“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” spoken by Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
On June 6-8 the Ontario Public School Boards Association held their annual general meeting in Muskoka. As a taxpayer and an educator it was enlightening to be able to follow the twitter stream of the conference, monitored by the excellent OPSBA staff, and see what delegates were doing, thinking and saying. Trustees are increasingly using twitter and it gives a layer of transparency and accountability to what they do and allows others to engage with them. In the course of the conference I agreed, disagreed and asked questions about what was going on, all through twitter.
One of the highlights of the conference was an address to the OPSBA by the Minister of Education, Liz Sandals. Minister Sandals is a past president of OPSBA (1998 – 2002) and so understands the organization well. She was there, however, as the representative of a government that had significantly undermined the role of school boards in Ontario through it’s handling of collective bargaining in 2012 and Bill 115.
Unfortunately the Minister was not a contributor to the #OPSBAAGM twitter feed in any way because, unlike her predecessor Laurel Broten and a long list of other liberal MPPs (including leader Kathleen Wynne) Liz Sandals isn’t on twitter. This in itself may not be a big deal. Most people recognize that while a politician may have a twitter account it is often a political aide who is doing the tweeting. However, when it comes to using twitter the lack of an @LizSandals account may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Anyone who followed Laurel Broten quickly learned that it was also a good idea to follow Paris Meilleur, her Director of Communications, for other education related tweets. Paris often explained issues, provided other contexts and engaged with Ontarians about education. I don’t know whether Minister Sandals has a director of communications (I assume she does) but whoever it is, they, or any other members of her staff, don’t use twitter in a professional capacity.
(Correction: Found out through Caroline Alphonso at The Globe & Mail that the Minister of Education’s press secretary is Lauren Ramey and she is on twitter. Lauren says she is trying to be more active on twitter)
Another layer to this is to look at what has happened to the official twitter account of the Ontario Ministry of Education (@OntarioEDU) since Liz Sandals became the Minister in mid-February. It seemed that since then there haven’t been as many @OntarioEDU tweets in my timeline. My quick and dirty research revealed that there are about half as many tweets on the @OntarioEDU account as under the previous minister (an average of 9.7 tweets/week vs 19.5/week). There are innocent explanations for this. Maybe it’s taking them a while to get organized. Perhaps, because of the “Bill 115 Crisis”, the previous staff were tweeting more.
Nevertheless the combination of a minister and staff with no twitter presence and a ministry that’s tweeting less suggests a change in attitudes towards twitter. So what? Does it really matter if the minister and ministry uses twitter? I think it does.
Education issues in Ontario are increasingly discussed and ideas are shared on twitter. It’s an incredibly meritocratic space where ‘who you are’ doesn’t matter as much as the quality of your ideas. That’s why trustees, directors, principals, parents, students and educators are increasingly connecting on twitter. If the minister and the ministry have a reduced or no presence they’ll miss out on that discussion and exchange of ideas.
That’s a critical error and a missed opportunity to engage with Ontarians about education. When the minister says she “…wants to hear from education stakeholders, parents, students and members of the business, research and innovation, not-for-profit and Aboriginal communities…” about education in Ontario, that’s exactly the people who are discussing education on twitter. A refusal to engage with people where the discussion is should make us question her interest in hearing what Ontarians really think.
Over 90% of high school students, and an increasing number of elementary students, use social media daily. When the minister says she want to discuss with Ontarians “How can we use technology more effectively in teaching and learning?” mobile devices and social media must be a big part of that. How can the minister effectively administer Ontario’s education system and discuss student use of technology if she isn’t conversant in how social media works? She can’t really understand how social media changes the way you think about things unless she’s actually used it.
In an effort to help I extend an open invitation to meet with the minister and help to get her up and running on twitter. I’ll pay my way to wherever she is and I’m sure that within an hour or two I can get her tweeting. I know she probably has people on staff who can help her, but it can be embarrassing to reveal your ignorance to someone you work with (believe me, I know).
I encourage the minister to do something we ask our students to do every day. Step into the unknown, take a chance and try something new. It would serve as a great example to all Ontarians of how we all, no matter who we are, have to take chances and try new things. It would also signal a genuine willingness to engage with Ontarians about education.