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Social networking policy whiplash

A comment related to a recent post has been lodged in my brain. (Good thing something is.) A teacher wrote:

... social networks - ...  Last year it was you are all fools for being on Facebook, you can't friend any student not even your own kid or their friends until they are 18 ...  If you post something negative about our school I can fire you.

This year it is  - you have to join Facebook, you have to like our page, you have to vote so we get Target gift cards, you have to let us [the school] post pictures of you and tag them, ... you have to friend parents.

Our district, like many, is softening its approach to the use of Facebook by teachers, administrators, and librarians. Three years ago, we took a fairly cautious approach to teachers using Facebook and other social media with students. (See our guidelines below.) This school year seems to be starting with an increasing number of people recommending that professionals have a "Facebook presence" to communicate with parents and students.

Are a lot of teachers suffering from social networking policy whiplash similar to that expressed by the teacher quoted above? I'd bet dollars to doughnuts some of ours may feel this way.

Is it time to revise our guidelines? Your thoughts?

Scott McLeod, are these too restrictive?
Bill Storm, are these too permissive?

Guidelines for Educators Using Social and Educational Networking Sites 
August 20, 2009

Social networks are rapidly growing in popularity and use by all ages in society. The most popular social networks are web-based, commercial, and not purposely designed for educational use. They include sites like Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and Xanga. For individuals, social networking sites provide tremendous opportunities for staying in touch with friends and family.

Educational networking sites are also growing in use. These sites are used by educators for both professional development and as a teaching tool, and are usually restricted to selected users and not available to the general public. These include networking tools such as Moodle, educational wikis, specially created Nings, or district adoptions of online applications such as Saywire, Live@edu or Google Apps for Education.

As educators, we have a professional image to uphold and how we conduct ourselves online impacts this image. As reported by the media, there have been instances of educators demonstrating professional misconduct while engaging in inappropriate dialogue about their schools and/or students or posting pictures and videos of themselves engaged in inappropriate activity online. Mistakenly, some educators feel that being online shields them from having their personal lives examined. But educators’ online identities are very public and can cause serious repercussions if their behavior is careless.

One of the hallmarks of online networks, both social and educational, is the ability to “friend” others – creating a group of others that share interests and personal news. The district strongly discourages teachers from accepting invitations to friend students within personal social networking sites. When students gain access into a teacher’s network of friends and acquaintances and are able to view personal photos and communications, the student-teacher dynamic is altered. By friending students, teachers provide more information than one should share in an educational setting. It is important to maintain a professional relationship with students to avoid relationships that could cause bias in the classroom.

The district does recognize the value of student/teacher interaction on educational networking sites. Collaboration, resource sharing, and student/teacher and student/student dialog can all be facilitated by the judicious use of educational networking tools. Such interactivity is a critical component of any online class and can greatly enhance face-to-face classes. Yet since this is a new means of communication, some guidelines are in order for educational networking as well.

For the protection of your professional reputation, the district recommends the following practices:

Guidelines for the use of social networking sites by professional staff:

  • Do not accept students as friends on personal social networking sites. Decline any student-initiated friend requests.
  • Do not initiate friendships with students.
  • Remember that people classified as “friends” have the ability to download and share your information with others.
  • Post only what you want the world to see. Imagine your students, their parents, your administrator, visiting your site. It is not like posting something to your web site or blog and then realizing that a story or photo should be taken down. On a social networking site, basically once you post something it may be available, even after it is removed from the site.
  • Do not discuss students or coworkers or publicly criticize school policies or personnel.
  • Visit your profile’s security and privacy settings. At a minimum, educators should have all privacy settings set to “only friends”. “Friends of friends” and “Networks and Friends” open your content to a large group of unknown people. Your privacy and that of your family may be a risk.

Guidelines for the use of educational networking sites by professional staff:

  • Let your administrator, fellow teachers and parents know about your educational network.
  • When available, use school-supported networking tools.
  • Do not say or do any thing that you would not say or do in as a teacher in the classroom. (Remember that all online communications are stored and can be monitored.)
  • Have a clear statement of purpose and outcomes for the use of the networking tool.
  • Establish a code of conduct for all network participants.
  • Do not post images that include students without parental release forms on file.
  • Pay close attention to the site's security settings and allow only approved participants access to the site.

Guidelines for all networking sites by professional staff:

  • Do not use commentary deemed to be defamatory, obscene, proprietary, or libelous. Exercise caution with regards to exaggeration, colorful language, guesswork, obscenity, copyrighted materials, legal conclusions, and derogatory remarks or characterizations.
  • Weigh whether a particular posting puts your effectiveness as a teacher at risk.
  • Due to security risks, be cautious when installing the external applications that work with the social networking site. Examples of these sites are calendar programs and games.
  • Run updated malware protection to avoid infections of spyware and adware that social networking sites might place on your computer.
  • Be careful not to fall for phishing scams that arrive via email or on your wall, providing a link for you to click, leading to a fake login page.
  • If a staff member learns of information, on the social networking site, that falls under the mandatory reporting guidelines, they must report it as required by law.

Please stay informed and cautious in the use of all new networking technologies. 


