Monday, March 16, 2015

Monitoring Student Use of Social Media

This past weekend a story regarding Pearson monitoring social media for "security breaches" related to PARCC was a popular topic of conversation in my network (original story, although the server often has trouble handling the traffic). I'm not going to focus so much on that story here, as many others have written about it, other than to point out one thing. While students don't seem to have the opportunity to agree or disagree to the terms of service of PARCC, our states, school districts and schools do. We all agreed to this, this is part and parcel of administering PARCC to our students. (Not sure if it was just Colorado, but as a proctor I had to sign a form agreeing to the terms of service.) So I think it is worth some conversation at the state, district and school level about whether we are okay with this or not. Schools can't really blame Pearson for doing what they said they would do (although others can).

In response many folks have wondered why we aren't outraged by the many school districts that are also monitoring students' social media use. Now, to the best of my knowledge, my district is not actively monitoring our students use of social media. But in some respects, I am. Let me explain.

As part of my presence on Twitter I engage in at least two activities that wander into the territory of monitoring. I have a search column set up for the name of my school, primarily so that I can retweet mentions of my school and occasionally answer questions or address concerns. And - as a result of various interactions over the years - I follow some students, both former and current. On occasion, both of these activities have resulted in me coming into contact with student behavior that I have acted upon. This ranges from contacting a student to suggest that a particular tweet might not be looked favorably upon by a college admissions officer or future employer (and discuss digital footprint with them), to meeting with a student and their counselor because there is some concern the student might be engaging in behaviors that could be harmful to themselves or others.

Now, I don't think this is "actively monitoring" my student body. I am not attempting to monitor all student accounts, nor am I actively looking for "misbehavior" on the part of our students. But I readily admit that this could be a slippery slope. It's all well and good for me to say that I'm not surveilling our students, but are they just supposed to trust me on that?

This is something I've thought about a lot. A. lot. And I'm still not completely comfortable with where I've landed, because I think this is a very complicated subject and the parameters around it are constantly changing along with the uses of social media. But, at the moment, this is my best attempt to thread the needle of privacy vs. obligation. If we see a student in need, are we not obligated to try to help? I've chosen to err on the side of caring, but that doesn't mean I might not cross the line.

Part of the way I'm currently viewing this is through the lens of a parent. I ask myself as a parent of a teenager, if another caring adult noticed something of concern in my daughter's social media activity (or any activity for that matter), would I want them to ignore it? I would not. On the other hand, I wouldn't want her school (which, conveniently or inconveniently, is also my school) to be searching through her social media activity looking for something we deemed "inappropriate." It's a fine line.

Because this is such a tricky issue, some school districts have implemented policies to limit or forbid employees' use of social media in relation to their students. My district does not currently have such a policy, but they are working on a draft of one (including possible rules around texting). I think this is a mistake. We don't have policy around whether a teacher can talk to a student in the grocery store or at a volleyball game, whether they can call a student's home or what they are allowed to say to them in the hallway, so we don't need policy specifically regarding social media. Our existing policies cover social media just fine, we don't need a new policy for every new technology or social media platform that is created. As near as I can tell, these policies are really not about student safety, but about school district liability. I don't think anyone believes that simply having a policy in place would stop an adult who means harm toward a student to not act, the policy is just there so the school district can say we have a policy against it.

Our students are active in these spaces. We have a choice, we can ignore these spaces and implement policies designed to protect our institutions, or we can thoughtfully engage with our students and try to help them learn, grow and stay safe. I'm reasonably comfortable with my current position, although I'm constantly reexamining it to see if my thoughts have changed. I'm curious as to how others navigate this issue. Is it okay to "infringe" on a student's privacy if they are at risk? How do we determine they are at risk? Who decides?


  1. Well said. I have two teenage daughters and was their principal also. That means I know the kids WELL. I feel like I am obligated as an adult in their lives to touch base with them when I see them reaching out or making an awful decision. I don't look. Sometimes I try to look the other way. When I see it, I feel like I have to address it. If something happened to one of my former kiddos and I chose not to address it, I don't know that I could live with that.
    I need the same from the adults in my daughters' lives.

  2. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., are like city parks. There are a lot of problems occurring there, but schools shouldn't be directly responsible for what happens in the parks. Rather, cyber safety courses and digital citizenship that is part of a school curriculum will go a long way in assuring that students pause before they post and think before they type.

    On the other hand, Google Apps and Office 365 are like digital playgrounds without fences or recess monitors. Problems that occur on these digital playgrounds impact the real world. Because the district or school is providing these accounts, the district has a legal and ethical responsibility to monitor and protect their students there.

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