From chalkboard to “wall”

Managing the benefit of school-sanctioned social media use.

By Tamara I. Devitt

Schools need to provide clear guidelines to avoid legal issues around school-sanctioned social media.

As more students, parents, teachers and administrators tap into social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube for educational, school communication, admissions marketing and other purposes, the lines between educational and personal networking are becoming increasingly blurred. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace allow users to create personal web pages and to post online personal information about their employer, marital status, friends, outside interests and hobbies, as well as photographs and real-time ‘status’ updates. Sites like Twitter allow users to send and receive short messages up to 140 characters in length.

Better known as ‘tweets’, these messages are displayed on the publisher’s profile page. More and more people are using social networking sites daily. To put the impact in perspective, as of January 2011, Facebook reported that it had more than 640 million active users. It stated further that 50% of its active users log on to Facebook in any given day, and users spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on the site.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to social media use in schools, and an increasing number of schools are taking advantage of social media to:

  • communicate with parents and students by publishing school newsletters or by posting tweets to parents about scheduling, weather closures and classroom updates
  • recruit and evaluate prospective employees
  • communicate with alumni and facilitate fundraising
  • enhance student learning, because it enables students to connect and form virtual communities
Social media in schools: ‘friend’ or foe?

Schools exploring the positive ways that social media can be used in education need to provide clear guidelines to avoid legal issues. School-sanctioned social media use could create issues of harassment (employee and student), breach of confidentiality and invasion of privacy. Social media can be excellent tools for educators, and can certainly be used effectively as long as certain guidelines are in place.

In a real-life example, a group of restaurant employees set up an invitation-only MySpace group called ‘Spectators’, where they could “vent any ‘BS’ with… without outside eyes spying on us”. Postings referred to violence, illegal drug use and posted a copy of a required test for employees. A manager caught wind of the group and asked an employee for the password to gain access to the group – and then terminated employees for criticising their bosses after viewing the online posts.

When the case went to trial, the jury found the manager’s actions violated federal and state statutes, which prohibited unauthorised access of electronic communications sites based on the way the password was obtained.

As the online barriers between personal and schoolspecific use continue to become a ‘grey’ area, administrators and faculty must be thoughtful when becoming ‘friends’ with employees, students or parents in cyberspace. While employees should have no expectation of privacy when it comes to publicly available material, when it comes to taking action based on social media misuse, schools will benefit from having rules in place regarding how they obtain protected information they believe they have a right to know.

Clear policies needed

Schools adapting to the mainstream use of socialnetworking sites need to act now to safeguardagainst social media mishaps and maintain its positive contributions to the education process. Here’s how they can do that:

  1. Establish a social networking policy that specifically addresses confidential and proprietary information, and make sure no-harassment policies (employee and student) specifically address social networking.
  2. Tell employees to use judgment. If they use the school’s e-mail address or name, they must act in accordance with the school’s professional standards – including respecting the school, its employees, parents and students.
  3. Schools that check candidates’ public social networking sites should avoid ‘fake’ friend requests and should be consistent in how they implement and enforce social media policies.
  4. Regularly remind employees of the risks of unequal relationships when dealing with students. Train employees to ensure they understand the school’s policies, and that information posted on social networking sites may be public.
  5. Remind all employees – including administrators, faculty and staff – of their heightened obligation not to reveal confidential information online, and educate them about the risks of becoming online ‘friends’ with parents, students and/or subordinates.
  6. Consistently enforce such policies and carefully investigate suspected misconduct before taking any disciplinary action.

Tamara I. Devitt is a partner with the Irvine, California,office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, an American firm represent-ing employers in labour and employment matters. She spe-cialises in developing social media workplace policies andhelps schools manage the risks of social media while takingadvantage of its benefits. This article appears here with herkind permission.

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Category: e-Education, Winter 2011

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