With many schools boasting large and active communities, it’s unsurprising that social media has become a popular tool in education. Social media platforms offer an engaging way to share information and connect students, parents, and teachers. A Facebook page or Twitter account makes it easy to inform everyone that school has been closed because of snow, remind parents of important upcoming events, or simply celebrate the latest team win.
But it doesn’t end there. Studies suggest that social media use in schools has some real educational benefits. “Thanks to these platforms, instructors, and students are now able to communicate with each other within or between classes,” states one research paper. “It has also been found that social media are an effective way to promote students’ engagement as it enables shy, intimidated, or bored students to share ideas and to express their opinions in a more comfortable way. An additional educational advantage of social media applications is that they foster collaboration given that they offer teachers and students a single destination where they can bring their ideas together, examine them with their colleagues and publish in a way that can be edited.”
Now, all of this said, it has to be added that social media use definitely introduces certain risks and challenges. Given the fact that K-12 students are generally underage, privacy is a major concern. Even an innocuous post congratulating a student on an achievement can lead to trouble if consent wasn’t given to share that information publicly. Because of this, schools should never assume that parents (or the students themselves) will be okay with information being posted online.
So how can schools get the most out of social media without getting in trouble over privacy rights? Here are three steps school social media managers (or anyone posting on official accounts) should take:
1. Know the K-12 Social Media Privacy Rules and Regulations
Even though there’s little in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that deals directly with social media, it’s important to remember that it’s all too easy for a post or comment to violate FERPA regulations.
According to the official FERPA page, “schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student's education record.” But what exactly constitutes a violation of this rule isn’t always obvious.
This blog post from EdSurge explains: “If a teacher witnesses an incident such as a fight on a school’s grounds, he can talk to, say, other parents or the press about what he saw. But if the principal reads a report about that same incident, she can’t talk about it publicly. [LeRoy Rooker, Senior Fellow at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers] explains that this is because what the principal read was an education record, which FERPA protects. The teacher who saw the incident in-person can speak about it because FERPA is not a confidentiality law. It only protects what’s in a student’s education record.”
Needless to say, this extends to social media use. So even a post congratulating a student on an academic achievement could theoretically be a FERPA violation, especially if the school didn’t expressly ask for consent before sharing it online.
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) isn’t as relevant to the educational environment as FERPA, but it is nevertheless worth keeping in mind. Enforced by the FTC, “COPPA imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13 years of age, and on operators of other websites or online services that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information online from a child under 13 years of age.”
Generally speaking, it is the job of the owners and operators of online services to ensure that they have the necessary consent to collect information, but teachers are often placed in a position where they are the ones that have to offer consent, as opposed to the parents.
“The FTC has decided, not based on law or regulation, but as a practical reality, that schools can give consent on behalf of parents,” says Sonja H. Trainor, the Director of the Council of School Attorneys for the National School Boards Association. “That is not without risk, and COPPA has a whole lot of gray area that gives school attorneys pause.”
So should a school district adopt an educational social networking platform like TED-Ed or Edmodo, it’s important to keep COPPA in mind and understand what the implications are—it’s not as simple as letting a teacher help students set up their accounts in the classroom. Consent has to be given to collect information (including student names and usernames) and it has to be clear where that consent is coming from.
District Rules and Guidelines
In many cases, a school district will take the lead when it comes to managing schools’ social media accounts. The district will typically outline rules and best practices that teaching staff should follow. For a great example, have a look at the page Social Media: Best Practices for Employees from Montgomery County Public Schools. The district has even created a short and informative video:
A school district will often also create an official social media policy that outlines exactly how social media platforms should be used. The Jackson Public Schools Social Media Policy and Guidelines document is a very good example.
So when looking for guidance on how to effectively manage social media channels and protect students’ privacy, the school district is a good place to start.
When considering rules related to social media, it’s important to remember that (i) it isn’t only about adhering to regulations like FERPA and COPPA, and (ii) teachers’ personal accounts can be as relevant as official accounts. Other rules, like those around ethical behavior, also apply to social media activity. Just as mocking a student in the classroom or consuming alcohol during the school day can result in a complaint and subsequent investigation, so mocking a student on Facebook or posting a picture of alcohol consumption can lead to trouble.
2. Think Before You Post on Social Media
While all these rules and regulations can make using social media in the school environment feel like a bit of a minefield, it shouldn’t scare schools off completely. Managing official social media accounts needn’t be terribly risky or difficult.
Common Sense, one of the United States’ leading educational nonprofit organizations, makes the following recommendations when it comes to protecting students’ privacy on social media:
- Always review your school district’s social media guidelines and make sure that you get parental consent if you plan to share classroom activities on social media. If no guidelines are in place and no consent forms have been received, social media shouldn’t be used.
- If teachers will be using personal social media accounts when posting school content, they should ideally create new accounts that will only be used in their official capacity. They should also pay very close attention to the privacy settings of their accounts and carefully manage who will see what.
- Unless teachers have explicit consent from parents, students’ names and faces should never be posted. Photo-editing software can be used to obscure faces, while classrooms should be checked carefully to ensure no name tags or other personally identifiable information (PII) can be seen.
- Never post anything that could be defined as PII by FERPA. Remember that this includes biometric information, such as handwriting.
- Turn off location services when taking a picture.
- Always review an image carefully before posting.
The American Board, also known as the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), shares similar social media rules for teachers. And like Common Sense, they emphasize the importance of not sharing pictures of students without consent:
“Never, ever, ever post photos of your students on social media! Each parent has their own personal beliefs about posting their child’s likeness online. Some parents overshare while others don’t want their children online at all. It is not your place to post their children online. You are also violating a student’s privacy by doing this. Not only are you sharing their location information (if your location/school is listed in your profile, that child is now associated with that location/school), they may not feel comfortable having photos of themselves online.”
3. Keep Accurate Social Media Records
Like other public-sector entities, schools are required by law to keep records of official communications—and this includes social media content. So should a parent, journalist, or any other member of the public submit an Open Records request, a school would be expected to respond to it and deliver the data.
For this reason, it’s crucial that schools have some sort of automated social media monitoring and archiving solution in place. But compliance with recordkeeping is not the only reason why an archiving solution is important. Schools typically have very active and engaged online communities, which is great, but it can also lead to heated conversations. Nowadays, social media plays a major role in litigation, and a case can hang on a post that’s been edited or a picture that has been deleted. An archiving solution ensures that legal teams have access to all content, including deleted pictures and comments; even if content is deleted a moment after it’s posted, it will be captured and preserved.
Given the inherent risk that regulations create around social media use in the educational sector, it’s important that schools protect themselves and ensure that they have a reliable record of everything that appeared on their official accounts.
To learn more, download our white paper, Website and Social Media Archiving: A Compliance Guide for K-12 Schools, by clicking the button below.