Applying NYC’s Social Media Guidelines in Higher Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Social media is here to stay. We use it to organize our lives, to stay in touch with friends and families, to promote our businesses, and even to educate our children. This latter use, however has been a source of some controversy because of the blurring of personal/professional boundaries that can occur and the potential for abuse in these less formal relationships (Huffington Post, 17 May, 2012). There are as many proponents of using social media in education as opponents, and as this infographic from  illustrates, there are ample reasons on both sides of the debate.

Many institutions across the country have been establishing their own guidelines for the use of social media in education and by educators. The country’s largest school system, the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE), recently released its own comprehensive set of social media guidelines for its employees. As the largest educational institution in the country, the policies of the NYC DOE carry a lot of weight in the world of education and are likely to be adopted or adapted by many more school systems in the coming months. But do these detailed guidelines have any applicability to higher education, where the use of social media is also on the rise and encountering many of the same obstacles? Here is a look at the NYC DOE social media guidelines and their applicability to higher education.

Definition of Social Media
The first useful piece of information that the guidelines provide is to clearly define what constitutes social media:  "Social media is defined as any form of online publication or presence that allows interactive communication, including, but not limited to, social networks, blogs, Internet websites, Internet forums, and wikis" (NYC DOE, Spring 2012). The guidelines then further draw a distinction between professional and personal social media:

  • "Professional social media is a work-related social media activity that is either school-based (e.g., a DOE principal establishing a Facebook page for his/her school or a DOE teacher establishing a blog for his/her class), or non-school-based (e.g., a DOE office establishing a Facebook page to facilitate the office’s administration of a Chancellor’s Regulation). "
  • "Personal social media use is a non work-related social media activity (e.g., a DOE central administrative employee establishing a Facebook page or a Twitter account for his/her own personal use)."
    (NYC DOE, Spring 2012)

Both the definition and the distinctions between personal and professional use are relevant to higher education. Where the boundaries begin to blur in higher education is in the use of other types of social networks such as professional networking sites like LinkedIn. An examination of the actual guidelines helps shed light on this issue.

Separation of Personal and Professional
According to the NYC DOE, employees who engage in professional social media activities should maintain separate professional and personal email addresses and should not use their personal email address for professional social media activities. Further clarifying the policy, the guidelines state that, "professional social media presence should utilize a professional email address and should be completely separate from any personal social media presence maintained by the DOE employee." (NYC DOE, Spring 2012)

This distinction is an excellent starting place for educators at any level to implement when considering the use of social media with their students.  The NYC guidelines further state that any email address used repeatedly for professional communication should be considered to be a professional account. Essentially, at least in public education, if you use it for work, you lose any reasonable expectation of privacy regarding that account. Again, this is a useful guideline for professors, who would be well served for their own protection to keep a clear distinction between their personal and professional communications – keeping students on the professional side of the divide.

Guidelines for Establishing Social Media Accounts
Delving into the actual meat of some of the NYC DOE social media guidelines sheds further light on how educators can maintain a professional relationship with students while still taking advantage of the benefits of social media. I am going to disregard any of the guidelines that don’t apply to college students because of their status as adults or because they simply don’t make sense for higher ed.

  • "Professional social media sites that are school-based should be designed to address reasonable instructional, educational or extra-curricular program matters" and "Professional social media sites that are non-school based should have a reasonable relationship to the mission and function of the DOE office creating the site" (NYC DOE, Spring 2012).
    Applying it to higher ed – This guideline makes sense for college and university educators. There really is no reason to employ social media in higher education if there is not a reasonable expectation that it is being used to further course objectives, learning, or to aid in the formation of a learning community in support of the course content.
  • "To the extent possible, based on the social media site being used, DOE supervisors or their designees should be given administrator rights or access to the professional social media accounts established by DOE employees." And "DOE employees will be required to obtain their supervisor’s approval before setting up a professional social media presence" (NYC DOE, Spring 2012).<  
    Applying it to higher ed – Short of requiring supervisor approval for social media use, this is a sound suggestion at any level. Though it may appear as an undermining of instructor autonomy in higher education, when a faculty member uses a university-supported LMS, for example, administrators and other faculty members have access to the site, so granting access to non-campus-based social media sites that are being used for classroom purposes should not be a major encroachment on faculty autonomy. Aside from that, it provides a certain level of safety from later accusations of misuse if there are other faculty members or administrators "present" in the virtual space. Also, if for some reason the faculty member becomes incapacitated, the administrator can fill in or notify the site participants of the situation.
  • "Supervisors and their designees are responsible for maintaining a list of all professional social media accounts within their particular school or office" "DOE employees will be required to obtain their supervisor’s approval before setting up a professional social media presence"(NYC DOE, Spring 2012).
    Applying it in higher ed – From a department chair’s, dean’s, or IT department’s  perspective it makes a certain amount of sense to maintain a list of what technology is being used in association with classes happening on campus. For chairs and deans, there is always value in knowing what the faculty members you are responsible for are up to, and how it may be contributing to their professional development. From the IT perspective, this is important for technical support and to keep track of new technologies that could be of use to other instructors.
  • "Professional DOE social media sites should include language identifying the sites as professional social media DOE sites. For example, the professional sites can identify the DOE school, department or particular grade that is utilizing the site"(NYC DOE, Spring 2012).
    Applying it in higher ed – Applying this in higher education social media contexts allows for an increased degree of professionalism on the sites, aids in institutional branding, and again, provides an added degree of accountability for students that the social media use is an official part of the course and is sanctioned by the institution.

These guidelines all provide a sound strategy for establishing a social media presence in higher education. Applying them to your teaching assures you and your students of an experience that falls within the academic mission of your institution and helps to protect both you and the institution from accusations of misuse of the medium. Tomorrow I will examine the NYC DOE guidelines for interacting with students and managing exchanges on social media sites.

Join the conversation about the use of social media in higher education on Google+ or on Twitter @drjwmarquis.