Examining NYC DOE’s Social Media Guidelines for Interaction

by Staff Writers

Yesterday's post, NYC's Social Media Guidelines for Educators, examined the New York City Department of Education's (NYC DOE) guidelines for establishing and managing social media accounts. Today's post looks at the organization's policies for interacting with students and their families using social media and how some of these policies might be applied to higher education.

For starters, the guidelines explain the expectations for professional behavior when using social media in education:

  • "DOE employees should treat professional social media space and communication like a classroom and/or a professional workplace. The same standards expected in DOE professional settings are expected on professional social media sites. If a particular type of behavior is inappropriate in the classroom or a professional workplace, then that behavior is also inappropriate on the professional social media site" and " DOE employees should exercise caution, sound judgment, and common sense when using professional social media sites" (NYC DOE, Spring 2012).

    Applying it to higher ed – This is common sense, but worth spelling out explicitly in any professional setting that utilizes social media. The presence that is established in social media is a reflection on the organization and is largely viewable by the public. Assuring that this image matches the professional standards of the field should be an obvious goal of anyone using social media in a professional setting.
  • "DOE employees should use privacy settings to control access to their professional social media sites to ensure that professional social media communications only reach the employees' intended audience. However, DOE employees should be aware that there are limitations to privacy settings. Private communication published on the Internet can easily become public. Furthermore, social media sites can change their current default privacy settings and other functions. As a result, employees have an individualized responsibility to understand the rules of the social media site being utilized"(NYC DOE, Spring 2012).

    Applying it to higher ed – While this seems like it should be common knowledge for anyone using the Internet in general, but especially social media, it often is not. In K-12 education there are issues of children's safety to be considered, which are not as applicable in higher education. However, making sure that your classroom interactions are secure helps to foster a safe and open learning environment for your students. The classroom should be a supportive place in which young people can explore their thoughts and work out complex and sometimes controversial points of view. Assuring that your privacy settings contribute to this sort of open exchange is essential to anyone using social media in the classroom.
  • "Professional social media communication should be in compliance with existing Chancellor's Regulations, DOE policies and applicable laws, including, but not limited to, prohibitions on the disclosure of confidential information and prohibitions on the use of harassing, obscene, discriminatory, defamatory or threatening language" and "No personally identifiable student information may be posted by DOE employees on professional social media sites, including student photographs, without the consent of the students‟ parents"(NYC DOE, Spring 2012).

    Applying it to higher ed – While additional measures may be needed to ensure the safety of K-12 students, higher education is still governed by FERPA (Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act) guidelines for the protection of student privacy. These guidelines, or a reasonable facsimile of them, should also apply to the use of social media. A sample of social media guidelines for higher education which provides some additional clarification is available from the University of Michigan.

Professional Social Media Sites are Not Yours
In addition to the regulations governing interactions with students and their rights to privacy on social media sites, the NYC DOE guidelines also establish who "owns" social media sites and chains of responsibility for the content appearing on these sites.

  • "Employees using professional social media have no expectation of privacy with regard to their use of such media. The DOE will regularly monitor professional social media sites to protect the school community" (NYC DOE, Spring 2012).

    Applying it to higher ed – This idea, in addition to the one which follows it (which specifies that DOE supervisors will remove any inappropriate content and contact the authorities), is not particularly relevant at the university level. While they may not be bad ideas, the idea of any college professor inviting Big Brother-like monitoring of their interactions with students would not be particularly popular on college campuses. There are issues of academic freedom, reappointment, and tenure at play here which would make your average professor balk at the idea of having anyone from the administration monitoring their activities at this level. It certainly makes sense to allow administrative access to others in the university as a way of ensuring that misconduct doesn't occur, but active and aggressive monitoring won't work.
  • "When establishing professional social media sites, supervisors and employees should consider the intended audience for the site and consider the level of privacy assigned to the site, specifically, whether the site should be a private network (for example, it is limited to a particular class or particular grade within a school) or a public network (for example, anyone within the school or a larger group within the DOE community can participate). It is a recommended practice for professional social media sites to be private networks, unless there is a specific educational need for the site to be a public network" (NYC DOE, Spring 2012).

    Applying it to higher ed – This harkens back to the earlier point about making sure that security and privacy settings are appropriate to the intent of the course. What this policy does not allow for, however, that is potentially very important in higher education, is for the classroom use of social media to be intentionally public. There is a real potential for students in higher education to share their thoughts with a wider audience as a way of incorporating real world experiences into the learning environment. Additionally, students can use social media to interact with working professionals to gain insights into the fields they are studying. It may be appropriate and advisable for those using social media in higher education to establish multiple accounts with clear public/private delineations in order to accommodate this kind of interactivity while also providing safe environments in which student can explore and critique.

Personal Social Media Use and Students
Finally, the NYC DOE mandates a strict prohibition against the use of personal social media with currently enrolled students:

"In order to maintain a professional and appropriate relationship with students, DOE employees should not communicate with students who are currently enrolled in DOE schools on personal social media sites. This provision is subject to the following exceptions: (a) communication with relatives and (b) if an emergency situation requires such communication, in which case the DOE employee should notify his/her supervisor of the contact as soon as possible" (NYC DOE, Spring 2012).

While I agree with this policy at the surface level, I think there is a distinction that can be made between personal social media interactions with K-12 students and undergraduate or graduate students. The relationship in K-12 is one between a child and an adult. In higher education, particularly in graduate school, the relationship more closely resembles one between peers, mentor/mentee, or even collaborators. There are many instances in which personal social media use between educators and students could be appropriate in higher education – it may be desired to maintain contact after graduation when a previously used social media network may no longer be accessible by students; personal job search sites such as LinkedIn also fall under the umbrella of personal social media, but may be extremely useful to students who can collect recommendations or connect to professionals in their field through their professors.

This issue presents the educational professional with a dilemma, even in the later stages of high school, where the boundaries between personal and professional social media begin to blur. In my own social media use, I maintain "professional" accounts on what would normally be considered personal social sites through which I can remain connected to my students and facilitate connecting them with other professionals. In this way, I can maintain a professional distance while still providing a personal connection and giving my students access to the valuable professional social networks that I have established via social media. These students, in turn, become contributing members of these networks and can pass that benefit on to subsequent generations.

Overall, the NYC DOE social media policies are valuable both for K-12 education and higher ed and should be considered by any educational institution that is using social media as a significant tool for learning, building alumni relations, or social interaction.

Share your own opinion about the use of social media in education on Google+ or on Twitter @drjwmarquis.