Technology for Learning | Viewpoint

Social Networking: The Essential Balancing Act in Schools

Providing access to learning resources while shaping a school culture of protection

In a recent THE Journal article by David Nagel entitled "Principals Voice Enthusiasm for Social Networking Though Concerns Remain," principals indicated that social networking tools are not known for "appropriate" communications that fit in a school environment. As a technology leader in the largest school district in Georgia, I agree. However, since the pressure to approach social networking as a professional and educational resource is growing, a brief overview of social networking's place in the school community may be helpful as you guide your school or district to make appropriate decisions about using social media.

Who Decides What Is Appropriate?
The United States Constitution may give us the right of free speech, but, in education, such rights should be used for the good side. Federal laws, such as the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, are designed to protect students from receiving inappropriate materials or from having personal student data shared inappropriately. Especially when implementing the oft-cited CIPA, school districts have created filters that keep "bad stuff" away from students. States and local communities are also involved in the definition of "appropriate" because the federal definitions of "technology protection measure" and "harmful to minors" remain open for interpretation. The states and communities, then, set the standard level on what is appropriate for students to view and what should be specifically blocked. (Commission, 2001; Protection, 2002; Bureau, 2009; Office, 2010)

Of course, where the true concerns about "appropriate" emerge is at the local schools, where the students access technology. Unfortunately, this is also where the conflict begins around social networking. School administrators are a cautious group because they must manage their school's image to the public. Teachers are more likely to use social networking as a professional resource, mainly because their students are constantly discussing their own perceived value of social networking. Teachers may also wish to use social networking to connect to parents, other teachers, and even students, although this should be approached cautiously. In my district, staff members use social networking inappropriately in two ways: inappropriate disclosure of teachers' personal lives, and too-familiar relationships with students based on being "friends," not teacher and student. (Darden, 2009) This is not just a problem in my district, though. Throughout the K-12 education field, when parents connect to a teacher's social network page, the resulting issues from having a too-open "window" into the teacher's life have resulted in more than one dismissal.

Sample Internet Policy Components

Internet use and development policies can be complex or simple, and it depends on your district's philosophy on Internet use. Many of the specific examples below are consistent with policies and procedures in districts throughout the country and should be modified to fit your district or school needs. The following bullets are ideas to consider when crafting or reviewing your existing policies and procedures:

  • Define the Internet as a tool for teaching and learning, recognizing that the support of teaching and learning is essential.
  • Define public information that is available on each school's Web site within the district. Many schools have guidelines in place to cover Web sites, but many schools place inconsistent levels and amounts of information on their Web pages within a typical district.
  • Identify areas of sensitive information. What information, such as instructional application login information, should be kept private? If your district has an online campus or subscribes to services requiring login information, then defining sensitive information is important. As always, usernames and passwords are considered sensitive, but remember to include student names, parent names, and media depicting students as well. What are your school or district's guidelines around taping public performances? Part of your Internet-facing policies might need to include a short discussion of media release forms as well.
  • Clarify the use of parent-, student-, and staff-facing portals by defining the access available to each, along with the security measures in place to protect the identity and use of sensitive information. Student grades, attendance, e-mail, free- and-reduced-lunch status, and course transcripts are just a few of the components of many portals, and your district may want to consider crafting policy statements around the data that is viewable in the portals.
  • Refer to the AUPs in your school or district to ensure compliance for using the Web and other technology resources for teaching and learning.
  • Include consequences for inappropriate use of the Internet. While policies should probably begin with the more positive uses of technology, consequences for inappropriate or unprofessional use of district technology may need to be clarified, including any state or federal law components appropriate for the area of acceptable use.
--Excerpted from Smarter Clicking: School Technology Policies That Work!, from Corwin Press (2010). Used with permission.

