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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Social Media Guidelines

Steven Anderson

District Instructional Technologist/Independent Educational Consultant

Editor's Note: Check out the series of "How to Create Social Media Guidelines for Your School" articles that Steven Anderson wrote for Edutopia in May 2012, or download the full version as a PDF.

Look what happens on the Internet in one minute.

Credit: Shanghai Web Designers


More and more, social media is becoming a part of our daily lives. Just today, Mashable is out with a report that says Pinterest (which is less than a year old) is the #3 social network in the U.S. This report mentions that the amount of monthly traffic Facebook receives is seven billion page views, and Twitter receives 182. Again, these are just U.S. statistics. If we were to look at the numbers worldwide, I would guess they would be much, much higher.

But it isn't just adults who are moving more of their lives to online spaces. In a recent Pew Internet survey, 73 percent of all teens used social networks daily. The most popular of these is Facebook; however, Twitter, Myspace and even LinkedIn are not far behind.

And it isn't just teens. The #1 social network for kids under the age of 13 is Club Penguin. It is visited more times each day than the New York Times.

This data is staggering.

The Age of Personalization

Being involved in social media allows adults, teens and kids connect with each other, learn with each other and grow together. If I live in a small town in Kansas and I am interested in urban planning or engineering or snake research, there might not be anyone in my town that I can connect with. But thanks to the endless connections on social media, I can send a Tweet to someone, post a message on a Facebook page or join a Ning of others with similar interests. I don't have to go to the world anymore, I can bring the world to me.

We live in an age of personalization.

Yet when many of our students reach the schoolhouse door, it's like the Internet and social media don't exist. We tell students to turn off their cell phones and put away their tablets. You can't learn with those. Facebook for learning? No way. Sending Tweets? That's for celebrities. Trying to do research? Sorry, we block a bunch of websites, so that is going to be tough.

The list goes on and on and on.

A 21st Century School Improvement Plan

One of the schools I work with wanted to change that direction. They knew that social media was a bigger part of their students' lives, and that there were endless possibilities for personalizing their teachers' professional development. And they knew it was important to teach students (and faculty) how to live in this age of hyperconnectivity. I partnered with their Technology Facilitator Sam Walker and Melissa Edwards, a fellow District Instructional Technologist, to create an environment that embraced the use of social networking and social media, but also taught students how to live in that world.

It began in the 2010-2011 school year. We needed a plan first. What was it we wanted to accomplish? To truly make this a part of the school culture, we had to add it to the School Improvement Plan. In North Carolina, every school is required to submit a plan each year identifying areas of weakness and how it will improve them. These areas are usually related to testing goals or closing achievement gaps. In addition to those five goals, this school added a sixth goal that was the first of its kind in the state. They wanted to "create an environment where faculty are educated and can educate students in the 21st century literacies." So our focus was going to be not only on the students, but we planned to work with faculty as well.

There were many parts to our goal. But one of our areas of focus would be on the district's social networking policies. We wanted to see how we could use them to encourage our teachers' use of social media products, because in our many conversations with them, most said they did not use social media professionally because they were unsure as to the rules the district had for their use. They didn't want to do something that the district would see as a violation of policy, so they just stayed away.

As Sam, Melissa and I looked deeper into our policies, we realized that we didn't need anything policy-wise. Why create something that might handcuff the ability of teachers to do their job effectively? We had Standards of Professional Conduct. We had policies on student communication and communication using school-owned devices. We saw these and decided what we needed were some simple best practices. These included things like:

  • Protecting your own privacy
  • Being honest
  • Respecting copyright laws
  • Disclaimers
  • Thinking about consequences

Best Practices vs. New Rules

We developed a document and took it to our School Attorney, and with her blessing we gave it to the staff. Soon, more schools in our district wanted them, and now several have given copies to their teachers. And many are taking the next step and going over modified versions with their students. This is just a list of common sense best practices that, if followed, will allow anyone to use any type of social networking site, or social media in general, better and more effectively.

I work with districts across the country on developing social media policies. The biggest desire is to prevent inappropriate contact between students and staff. So administrators feel that if they block the use of social media products, they will prevent this type of behavior. The sad reality is that blocking won't prevent it. If someone really wants to initiate contact, they will find a way around the block. So why punish the educators who are doing right and want to harness the power of social media and social networking by limiting them with the fear of something that may or may not happen? As we've seen in our own district, most districts, if not all, already have policies in place for communication with students or through school-owned devices. And most, if not all, have standards of professional conduct. Why create additional policies that will do more harm than good for learning?

When districts come to me to talk about developing the policies, I point to the work done at Kimmel Farm Elementary and the development of the Best Practices for Social Media Use as a model that can be replicated anywhere, at any level. I encourage any district or school thinking about social media policies to look at what you already have in place and develop or adopt best practices. Then spend time with staff, students and the community learning how to work within those best practices. Encourage the use of social media for anytime, anywhere learning.

Steven Anderson

District Instructional Technologist/Independent Educational Consultant
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