Social Media in the Classroom: The Digital Safety Debate (Part 3 of 3)

This three part series tackles the question: How do teachers and administrators navigate the litigious, educational and social issues that new media brings to the classroom?

This third installment focuses on social media’s place in teacher-student relationships—should it be used as a communication tool outside of school? (Read Part 1 here) (Read Part 2 here)

My initial reason for writing about social media’s place in the classroom lies in this last installment of The Digital Safety Debate series. It stems from two hotly debated questions: 1) Can teachers use social media for their personal enjoyment without it negatively affecting their professional lives? And, 2) Are social networks an appropriate place for teachers and students to connect?

The answer to both questions is "yes." However, achieving privacy and maintaining professional boundaries can be difficult in such a casual, public realm. Only when teachers combine common sense with their understanding of district and school policies, current social tools and network privacy settings, will they find themselves successfully using Web 2.0 for all of their personal and professional needs.

The over-sharing issue

Charles Leitch, a Seattle-based attorney who makes sure schools and districts create digitally safe environments that are protected from litigious risks, says, "Teachers who embrace technology are going to be the future of our schools—teachers who aren’t thinking it through will cause major problems." He continues, "An educator’s number-one privacy concern should be over-sharing, which always leads to endangering his or her career."

Leitch advises that teachers shouldn’t disclose information about their schools and students through social networking sites—regardless of how harmless it may be. And they should consider running their blogs by their chain of commands if the subject matter delves into their professional lives, as some comments may have unintended consequences.

Although this seems like obvious advice, we frequently hear stories about teachers who think they’re making good decisions but end up going too far.

High school English teacher Natalie Munroe’s suspension made national news after using her blog to criticize her students and their parents. Even Teacher of the Year recipients aren’t immune to engaging in TMI, as we saw with Pillow Elementary educator Katie Lowery. She violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) by posting images and references of her first graders to her blog (she has since resigned from her position).

Teachers are social, too

Educators have the same rights as everyone else to use social tools, but the reality is that they face compounded scrutiny from a number of converging communities: online, professional, parent, student body—and due to the sensitivity of their work—the media. With this heightened level of interest, teachers need to become best friends with their privacy settings and exercise informed caution.

Even if they don’t open their network to students, socializing in spaces like YouTube or Twitter without knowing how to keep their data private has grave consequences.

Jolynn Dellinger, program manager of Data Privacy Day at the Privacy Project, a nonprofit think tank and research organization committed to consumer privacy and data protection, says, "In the absence of privacy settings, teachers should know that the personal information they share online may be available to their students and administrators, regardless of whether or not they are "friends" with any of them."

And for those educators who are considering or have already widened their Facebook "friend" network to include students, Charles Leitch urges they carefully consider the following basic safety rules:

  • Always follow your school’s social media policies and procedures. Connecting with a student through Facebook isn’t worth losing your job if "friending" isn’t allowed. (If there aren’t any policies in place, this is a great opportunity to get with your administrator and discuss how to create a positive media environment in your school.)

  • Strictly participate in academic-related conversations with students. Bypass any online exchanges that slip down to quasi-educational status or are emotional in nature. If your student is facing a crisis, try to keep the communication verbal.

  • Don’t post questionable status updates, content or comments—if there’s a possibility that someone will find it controversial, chances are it will get back to an administrator or parent.

  • Look at your "universe of friends." You don’t have control over what they post; and, your student "friends" now have direct access to another facet of your life that is probably too mature for them. Most educators don’t have a working understanding of social media settings or the potential for private data to get spread to unintended recipients.

  • Always let a student’s parents know ahead of time that you’re planning to communicate with him or her through social media. Parents don’t like this type of interaction taking place without their knowledge or consent.

  • If a student posts comments of a threatening, sexual or another inappropriate manner, report the incident right away. Dealing with it "your way" can have catastrophic effects.

  • Even if your privacy settings are set up like Fort Knox, never share contact information on a social network if it’s intended for limited distribution. Regrettably, social media pages get hacked and privacy settings often change with little notice, thereby allowing access to personal information or location data.

How can teachers safely interact with students on Facebook?

Even with the best intentions and strict adherence to common sense rules, the smartest choice educators can make is to refrain from "friending" students through a personal account.

While the courts wade through complex cases dealing with social networks, educators and students; and rights to free speech and privacy, there are positive, less risky ways that teachers can use networking sites with their students.

First suggestion: Teachers can create fan pages on Facebook, which allow students to interact with them in an online space that is separate from their personal pages. The one caveat is that the fan page can’t be made private—something they may wish to do for their students’ sakes.

Second suggestion: Teachers can create a second Facebook account to be used solely for school-related activities. Next, they can create a group, make it private, and allow those students who "friend" their second "school" account to join the private group. (For additional ideas, and Edudemic’s The Ultimate Twitter Guidebook for Teachers are available online.)

As a parent, I am hopeful that educators will be able to successfully participate across the same platforms that students use daily. My vision encompasses multiple generations of safe and responsible digital citizens taking advantage of all of the benefits new media has to offer. However, This won’t happen by accident or osmosis. This will only occur when teachers, schools, and parents conscientiously engage and educate themselves and their children.

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