When I first started teaching, there was no such thing as YouTube, Facebook, or even MySpace. Tweeting was something birds did to wake you too early. But as social media became integrated into the culture at large, it has been adopted in classrooms around the country.
The first few years I attempted to use social media in the classroom, I hosted a class page where I created short videos reviewing themes in literary works and invited students to comment. Later, I found my niche using classroom-based sites such as Schoology to create a culture of peer review in my creative writing classes.
Over 15 years as a teacher, teacher trainer, and curriculum designer, I have seen many teachers successfully integrate social media into the classroom—to communicate with parents, students, or community members; to facilitate discourse on a specific topic; to build responsive and literate digital citizens; or to create collaborative opportunities.
I have also seen students and teachers use poor judgement, resulting in devastating consequences, because of social media.
Among the most serious errors in judgment I have seen are those that jeopardize students’ privacy. Teachers that are careless with student privacy can face serious employment consequences; worse, they may risk fines or even jail time in at least one state.
This year, a Florida teacher spoke negatively on her personal social media account about a former student with autism and was reassigned pending an investigation into her conduct. Even on a personal page, teachers must be aware of their responsibilities in maintaining and protecting student privacy.
A new school year, for a teacher, is similar to New Year’s Day for everyone else: Resolutions are made, habits are started, and for better or worse, change happens. Wherever teachers are in the process of adopting social media for classroom use, here are seven tips for maintaining the privacy of students while posting.
1. Establish separate accounts for personal and professional use. Your class social media account should only be used for classroom-related discussions. Your personal account should never discuss the goings-on inside your classroom and should never mention a specific student by name or by identifiable characteristics, even if you know the student outside of school.
2. Consent is key. You should make sure you have written consent from parents stating that their children are both allowed to use social media for educational purposes and that their work can be shared on the social media accounts established for your classroom. Let parents know what platforms you intend to use, the type of material you will post, and who will be in charge of what gets posted. Clearly informed consent is an important layer of protection for both you and your students. Also, if you post student work, always remove any personal details about the student—handwriting can be identifiable!
3. Think twice before posting. Be an example for your students of what responsible social media use looks like. When you post personal information, such as your students’ names, classroom pictures, or schoolwork, you should remember that you are making a permanent record that will be retrievable for years.
Even when you have informed parental consent to make posts online mentioning the student, those posts are forever, and values can change. Students cannot anticipate their own future privacy concerns, so you must think carefully about whether a public post about a student is in the student’s best present and future interest.
We’ve all seen posts of student work that feature wildly incorrect answers to test questions. In the moment, these posts may be funny and harmless, but they could embarrass that student later in life.
4. Know your privacy settings—and their limits. Privacy settings are an important part of any public-facing web page. If you have not familiarized yourself with the privacy settings of whatever social media sites you personally use, you should do so.
However, be aware that even when privacy settings appear to restrict posts to a class or small group, social media posts unexpectedly may become accessible to the public at-large. A member within the group might have less stringent privacy settings, an app may change its privacy controls, or a bug within the app could cause posts to accidentally become public.
5. Districts are there to help. Familiarize yourself with your school’s, district’s, or state’s policies about social media posts. These often cover topics like how teachers should present themselves on a social media page, dealing with student postings on social media, and guidelines for classroom social media posts. If you do not know if there is a policy that covers you, ask your administrator, technology coordinator, or union representative. It is also a good idea to ask for guidance and permission from your administrator and technology coordinator before posting (or continuing to post) classroom information online.
6. Learn the law. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a federal law that governs student records. It specifies what information about students generally cannot be disclosed. This can include students’ first and last names when combined with other identifying information, parents’ names, the home addresses of students, and students’ birth dates and places of birth. Your state also likely has its own set of student privacy laws that regulate what information can be shared and with whom. If you’re not sure if a post would violate FERPA or your state’s student privacy law, ask an administrator. You can find more information about FERPA here and student privacy laws in your state here.
Another federal law to consider is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. COPPA imposes stringent requirements on websites directed toward children under the age of 13 and general audience websites that have knowledge of children under 13 using their product. Because of those requirements, most social media sites restrict their audience to those that are 13 and older. If you are teaching children who are under the age of 13, you cannot require them to have a social media presence or use social media for classroom activities.
7. Remain positive and professional in every post. Above all, you should remember that students, parents, and community members are likely to view every social media post a teacher creates. Being positive and professional on social media will help you to avoid negative attention and instead be a role model for your students and a positive voice in your community.
Remember to seek explicit permission from parents, to establish guardrails for students, and to model safe and appropriate social media use. Make sure you monitor changes in technology and privacy settings. As a savvy teacher, the benefits of using social media can outweigh the risks, if you mitigate them.