When I first began teaching online, I considered using a social media hashtag for class activities and related content. To make it simple and a cohesive conversation, I thought to use the course prefix and number, ie #THE4400. When discussing with a colleague, it was suggested this could potentially violate FERPA. Unsure about this, I researched further.
Often students use social media- different platforms for diverse purposes and at different stages in their life. They share information about themselves publicly. Instructors are seeking to engage with students where they already digitally reside, plus social media a “free” tool to use. Therefore, many are interested in using social media for educational purposes. However, privacy concerns are often raised.
Is social media specifically covered by FERPA? No. Although, if using social media for your classroom activities, should you think about FERPA implications? Of course. Let’s discuss what some of those considerations might be.
FERPA, Protecting Student Records
Universities are required to keep records on students. Directory information is some data that can be released publicly. This includes student names, email addresses, participation in officially recognized activities, and photographs. Most all other student data is educational records, protected by FERPA.
What is FERPA? The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was instituted in 1974 to provide four rights to students, pertaining to the privacy of their educational records. Students:
- can see information being kept about themselves
- can seek amendment to those records, and in some cases, may append a statement to a record
- can consent to disclose records to others, and
- can file complaints with the FERPA office if they feel their rights have been violated.
One of the key points regarding educational records is that it is data that is maintained by the university. Think of examples like social security numbers, grades, class schedules, and medical information. My colleague’s FERPA concern was related to student’s engagement with a course hashtag, thus revealing they were enrolled in my course at that particular time (similar to a class schedule, but less relevant for a fully online class). Canvas messages and university account emails can be considered educational records. However, a WordPress blog or a text message might not because it is not maintained by the university. A safe bet is to always check with your institution regarding FERPA guidelines before using social media for your classes.
5 Tips for Using Social Media in Higher Education
Inform students social media will be used in class and how it will be used. Include a FERPA statement on the course syllabus.
Do not require students to release personal information publicly. Directly let them know that their material may be viewed by others. Students under the age of 18 should get their parent’s consent to post work publicly.
For those who need or prefer to do so, allow students to use an alias. Provide this opportunity in advance to your students. When possible, offer an alternative assignment.
Include a module or lesson on digital citizenship, digital footprints and internet privacy.
As the instructor, do not discuss student’s grades using social media; instead use a password protected and FERPA compliant tool, like the Canvas gradebook or Canvas Inbox messages.
Read more about FERPA and using social media for education.
- Protecting Student Privacy on Social Media
- Is Your Social Media FERPA Compliant?
- FERPA & Social Media: Thoughts for Social Work Education
Disclaimer: FERPA is public law. All information in this article/post is for general informational purposes and is not a substitute for individualized advice from a qualified legal practitioner.
What best practices do you use or recommend when leveraging social networking platforms in your courses?
This post is part of the "Teaching with FERPA" blogging challenge; have you entered yet?
Sky V. King