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Tech Leadership                                           Page 11

 

Why You Don’t Need an

Employee Social Media Policy    

 

BY SCOTT McLEOD

Tech Leadership McLeod 

I recently posted on my blog about an Iowa school district’s proposed social media policy for its employees. After 53 comments and a great deal of off-line discussion, the district decided to return to the drawing board. A similar policy that all but prohibited staff use of social media with students was adopted by the New York City Department of Education. It too generated much attention, most of it highly critical.

These two districts aren’t alone in trying to curtail inappropriate technology-facilitated communication between employees and students. Superintendents and school boards across the country are scrambling to enact formal board policies regulating social media usage by teachers and other staff. Lost amid the fear, however, are five critical considerations that suggest most school districts may be barking up the wrong tree.

Prevailing Rules
First and foremost, your district already should have policies in place (crafted long before the Internet) regarding inappropriate communication and behavior between employees and students, employee disclosure of confidential organizational information, and other actions that previously occurred in analog. These policies should exist alongside relevant state laws and licensure regulations regarding educator conduct. An employee social media policy thus doesn’t usually cover any new ground. If need be, modify your existing policies to include electronic communications and be done with it.

Second, employee social media policies typically fail to make important distinctions between the behavior and the medium. Doug Johnson, director of technology in the Mankato, Minn., schools, believes we engage in “format bigotry” when we fail to distinguish between content and the container in which it comes. Social media tools such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter are just ways to communicate, not unlike telephones, handwritten notes, face-to-face speech and e-mail. What you’re really concerned about is inappropriate behavior regardless of the communication medium in which it occurs.

Third, if you’re bound and determined to regulate tools rather than behavior, understand that the tools now change daily. What’s hot today is gone tomorrow. How often do you want to be revisiting your policy? Also recognize that each new generation of tools brings accompanying hysteria that later proves baseless. MySpace, Facebook and Twitter were once deemed evil incarnate. Now that they are commonplace, the fear rhetoric over social networking has diminished substantially.

Fourth, remember that policies are explicit messages about what you value. How are you going to transition your students, parents and educators to a world in which digital tools and social media suffuse everything when you’re demonizing those very same technologies? Maybe what you really need is to flip this issue on its head. What would a policy look like that encouraged social media use by students and educators?

Antagonizing Staff
Finally, recognize the potential negative consequences of an overly restrictive board policy. Most schools already struggle to find technology-savvy teachers. I was struck by the sentiments of many educators who commented online they would never work in districts with social media policies like those of New York City or the Iowa district. Also, courts already have stated they are more than willing to uphold educators’ First Amendment speech rights. Consider what occurred in Missouri in 2011, when state legislators tried to prohibit all private electronic contact between educators and students.

Crafting effective board policy is admittedly difficult. As you do so, however, you should not be governed by statistically insignificant, unsubstantiated fear. Nor should you demonize particular communication media, especially when they’re transforming the world around us. Focus on regulating behavior, not tools, and you should be just fine. And feel free to send your proposed policy my way if you’d like some feedback.

 

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