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Social Media Policies in Higher Education


In a recent post I reviewed the results of EDUCAUSE's latest survey on students and technology in higher education. Student preferences for and practices with social media were outlined in the report, but what about faculty members? How are colleges and universities addressing social media use by both students and instructors for academic purposes? One of the key recommendations from this study was the need for higher education administrators to review their institution-level policies about faculty use of social media, and to make revisions that address the use of social media in academic contexts.

Do we need more policies and guidelines?

There are many potential stakeholders in the development of an official policy at any institution. This group includes public relations and marketing professionals, legal advisors, and technology support, as well as students and instructors. It seems that everyone has advice and preferences, and will be affected in one way or another by any policy that is put into place. What are the major issues to be considered?

Legalities: There is a need to provide guidelines that legally protect both individual faculty members and the institution itself from problems that could result from the inappropriate use of social media. One of the challenges is the present state of laws that affect communication, privacy, and Internet. Higher education consultant Mark Greenfield points out that "Current federal law, state law, and university policies are painfully outdated. Social media will require a whole new paradigm." And there are multiple legal issues to consider, including FERPA, copyright, and intellectual property laws. It's also important for instructors to understand that they are representatives of the university when communicating via social media, especially when interacting with students.

Safety: Another resource from EDUCAUSE, an article about the need for social media policies, highlights the positive and negative effects that can be expected, including the "potentially dangerous use of social media by students." Cyberbullying is defined as behavior that occurs "when someone purposely embarrasses, harasses, or torments another using digital media." Incidents like the one at Rutgers, which resulted in a student's suicide, get a lot of media attention, but there are other cases as well where inappropriate pictures are shared or rumors are started and spread online. This harassment doesn’t just happen to students. Boston University's collection of cyberbullying articles includes examples of situations in which professors have been harassed online by their former students. Official policies can help to not only protect victims and allow for a response when problems arise, but also promote safe and appropriate use of social media for everyone.

It's a Balancing Act

There are pros and cons to establishing policies about how we communicate with one another as students and teachers. While ground rules are helpful in setting expectations and defining appropriate use, they can also be limiting, especially when implemented with emerging technologies that are still in an experimental and explorational stage. Creating a balance is ideal, but often easier said than done when it comes to when and where we use social media, determining the possible benefits and challenges, and planning how accounts will be managed.

Considering personal and professional use: The lines are blurring between our personal and professional identities, especially online. Where it was once thought advantageous to have separate personal and professional accounts, it can be a lot to manage. And, they are all accessed by the same search engines and the same algorithms, so privacy settings become important if you choose to split your personality with multiple accounts for separate personal and academic interactions. Developing policies and guidelines should include some consideration for different types of communication and contexts.

Weighing risk and reward: "Social media channels present a unique amount of risk when compared with traditional media because of their openness, their ease of use, the speed with which information or misinformation can be disseminated to a large audience, and the lack of awareness many social media users have on how public or private their favorite channels actually are." This statement from Higher Ed Impact [PDF] covers a lot of ground and focuses on the risk involved. Social media's openness, ease of use, and speed of dissemination can also be leveraged for positive outcomes in a learning environment, bringing rewards in a range of contexts from recruiting and advising to teaching and career development. While early reactions of some administrators have been to prohibit instructors' use of social media with students, the nature and prevalence of these kinds of communication tools make it difficult to avoid them completely. And doing so would eliminate a viable way to reach students.

Monitoring and managing accounts: What constitutes a university's "official communication channel?" The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Sam Houston State University recently drafted guidelines requiring "campus-related" account holders to provide login and password information to school officials, who could then monitor and edit information in these accounts. This brought criticism from several groups, such as the students working on the school newspaper, that use university resources and social media channels in their work, but consider the administration’s demand for access a form of censorship. Drawing clear lines in this way may not always be possible and will continue to spark discussion and debate about issues of control and trust, as well as accountability and liability.

Developing Social Media Policies

Does your school have official policies or published guidelines about instructor and student use of social media? Many schools are either modifying existing guidelines or creating new policies to specifically address the use of social media for academic purposes. You may even be charged with helping your institution develop social media policies as part of a committee or task force. If your institution does not have policies in place you may want to set guidelines for your own use with the students in your courses. Fortunately, many examples are available to help you make decisions about how you will proceed.

  • Social Media Policy Resource Guide for Higher Ed: This post from Mike Petroff, Web and Enrollment Technology Manager for Emerson College, is geared toward those looking to develop new social media policies and manage institution-level accounts. Examples from nine other institutions are linked here for you to review and compare. Petroff also summarizes the "key messages" in these policies, among them protecting confidential information, respecting your audience, and obeying terms of service on specific social media platforms.
  • Social Media Governance Policy Database: Access existing social media policies and guidelines from over 150 higher education institutions, corporations, and government agencies in both the U.S. and international locations. This list provides a wide range of perspectives from the American Red Cross and Ball State University to the UK Ministry of Defence and Vanderbilt University.
  • Social Media Policies: EDUCAUSE's collection of social media policy resources includes publications, presentations, policy examples from colleges and universities, and related blogs. The larger collection also allows you to review additional campus policy topics, such as email, ethics, and privacy. 

Higher Ed Impact advises us to keep an overall recommendation in mind when developing social media usage policies. They should include "unrestrictive but intentional guidelines" focusing not on the limitations and what is not allowed, but instead on what is allowed and techniques for using social media to enhance communication in a learning environment. It is also important to include materials that help all users understand the permanent nature of social media and digital content. Consider that guidelines and policies aren’t enough on their own. Make institutional resources available to help faculty members and students learn more about social media use and support their efforts along the way.

There is no one solution for all instructors, all institutions, all students, all contexts, or even all technologies, but every conversation helps to sort out the possibilities and craft effective practices. Where are you receiving guidance on social media in your courses and with your students? Look for ways to get involved in the discussions at your college or university, to both share your experiences and participate in the decisions being made. If you are using Twitter, join the #SMedu chat for additional information and conversations about the use of social media in education.

November 15th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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