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Protecting Student Privacy on Social Media: Do's and Don'ts for Teachers

Learn how to keep student information confidential on social media.

Tanner Higgin | March 28, 2017

Social media is an increasingly important part of students' lives; in fact, the average teen spends over an hour a day using social media. Unfortunately, the same study reveals only 3 percent of the time tweens and teens spend online is focused on creation vs. consumption. To be true digital citizens, our students need teachers who model pro-social, creative, and responsible social media use.

So why are only one in 10 teachers using social media professionally? It can be a scary and confusing prospect when you're working in a school environment, from FERPA-compliance issues to headline-making incidents. It's no wonder many teachers avoid it entirely. In fact, 81 percent of teachers express concerns about the possible pitfalls that arise from mixing professional work with social media.

While social media can pose risks to student privacy, these risks can be managed with informed, intentional use. There's also a huge upside: Many teachers have used social media to share best practices, provide an authentic audience for student work, cultivate digital citizenship among their students, and build more connected school communities.

So, if you're looking to take the plunge -- or already have -- review this non-exhaustive list of do's and don'ts for protecting privacy and setting a responsible example of safe sharing in your classroom.

To be true digital citizens, our students need teachers who model pro-social, creative, and responsible social media use.

Establish Transparent, FERPA-Compliant Policies

 DO: Locate and review your school or district's social media guidelines.
Basically, everything you might do hinges on whatever existing policies have been set up wherever you work, so check those out first. You should also look into your school or district's acceptable-use policy.

 DO: Use parental consent/opt-out forms.
If you're planning on sharing activities happening in your classroom, acquire parental consent. You might also advocate to have your school offer detailed opt-out forms for parents.

 DON'T: Start using social media in your classroom if there are no guidelines or consent forms.
Instead, contact the people who can help set them up, and get them in place.

Gear Up and Set Up

 DO: Consider creating a separate account for professional use.
This might be a rule already spelled out by your school or district; if not, it's something to consider.

 DO: Review the privacy settings on any personal social media accounts.
For instance, set your personal Twitter account to "Protected" so only those who follow you can access your tweets. Dive into Facebook's privacy controls. Note, however, that Facebook's "privacy" settings are really about visibility of your information to other users. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms can still see everything, and, in some cases, third-party apps you connect to through social media get special access as well.

Teacher sharing on social media.

 DO: Use photo-editing tools on your phone or tablet.
Your phone or computer likely has built-in photo-editing capability for cropping photos or obscuring parts of the image. These tools can be useful when you're using social media in your classroom, because it helps remove sensitive information before you post.

 DO: Explain to students how you'll be using social media.
Let students know the what, when, and how of social media in your classroom, and facilitate a discussion about the why -- both the benefits of social media use and its risks. Get students' feedback, and encourage them to talk to you privately if they have more sensitive concerns about their pictures or personal information making it out into the world. It goes without saying, but respect each student's wishes.

 DO: Walk around your classroom and look for any visible student or class information.
If you're a teacher, you probably have a lot of stuff on the walls and whiteboards of your room. Some of this might contain sensitive information, from logins and passwords to student names, class codes for apps, and grades. Take inventory of everything in your room and either remove these postings or make sure to keep them out of any media you record.

 DO: Take an inventory of your digital files and folders.
Take a look at how you're organizing students' digital records on your computer. Make sure information is only accessible to class members.

Protect Students' Personally Identifiable Information and Confidentiality

Before we get into the do's and don'ts of students' personally identifiable info, there are three important question to ask yourself before you post: 1). Is there anything personally identifiable in this post?; 2). Do I have explicit permission to post it?; 3). Is what I'm posting furthering students' learning?

Those questions will get you a long way.

 DON'T: Share students' faces or names without explicit, parental consent.
Unless you've made some arrangement with parents and students, always make sure that students' faces and names are obscured. Watch out for reflections.Teacher in class.

 DO: Be mindful of how your posts commercialize your classroom.
Social media can be a great way to offer feedback to developers of educational products, but consider how posts about products that include your students can make them nonconsensual spokespeople.

 DO: Look out for name tags and jerseys.
It's easy to overlook these disclosures of students' names.

 DON'T: Make any grades, any assessment, or any part of a student's educational record public.
This is a core part of FERPA and casts a wide net. So, when in doubt about something that might count, don't share. Pay particular attention to how you reply to publicly posted student work.

 DON'T: Forget that handwriting is personally identifiable information.
A lot of what FERPA considers personally identifiable is pretty commonsense (names, addresses, student ID numbers), but you should also know that FERPA protects biometric data as well, including handwriting.

 DO: Closely review any picture you share before posting.
Avoid instantly sharing any picture or video you take. Take some time to look closely at what you've recorded, ideally on a bigger screen than a phone or, at least, by zooming in and looking closely at everything that's visible. You'll be surprised at what you catch (for example, student names on worksheets, classroom passwords on Post-its, and profile information on a computer monitor).

 DON'T: Use students' names when naming files.
Remember: It's not just what's inside the picture or artifact you share but how that file is titled or contextualized that could disclose students' information (for example, "JasminePhillips_01.jpg").

 DO: Turn off location services for your phone when taking pictures.
Many phone or tablet cameras, including those on iPhones and iPads, have a setting that can attach location data to pictures you take. On iOS devices, you can dive into Settings > Privacy > Location Services to modify these settings for your camera as well as other apps. This provides another step of anonymity when you're sharing media from your classroom.

Not Quite Ready to Go Public?

 DO: Use a classroom-only tool such as an LMS to share safely, and build your classroom's digital citizenship skills.
To get you and your students practice with sharing work, participating in conversations, and connecting with an audience, you might want to try out a tool you're already using, such as an LMS, that allows for media-rich, private sharing and commenting between students and teachers.

Next Steps

Check out our Protect Students' Data and Privacy page. We've created and curated classroom-ready resources for using tech more critically and responsibly.

Further Reading

Explore NYC Schools' guidelines for social media use.
Take particular note of how they tune guidelines to each audience, and focus on digital citizenship over fear-mongering.

Learn a bit more about federal law and guidelines around student data privacy.
Teachers might want to check out this FERPA 101 video in particular.