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Harnessing Social Media

As personal technology accompanies students to classrooms, school districts are building acceptable use policies (for staff, too)


It used to be so simple. Cell phones and students’ personal digital devices had no place in the classroom. In fact, principals’ offices often had baskets filled with confiscated cell phones by the end of the school day. If students and teachers explored social media, they did so during nonschool hours.

Now, as part of a nationwide effort to embrace digital technology as a pedagogical, skill-building tool, once-banned devices are being embraced in classrooms and integrated into instruction and curricula.

With the rapid spread of 1:1 laptop and tablet programs and the about-face move toward “Bring Your Own Device” practices nationwide, school district leaders are scrambling to devise rules for appropriate use of technology and social media. The challenge is how to allow student exploration and curiosity while protecting them and maintaining reasonable boundaries.

Reactive Measures
The tech world’s own evolving practices don’t make the task any simpler. Last October, Facebook loosened its privacy policy, enabling teenagers’ posts and photos to be visible to anyone who lands on their page. That same week, in the suburban school district of White Plains, N.Y., students’ profane Twitter postings following an emotionally charged varsity boys’ soccer match caused embarrassment for school officials.

Even professional staff get entangled in social media misdeeds. In Coatesville, Pa., the athletic director and superintendent were found to have exchanged racist text messages on district-owned smartphones. In Albuquerque, N.M., the superintendent came under fire for Twitter messages comparing the state’s education secretary to livestock.

Such episodes often lead to reactive, repressive moves that undermine the point of digital learning, says Scott McLeod, director of innovation for the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency in Pocahontas Iowa, and a national leader in the study of educational technology.

“When there are isolated incidents that scare you, it’s seen as a threat, not an opportunity,” says McLeod. He makes the analogy to drunk driving laws as opposed to Prohibition, where the need to have people drive is balanced with appropriate restrictions on inappropriate behavior, rather than banned outright.

Above, Wilda Stanfield (far right), web communication specialist at the State College, Pa., Area School District shown with instructional technology specialists Helen Quinn (left) and Pat Yost, developed the district’s social media guidelines and toolkit and provided training for all administrators. Below, Robert O’Donnell, superintendent in State College, Pa., tweets about a coffee and conversation event hosted by the district.


“Fear and control outbalance the other side, which is that kids are doing powerful and amazing things,” McLeod adds. “The cycles are turning so fast. The entire world is now available to us. You have to implement reasonable and safe guidelines, with kids as collaborators and powerful creators. You teach kids how to drive, you teach kids how to swim — it’s the same for digital citizenship.”

Schools should include students in drafting policies, he says, while making it clear teachers decide when it’s appropriate to take out a device in the classroom. By including students in the process, McLeod adds, “students will help enforce the policy.”

A frequent analogy for acceptable use policies regarding technology is teaching children to cross the street. The dangers of the road, with rapidly rushing cars, don’t mean that children are locked in the house. Instead, responsible adults teach children repeatedly in different circumstances so youngsters have the skills and confidence to do that task independently.

Chuck Dinsfriend, director of instructional technology services for the International Society for Technology in Education, urges school districts to hold public hearings with parents to explain the advantages of social media use, as well as the consequences of not complying with the rules. The strictest controls, with the greatest degree of filtering, ought to be in place for preK through 3rd graders, with progressive relaxation of controls as students mature.

“One of the challenges is that students are bringing in smartphones and their own tablets that are not filtered,” Dinsfriend says. “Most schools can’t filter students’ personal devices.”

All too often, he adds, school administrators’ response is to see their role as an enforcer. “The IT department shouldn’t be a police department,” says Dinsfriend. “The old mentality was ‘lock it and block it.’ Education needs an open and engaging environment. So you have the need for safety and security versus openness and engagement. The challenge for districts is balancing those needs.”

When it comes to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Dinsfriend says, “You have a choice for parents and community, based on curricular goals.” Social media policy needs to reflect a district’s own culture, however it’s defined and expressed.

Two Priorities
In thoughtful and measured ways, school districts nationwide are developing acceptable use policies for social media.

One of those policies has been put in place in the State College, Pa., Area School District where Wilda Stanfield is in charge of web communications for the 6,700-student district. Stanfield shares a necessary first step: Slow down long enough to consider what the district wants to achieve educationally. As State College’s superintendent, Bob O’Donnell, admits, “It’s such a new experience for us. We try to be as strategic as possible. We have two main priorities: Prioritize our relationship to social media in terms of learning and safety.”


Allaying Our Parents’ Fears

Additional Resources

He acknowledges the challenge of keeping pace with the rapid advance of new social media tools — especially when they are in the hands of students well before some educators are even aware of their existence.

“It moves at lightning speed,” O’Donnell says. “We spelled things out, based on our conversations with our teachers, who were key in the development of the guidelines. Students, parents and teachers have been using social media for years. Their understanding is pretty high. We wanted to look at how these tools should be used in the classroom.”

Stanfield, who previously spent 10 years managing communications for a regional medical center, strongly believes implementing appropriate use policies has to come first. “It’s not just ‘gee whiz, this is cool,’” she says. “We need to have a policy, to know why we are doing this and what’s the educational purpose.”

In State College, the district initially asked its teachers how the technology should be used for instruction and spent about a year determining its social use policy. The process included working with a citizens advisory committee for technology, which sought student input to find out what platforms they preferred to use, asked them to look at other districts’ policies and discussed freedom of speech issues, as well.