Written by Jen Hegna, Information Systems Manager, Byron (MN) Public Schools and Doug Johnson, Director of Media and Technology, Mankato (MN) Public Schools

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Reader Comments (6)

Interesting Post Doug. I am still a believer that teachers should not friend students - especially if they use FB for personal use. Now, if teachers could maintain 2 accounts - 1 personal, 1 professional - then I wouldnt have a problem with it. However, I do believe that this would be a direct violation of FB's terms of use. (4.2).

As I think of how I use my FB. Mostly to share updates and photos with friends and family. Nothing I do would offend "My Grandma" nor would be questionable or inappropriate where I would risk losing my job. However, I would not want to worry about the Christmas Family Dinner photo and there is a glass of wine or bottle of beer in front of me. I may not even take the photo - could be a friend who tags me. I would never want my friends interacting with my student friends on my content or wall. I would not want students to have the power to Tag me or share my content. I have approx 140 friends. I also have about 40 requests to be my friend that I have ignored simply because 1 - I really don't know them and 2 - I really dont trust them. Can you friend 1 student and not friend the others? What implications does this have in the classroom environment?

I know that Facebook has improved their security so that I can block lists of friends from content - from tags, to photos, to who posts what on your wall. However, understanding those security features are not easy and there has to be some education for teachers AND students on those areas. Many simply do not understand it.

I do recognize that there are teachers/staff who use their FB accounts differently than I do. More professional - less personal. I have heard many stories and examples of why it worked for them to friend students on FB. And honestly, I recognize having a few role models on FB would NOT be a bad thing - at all. How do you create a policy that protects our staff/students while allowing friending to happen in well educated/informed situations?

I am still a believer in using Fan Pages or Groups to connect with students/parents. We have a few already in our schools that have been very helpful. Good topic to revisit. Looking forward to the discussion.

August 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen Hegna

Isn't it a sad commentary on our society that educators need guidelines on how to behave...

August 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher

I remember a similar issue when I first started using email with students. The policy was that we were required to CC: the parent for any student email we sent. This didn't last long as it was extremely tedious (and we soon figured out that the Exchange Server was keeping all the email anyway).

I have been using a LMS for the past three years so I personally don't have a reason to develop a Facebook (or any other) page for my class. The only reason I would have one is to take advantage of the students checking Facebook automatically vs. having to go to a specific web site just for my class.

But there are numerous additional activities and features that are available in a LMS that are not in Facebook. I choose the LMS.

August 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

Hi Jen,

I agree that until Facebook allows a person to have both a personal and a professional account, fan pages or groups are the way for teachers to go. I do think we have to be clear about how fan pages and groups work with our staff. I've never been 100% sure I know enough to teach others about how to do this well!

Great post on your summer projects. I share with my tech staff. I am amazed by your energy and vision!


Hi Christopher,

Oh, I don't think it's sad. Any technology should come with instructions on its safe and appropriate use. We do this with driving cars, scuba diving and using firearms and don't think it is sad because people need instruction.

All the best,


Hi Kenn,

And if that is the tool the kids use, I am all for a separate LMS with social networking features (here it is Moodle in the secondary schools and Edmodo in the primary.) Fanpages or groups for one-way communication using Facebook are useful too. You strategy is what I'd recommend.


September 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Despite your carefully placed bait, these guidelines seem to work just fine. As you point out to Jen above, the use of Facebook by a teacher of minor children needs to be done with great care and familiarity with its security settings. For my part, I am fearful of how Facebook seems to feel at liberty to go and change people's settings at will, and how individuals you think you have safely sequestered in one group or another (or deleted altogether) seem to mysteriously appear without invitation. Personally, I'm not convinced Facebook is sufficiently predictable to trust with my career. Still, the guidelines work for me if any Facebook exposure is view-only, and utterly separate from a teacher’s personal account, profile, and private messaging services.

If these guidelines were to be part of official district policy, the guidelines for “educational networking sites” should include the provision that teachers have backup support to access their teaching spaces. I am an Edmodo believer, and one of the features I push is the idea of district subdomains which allow for the creation of site & district admins who can back up teachers when they need it. By “back up,” I mean the ability to enter a “group” and change it to “read only” in the event a teacher is incapacitated, leaving the space unmonitored. This circumstance can be truly dangerous, and can become a huge liability for school and district alike, exactly analogous to a teacher leaving his or her classroom unattended. I would also add (based on our CA Education Code) that teachers should at least notify parents of the use of such services, and guarantee parental access when requested.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill Storm

I was drawn to this blog due to the title "Social Networking Policy Whiplash." I think many schools and businesses are experiencing the whiplash effect you talk about. At first, I think people thought "wow, a cool new tool. Let's try that." Then, there were problems at some level, maybe because implementation wasn't well though out, and the tool was blocked. Now, we see schools opening their systems back up and once more allowing the use of sites such as Facebook. I think whenever a tool or program is implemented, there needs to be much thought put into what are the benefits and what are the risks. We need to try to predict potential problems and address them from the beginning. I do think it's important to set guidelines. Just as there are lines that cannot be crossed as an educator in life, there are lines in the digital world as well. However, to use these tools for educational purposes can open many doors and many opportunities for teachers to enrich their lesson and for students to learn using tools that they are familiar with and motivated by.

September 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

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