAMash, which we never thought we’d have to do. Things like how to cite photo sources, how to tag, what hashtags to use.”
And what about issues around privacy—when and how to identify students online, how much information they can reveal, etc.? These sorts of issues are certainly a concern for Worcester, as they are for other schools. Viva said, “Worcester Academy is no different than other schools in dealing with policies, privacy issues, other things that are in a gray area.” But, he notes, there’s a key difference: at Worcester, the community is involved in providing feedback about what happens online in WAMash and elsewhere.
“We’re different in that we’re modeling appropriate online behavior. I’d rather we embrace technology, understanding that it’s not perfect and that we have to learn how to live with it. I’m willing to give up control so that students are not just consumers of content, but producers. This is the democratization of the web and it’s a whole new realm.”
For Viva, that means engaging with students, and acknowledging that there will be teachable moments—and that’s part of why Worcester has taken this step. “Part of my job as a teacher is to open things up, have a conversation with the kids. If schools are brave enough to take that first step, students will meet your expectations.”
Note: This post is the result of research and interviews for an article on innovations in social media by independent schools. It will appear in the January 2010 issue of CASE Currents. There are four related posts:
- An interview with Chuck Will, from Proctor Academy, Innovator: Chuck Will, The Longest-Running Blogger in Education?;
- A case study on how Northfield Mount Hermon School’s new website will incorporate social media;
- A post about social media at Beaver Country Day School.
- A post about how the small staff at Baylor School handles social networking.