Social Media Sparks Policy Debate

Districts take different approaches to keep students safe and provide access to online learning tools.

by Tanya Roscorla / July 17, 2009

Last year, educational technology specialist Gina Hartman started looking at how school districts outside of St. Charles, Mo., addressed social media. She didn’t find many that had created guidelines on social media use, so she and several colleagues started a wiki on the topic.

They got some ideas from IBM’s employee policy and developed some of their own that they would like to implement in Francis Howell School District now that they have started unblocking more sites such as Twitter.

The explosion of social media has sparked discussions about how teachers can use blogs, wikis, Twitter and other tools while keeping students safe online.

“It’s come on so fast in our profession that no one’s had time to even think of ways to address it,” said Steven Anderson, the district instructional technologist at Stokes County Schools in Danbury, N.C.


Guidelines: general or specific?

After he started networking on Twitter last year, Anderson realized that his district needed to create a policy for how students and teachers would use social media.

But a social media policy doesn’t appeal to Lucas Gillispie, the instructional technology coordinator at Pender County Schools in Burgaw, N.C. He doesn’t see any point in having a Facebook or social networking policy because it could become antiquated.

A general guideline that covers online best practices for teachers is the best option, he said. If the activity that teachers are doing is safe for the students and has a curriculum connection to justify it, they can do it.

“I tend to be very open-minded about it as long as those two requirements are met,” Gillispie said. “I’m not a big fan of singling out a particular medium for discussion.”

Hartman, however, said that her Missouri district needs social media guidelines to help teachers collaborate globally and to cover the district legally.


Social media issues

Some of the guidelines listed on the policy wiki that Hartman helped create include the following:

  • Employees who identify themselves with their school district online must make sure that the content associated with them is consistent with their work at the district.
  • Personal blogs should include a disclaimer that says the employee’s views are their own and do not reflect the district.
  • Personal information such as students’ last names, addresses, birth dates and pictures should not be shared.
  • Everyone should respect copyright law and give credit where it’s due.

Teachers also need to make sure that their social bookmarking links are appropriate and that they, as well as students, sign a form saying that they agree to follow guidelines on the appropriate use of computers and the network, Anderson said. And they should remember that whatever they post online is searchable, which means they need to post responsibly.


Districts control online use

Many district filters prevent teachers and students from accessing social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. That doesn’t sit well with Tom Whitby, an adjunct professor of English education at St. Joseph's College in New York. Instead of denying access to sites, districts need to show elementary-level kids how to behave online and inform them of the potential risks and benefits.

“If you’re teaching them at an early age, you don’t have to worry about blocking because they understand the do’s and dont’s,” Whitby said.

In North Carolina, Anderson’s district is starting to loosen restrictions on sites such as Twitter and Ning, some of which only teachers can access and some that students can also access.

“The only way you can teach students responsible Internet use is to demonstrate responsible Internet use,” Anderson said. “If it’s all blocked, they don’t ever learn anything.”

In fact, some of them get around the blocks by using proxy servers and following Facebook pages dedicated to bypassing the filters, Anderson said. A filter needs to be restrictive to protect students and teachers, but it also needs to be open enough so that they learn how to use social media tools.

In Missouri, Hartman’s district is also trying to strike a balance between blocking and opening everything. She convinced her district to unblock Twitter, and as a whole, teachers and students generally can use social media tools. For example, they can access several wiki and blogging platforms, but not all of them.

“We just can’t keep this technology away,” Hartman said. “You have to embrace it in education, and it seems like of course education is always the last one to kind of embrace it and let it in.”

Dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis has worked well for Gillispie in Pender County Schools. If a teacher comes to him with a good reason why they want to use an online tool, he may decide to unblock a site temporarily as long as the tool is directly related to the curriculum and doesn’t pose a safety issue.


Educators harness social media for learning

In New York, the administrators at Horseheads Central School District are open to trying new sites if they have educational value, but they’re cautious, said Jason Schrage, an eighth grade social studies teacher. He explores Web sites to make sure that they are safe and appropriate before he allows his students to access them.

Social media has allowed Schrage to collaborate with other educators and share ideas. He’s also been able to inspire his kids to learn. They enjoyed developing 1,000 multiple choice questions in a Google spreadsheet and form as well as conducting and streaming video interviews of people who lived during World War II on Ustream.

“It’s motivating for my students, and it empowers them,” Schrage said. “It puts the learning in their hands.”

Students can now learn all day online with many different people instead of just at school, Anderson said.

“You don’t have to learn with just the same 30 kids in your classroom anymore,” Anderson said. “You can learn with the entire school, the entire district, the entire country and the entire world.”

Building a personal learning network through social media taught Anderson more in six months than his whole graduate program taught him. He said that social networking will be the thing that changes education for the better.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by these sources are their own and do not represent those of their school districts.