How Do Policies and School Culture Interact?
Social networking is an "open frame," meaning each social networking site contains a mix of different communication tools, including (but certainly not limited to) blogs, discussion boards, topical groups, audio and video broadcasts, e-mail, collaborative tools, search engines, mobile data integration, and extensive user profiles. (Li, 2010, pp. 5-6) Even more challenging, this "mix" changes with new versions of social software and with new social networking sites. School cultures are designed to be information-sharing environments, and social networking is specifically designed to share information through individual, broadcasted, and interest-based subgroups.

Conversely, policies developed by school districts are typically designed to delineate boundaries and set the overall "rules" for the operation of schools and districts. Policies often regulate "appropriate" behaviors at schools by codifying the instructional and institutional expectations for the school communities. The very nature of social networking, however, bends the boundaries of school and personal lives, mixing learning elements that were previously as incompatible as oil and water. Examples of these fundamental changes are all around us: Parents text message their children during school hours; students are sharing ideas and messages at all hours of the day and night; and there is no effective way to enforce the policy-driven constraints on student behaviors.

Many administrators are caught between a revolution and a revolt. How do you protect your students, staff, and instructional patterns while still moving toward the use of social networking? To find the answer for your school, you must build a bridge between your policies and your social structures at the school.

Christopher Wells tackles school technology issues further in his new book, Smarter Clicking: School Technology Policies That Work!, from Corwin Press.

To connect policies and social networking, you must first develop a plan by answering the question, "What are acceptable uses of social networking in the school community?" Here are a few key questions to start the discussion:

  • Do you think that blogs and teacher Web pages are your starting point? Or should your school provide each course or classroom with a moderated online space? How do you know what would work best?
  • How do your teachers feel about being more "available" online? One key element that I stress is that teachers should understand the concepts of "personal image management" and avoid sharing intensely personal topics with the public. Are your staff members ready for social networking? (Plair, 2008)
  • Is there a way to create a "walled garden," which is a technology term for a safe, password-protected, and monitored environment? There are a number of social networks that can be implemented gradually, starting with basic social networking features, and then augmented as the school community grows its concepts of social networking. (Taranto & Abbondanza, 2009)
  • What policies need to change to allow social networking concepts into the school or district community? Instead of defining the "Thou shalt not" statements, start with a purpose in mind, and then describe example behaviors and consequences for those behaviors that are outside of the expectations. (Wells, 2010, pp. 45-48)

Finally, it is always a good idea to be honest. A short article like this one cannot possibly describe all of the nuances that need to be considered to make appropriate choices for your district. Instead, I hope these topics will provide you, as a school professional, with a place to start the discussions with your students and staff members around social networking. It is okay to be nervous about the trends in social networking. It is not okay to be ignorant of the fundamental change in information-sharing dynamics.


Bureau of Consumer Protection (2002). In brief: the financial privacy requirements of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley act. Retrieved October 25, 2010 from http://business.ftc.gov/

Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau (2009). Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Retrieved October 25, 2010 from http://www.fcc.gov/

Darden, E. C. (2009). 'Cybersullying' and you. American School Board Journal, 196, 38-39. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org

Family Policy Compliance Office (2010). Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Retrieved October 25, 2010 from http://www2.ed.gov/

Federal Trade Commission (2001). Children's Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA). Retrieved October 25, 2010 from http://www.ftc.gov/os/1999/10/64fr59888.pdf; http://www.ftc.gov/privacy/privacyinitiatives/childrens.html

Li, C. (2010). Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead. San Francisco 94103-1741: Jossey-Bass.

Plair, S. K. (2008). Revamping professional development for technology integration and fluency. Clearing House, 82(2), 70-74. Retrieved from http://proxygsu-sgwi.galileo.usg.edu/

Robinson, L. K., Brown, A. H., & Green, T. D. (2010). Security Versus Access: Balancing Safety and Productivity in the Digital School. Washington, DC 30036-3132: International Society for Technology in Education.

Taranto, G., & Abbondanza, M. (2009). Powering Students Up. Principal Leadership, 10(4), 38-42.

Wells, C. (2010). Smarter Clicking: School Technology Policies That Work! Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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