To ensure staff buy-in to the proposed measures, Stanfield says, “We … set up a social media toolkit and made it user friendly. We trained our administrators first, so they’d be ready to go when we rolled it out.”

Because teachers already subscribe to appropriate professional conduct clauses, she adds, State College felt comfortable simply reminding staff that how they behaved on social media outside school hours needed to conform to the district guidelines.

Maribeth Luftglass (second from right), chief information officer with Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools, ensures students who bring their own devices to school for use in classes follow the district’s acceptable use policy. The district also has created its own mobile app.

Once in place, the policy needed tweaking after some parents reminded district staff that certain classroom tools required parental permission for students under 13. To make it clear, says Stanfield, the policy piece was left relatively lean. Specific details were described in the social media toolkit.

One District’s Influence
One of the nation’s pacesetting districts when it comes to personal technology use in student learning is the Mooresville, N.C., Graded School District. Even there, on-the-ground bumps and hiccups have led to modifications of the school system’s social media use policy. Scott Smith, Mooresville’s chief technology officer, says it has evolved over the past six years.

Under the leadership of Mark Edwards, the 2013 National Superintendent of the Year, Mooresville has become the go-to school venue for learning about the successful rollout of a districtwide 1:1 laptop initiative. Through its summer institutes and monthly visitations by educators from more than 30 school districts in 14 states, the 5,775-student district has had an outsize influence on other school systems’ practices when it comes to tech use in the classroom. More than 2,000 educators during the past four years have witnessed firsthand how Mooresville’s policies actually work in the classroom. Visitors spend half a day in classrooms before participating in a one-hour information and Q&A session.

In Mooresville, every 4th through 12th grader gets a laptop for use in the classroom. Students are allowed to bring their cell phones to class, in case the teacher asks them to text something, but in general the cell phones are meant for use between classes.

“It’s a nonissue,” says Smith. “Kids are connected all the time.”

When the district launched the 1:1 program, every faculty member received a laptop along with a copy of an acceptable use policy for technology that didn’t include social media. During the past six years, the district has revised the policy to add material on social media and increased responsibility from students.

“We found we were deficient in the area of digital citizens,” Smith says, explaining the need to continuously strengthen its policy on acceptable use. As such, the district runs a training session once a month for staff to reinforce responsible use, based on a curriculum adopted from Common Sense Media.

For 2012-13, the district instituted a social media policy for faculty and staff, separate from the digital use policy, “to make sure our faculty and staff know what’s appropriate for engaging with students on social media,” says Smith, who previously worked with educational technology in two other North Carolina districts. To stay abreast of the issues, the district uses two advisory committees, one composed of teachers, the other of parents, which meet quarterly.

“None of these policies is perfect,” Smith concedes.

Welcoming All Devices
The Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools, one of the nation’s biggest with 184,000 students, opted three years ago to make the move to a policy formally encouraging students to bring their own devices for use in school, a practice commonly known as BYOD.

While welcoming all manner of personal technology into the schoolhouse, Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent and chief information officer, says the district keeps a firm hand on the matter.

“We ask our kids to register their devices — smartphone, tablet, laptop, Nook/Kindle,” she says. “You have to have students and parents acknowledge the acceptable use policy.”

A key component of the registration process addresses student rights and responsibilities, and to reach parents and guardians, the district has translated the document describing the policy into eight languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and Korean.

Scott Smith, chief technology officer in Mooresville, N.C., oversees his district’s pacesetting 1:1 laptop initiative that draws visiting educators from across the country eager to see students use school-issued computers.

By having “parents involved in the process,” many administrative headaches have disappeared, Luftglass says. “We used to have to confiscate the devices, which was a complete waste of time, a nightmare.”

Registering the devices appeals to students, who can establish ownership more easily. “We’ve had no issues with theft,” says Luftglass, who brought to the school system her 14 years of managing information technology in the national headquarters of the American Red Cross.

Under the Fairfax County acceptable use protocol, teachers retain authority on where and when to use the devices, and bathrooms are designated as device-free zones. Students are expected to be on the school’s Wi-Fi system, which uses filters to block someone from inadvertently or intentionally wandering into an inappropriate cyberspace neighborhood.

The district applies its rules that govern bullying to cyber bullying, and an “appropriate conduct” clause in teacher contracts covers their use of out-of-school social media. “We don’t put student data on Facebook,” Luftglass says. Teachers are trained to recognize what’s right to post and what isn’t.

A Moving Target
The constant churn in personal technology means that any school district’s acceptable social media use policy can’t be left unattended for long.

Figuring out exactly how to develop and implement an acceptable-use social media policy for a school district can seem like a hopeless catch-up task. Technology changes and evolves almost as soon as a thoughtful policy is in place, or so it seems.

“Districts are struggling to catch up with students, to catch up with what students have,” says Marci Giang, project manager at the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit association for school system technology leaders.

Revisiting and updating these policies on an ongoing basis is a duty no district can escape. These policies aren’t a one-time deal. As the most successful districts demonstrate, responding to change in the technological landscape is imperative if schools expect to do the right thing for their staff, students and community.

Merri Rosenberg is a freelance education writer in Ardsley, N.Y. E-mail: merri.rosenberg@gmail.com


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