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How to Craft Useful, Student-Centered Social Media Policies

Learn measured, sensible, and responsible ways to approach social media use in schools.

November 30, 2017
Tanner Higgin Director, Education Editorial Strategy
Common Sense Education

CATEGORIES Privacy, Technology Integration

Whether your school or district has officially adopted social media or not, conversations are happening in and around your school on everything from Facebook to Snapchat. Schools must reckon with this reality and commit to supporting thoughtful and critical social media use among students, teachers, and administrators. If not, schools and classrooms risk everything from digital distraction to privacy violations.

Use policy creation as an opportunity to take inventory of your students' needs, how social media is already being used by your teachers, and how policy can support both responsibly.

The go-to method for guiding this practice is setting up district social media guidelines or policies. There are a bunch of examples to browse, but the big thing to remember is that there’s no perfect, off-the-shelf policy. Every school and student and teacher population will require its own unique set of guidelines; these guidelines can vary significantly if you’re a 1-to-1 or BYOD school, or if you’re a public or private institution, for instance. Use policy creation as an opportunity to take inventory of your students' needs, how social media is already being used by your teachers, and how policy can support both responsibly.

Key Elements to Include in a Social Media Policy

While these policies can be very extensive and detailed, I’ve called out four important points every good social media policy should incorporate.

1. Create parent opt-out forms that specifically address social media use. Avoid blanket opt-outs that generalize all technology or obfuscate how specific social media platforms will be used. (See this example by the World Privacy Forum as a starting point.)
     - Use these opt-out forms as a way to have more substantive conversations with parents about what you’re doing and why.
     - Describe what platforms are being used, where, when, and how.
     - Avoid making the consequences of opt-out selections punitive (e.g., student participation in sports, theater, yearbook, etc.).

2. Establish baseline guidelines for protecting and respecting student privacy.
     - Prohibit the sharing of student faces.
     - Restrict location sharing: Train teachers and students on how to turn off geolocation features/location services on devices as well as in specific apps.
     - Minimize information shared in teacher's social media profiles: Advise teachers to list only grade level and subject in their public profiles and not to include specific school or district information.

3. Make social media use transparent to students: Have teachers explain their social media plan and find out how students feel about it. Use this discussion as an opportunity to explore how educational activity can impact students’ digital footprints.

4. Most important: As with any technology, attach social media use to clearly articulated goals for student learning. Emphasize in your guidelines that teachers should audit any potential use of social media in terms of student-centered pedagogy: (1) Does it forward student learning in a way impossible through other means? and (2) Is using social media in my best interests or in my students’?

Moving from Policy to Practice

When it comes to social media policies, there’s an even bigger issue at play: They’re flawed. Consider who these policies are actually written for. If we’re to be honest, it’s the district and not teachers or students (who need the information the most). Social media policies, like policies in general, are meant to mitigate the risk and liability of institutions rather than guide and support sound pedagogy and student learning. They serve a valuable purpose, but not one that impacts classrooms. So how do we make these policies more relevant to classrooms?

Try translating them into a format that actually gets used: the faculty handbook. Doing so accomplishes a few things. First, it forces policy to get distilled into what impacts classroom instruction and administration. Second, social media changes monthly, and it’s much easier to update a faculty handbook than a policy document. Third, it allows you to align social media issues with other aspects of teaching (assessment, parent communication, etc.) versus separating it out in its own section.

While we get caught up re-inventing everything to wrestle with a perceived social media sea change, our students see it simply as a part of school life.

Doing this makes a subtle but significant point: Social media isn’t a novel phenomenon requiring separate attention. Edtech, and the tech world in general, wants to tout every new development as a revolution. Most, however, are an iteration. While we get caught up re-inventing everything to wrestle with a perceived social media sea change, our students see it simply as a part of school life. We should learn from them and weave social media into our existing systems, procedures, and policies in measured, sensible, and responsible ways as a means to, most important, put students’ needs first.