Social Networking | Viewpoint

Controlling Social Media: Current Policy Trends in K-12 Education

As social media becomes ubiquitous, schools and districts should shift from trying to control its use and toward teaching faculty and students how to build successful learning communities.

As school boards address the overall challenge of social media use within schools, they should focus on the reality that the impact no longer lies only on the individual and local schools. Social networks include students and teachers all over the world and, therefore, teaching and coaching on digital literacy for teachers and students is where the focus should rest. Knowing how to build successful communities of learning and how to integrate social connectivity within a learning environment is a much more needed outcome than finding a way to control and monitor specific users and content. I would encourage teachers to research and learn more about digital literacy and encourage students to find their voice in the digital world as it relates to education and learning. Similar to how we have taught the differences between academic and colloquial or creative language uses, we now must teach the appropriate and effective uses of digital communication and learning-based networking language and tools.

The issues of the uses of social media in schools are multifaceted. There are the technology and professional challenges of security as well as the challenges of how and when it is appropriate for teachers and students to engage socially online. Moreover, there are the benefits to teaching and learning to consider, as well as the general expectations of students in terms of the immediate and constant connectivity and networked understanding of their digital world. Most guidelines or polices that can be found on the Internet from various school boards and districts make a distinction between purpose or intent and use. The main focus of these documents is that "guidelines" are the intention rather than mandated policy and, interestingly, they read more like a professional guideline on intercommunication and appropriate professionalism in the workplace than an actual policy document on social media tools. Additionally, even the tools are listed often with the tag "and so on" or "etc." given the fast-paced changes we experience in the world of social media.

Background
In a sense, trying to control social media use is somewhat similar to trying to stop an oncoming train. That is, while we can manage policies around setting up sites and content guidelines, we cannot control the actual connectivity of the technology itself. It is that aspect that is the essence of the "social" nature of the technology and the reason why it is so powerful. The continual connectivity and direct communication made possible through social media tools is what has essentially changed communication forever. Therefore, while I may have a specifically guided professional site, that site is present in the digital world and, as such, can be searched, linked, commented on, and posted--it can be "webbed" and that is precisely why new tools of communication are so powerful and also why their implications for teaching and learning are so amazing.

Once the access points are minimized and "secured" behind digital barriers, they lose the social aspect and, therefore, the essence of their purpose. As a result, those sites will not be utilized as it is the immediacy and constant currency of social media like Twitter and Facebook and other specific interest exchange sites such as Pinterest that keep users coming back. For the most part, policies are reactive and can only guide the use of tools and state that "tagging" and linking without permission is not advisable in the interest of security and protection of privacy and professionalism.

The reality is that when that happens, the only course of action is to react to the situation and discontinue employment. The information, however, is still linked and part of the digital web of connectivity.

Policies of Control
For the most part, policies or guidelines of control for boards of education provide a frame of reference that expands a basic "user guide" approach. For example, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) policy statement addresses the control of access in the following way: "Social media and networking sites must not be accessed through the MNPS network, with exceptions made for maintaining MNPS-sponsored online communities."

Again, this is very difficult to actually control and it seems that is already recognized with the exceptions allowed. Additionally, the same school board addresses "acceptable use" guidelines in the following manner:

  1. An employee shall not make statements that would violate any of MNPS' policies, including its policies concerning discrimination, harassment, or obscene material;
  2. The employee shall uphold MNPS' value of respect for the individual and avoid making defamatory statements about MNPS, schools, employees, students, or a student's family;
  3. An employee will not disclose any confidential information of the district or school or confidential information obtained during the course of his/her employment about any individuals or organizations, including students and/or their families.

The guidelines continue with warnings around resulting action that will be taken if the guidelines are not followed. Again, the situation is not really then one of control, which is actually impossible, but one of guidance and an appeal to common sense and professional decorum.

Policies of Use
An article in the Huffington Post reported that around 40 states have school policies in place about acceptable uses of social media. The article suggests that teachers are not happy with many of those policies and find them too restrictive as teachers see the benefits to supporting the instructional process with the use of these kinds of tools. The article cites a research study by Nancy Willard (2011), author of Cyber Savvy: Embracing Digital Safety and Civility, who suggests that the problem lies with the use of the wider socializing tools like Facebook rather than other educationally purposed tools such as Gaggle.net and ePals.com. The article also discusses the challenge to freedom of speech and the infringement on that when teachers are disciplined for using these tools. The problem is that these tools have developed as a result of the capability of the technology and user needs and desires, therefore, the decision to use one tool over another goes against the actual intuitive use of the tools themselves.

Additionally, there are distinctions made in these user policies that are becoming problematic. That is, there is usually a call to distinguish between professional and personal contexts in regular use of the technology. This may have been more manageable when email was first introduced and while that technology remained mostly linear and hosted within closed networks. With the expansion of the Internet and, in particular, the "webbed" advantages and continual connectivity available, those distinctions are becoming more difficult to not only manage but to identify. Again to refer to the MNPS example:
"Employees should exercise care in setting appropriate boundaries between their personal and public online behavior, understanding that what is private in the digital world often has the possibility of becoming public, even without their knowledge or consent. MNPS strongly encourages all employees to carefully review the privacy settings on any social media and networking sites they use and exercise care and good judgment when posting content and information on such sites."

In another policy example from the New York City Department of Edcucation (DOE), the following is "recommended":

"…DOE employees are encouraged to use appropriate privacy settings to control access to their personal social media sites. However, be aware that there are limitations to privacy settings. Private communication published on the Internet can easily become public. Furthermore, social media sites can change their current default privacy settings and other functions. As a result, employees have an individualized responsibility to understand the rules of the social media site being utilized…"

Interestingly, the social media guidelines for Australia's Lick-Wilmerding High School appeal very openly to the user to be wise in what is published and how it is published. What is interesting here is that the tone is highly collaborative (which is a highly valued characteristic shared with social media users) and an appeal to the entire environment for everyone. This is a great way to approach the issue--rather than the focus being on control and repercussions, it is on the general effectiveness of every user's sense and cooperation.

Instructional Benefits
Therefore, while schools are challenged with how to manage and monitor the use of these new tools, the benefit to instruction is clearly accepted and supported by many teachers who use them. In fact, user teachers become disheartened by policy makers whom they see as non-savvy in terms of the potential of the tools and declare that if the policy makers become more familiar with the tools, their fear would be less and the benefits would become the main issue.

The skills of cooperation, collaboration, and the management of information in gathering, organizing, and reproducing, as well as social networking are all key skills for current students as they prepare for the totally connected world they not only experience now but will have to navigate in future employment and professional work. Additionally, social constructivists have told us for years that social networking, collaboration, and constructive communities of learning can expand and enrich the learning environment to not only make it more interesting but also more applied and relevant for the students. This is now amazingly possible for students and teachers using new social media tools.

Additional information on the instructional benefits of social media is available at campustechnology.com.

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