Students and Social Media

10 min read

Update: I put out a second part to this post based on some conversations. End Update.

Introductory note: In this post, I reference hashtags and tweets I have seen that compromise student privacy. Ordinarily, I would link to the hashtags or tweets, and/or post obscured screenshots. In this post, I am doing neither because I do not want to further compromise the privacy of the people in the examples I have seen.

When teachers post pictures of students on social media, it raises the question of whose story is being told, and in whose voice, and for what audience. Multiple different answers exist for each of these questions: the "story" being can told can range from the story of a kid's experience in the class, to a teacher's documenting of class activities, to a teacher documenting activities that are prioritized within a district. In most cases, even when the story is told from the student's perspective, the voice telling the story is an adult voice. The audience for these pieces can also vary widely, from parents, to other teachers, to the district front office, to the broader education technology world.

While students often figure prominently in classroom images posted on social media, student voice is rarely highlighted, and students are rarely the audience. The recent example of the IWishMyTeacherKnew hashtag - where a teacher took student thoughts and words from 8, 9 and 10 year olds and posted them on Twitter, and parlayed that experience into a book deal - provides a clear example of student words appropriated to tell an adult story. As a side note, it's also worth highlighting that student handwriting is a biometric identifier under FERPA, so sharing samples of student handwriting online without prior parental consent is, at best, a legal gray area. To emphasize: asking your students what matters and what they care about is great. Publishing these personal details to the world via social media - especially when their words can be traced back to them within their local community - prioritizes an adult need over learner's needs.

When posting student pictures on social media, the adults in the room need to be careful about the details they include with their images. I have seen examples of teachers doing a great job documenting their classroom when they show pictures of kids working on a project, and the pictures focus on work, do not include student names, and do not include student faces (or only include them as part of a group shot, not as a close up portrait). Conversely, I have also seen teachers post pictures of kids that include a close up of the student's face and a student name tag, where the teacher's bio identifies their school and grade. Teachers should also ensure that the location services for photos is off, otherwise they can share precise geographic locations.

In some more extreme examples, I have seen teachers post portraits of students that include a name tag, grade, and a reference to a specific EdTech vendor. Whiled it is great to see teachers highlighting student effort and growth, including a specific tech vendor in the callout with a picture of an elementary school student looks a lot like a kid being used as an unpaid spokesperson to market a tech product. To make matters worse, I have also seen examples where these pictures included usernames and passwords of students. To be crystal clear, writing usernames and password names down in a publicly accessible place shouldn't happen. Posting these passwords to the open web is a surefire way to make this bad practice worse.

When a teacher posts a picture of a student that include the above details, they are potentially sharing directory information or parts of an educational record, as defined under FERPA. Beyond what is covered under FERPA, we must ask whose needs are served by sharing this information on commercial social media - the student, the teacher, or the school? Taking pictures is fine. Recognizing students for work and progress is obviously fine. Tying that work and progress to a specific app or vendor is less fine. Posting this collection of information on social media has the potential to cross some serious legal and ethical lines.

Given that some of this information is covered under FERPA, parents have some rights to control how and where information is shared. Schools and districts can play a key role in ensuring that learners have full and unfettered access to their basic rights to privacy. Unfortunately, many districts do not approach this issue with adequate flexibility or understanding of how their policies can protect or impair a parent's ability to access their rights. For a pretty typical example, we will take a look at the opt-out and disclosure form from Baltimore County Public Schools.

The form has three sections: FERPA Directory Information Opt-Out, Intellectual Property Opt-Out, and Student Photographs, Videos and/or Sound Recordings Opt-Out. These are the right categories to include in an opt-out form, but the way the opt-outs are structured are hostile to student privacy.

Taking a closer look, starting with the FERPA Directory Information Opt-Out, the section closes with this explanatory note, followed by three options.

BCPS opt-out excerpt - FERPA

Note: If you “opt-out” of the release of directory information, BCPS will not release your child’s directory information to anyone, including, but not limited to: Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, scouts, PTA, booster clubs, yearbook/memory book companies that take photographs at schools and/or other agencies and organizations.

The reference to Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA is telling here: these outside vendors are used to run childcare programs for parents that need it. Because the district takes a blanket approach where parents are required to choose all or nothing, the current district opt-out policy appears to place a barrier in the way of parents who want to protect their child's privacy and need childcare. The likely scenario here is that parents who opt out of data sharing at the district level need to make additional arrangements with the childcare providers at the school level. While this is not an insurmountable obstacle, it creates unneeded friction for parents, which can be read as a disincentive for parents and children to access their rights under FERPA.

Districts can address this issue very easily by adding a single check box to the their form that authorized the release of directory information to school-approved childcare providers.

Moving on to the Intellectual Property Opt-Out section, Baltimore County Public Schools takes a similarly broad approach with student's IP rights. The terms of the opt-out form combine multiple different activities, with multiple different means of both publishing and distribution, into an all-or-nothing option.

BCPS opt-out form - IP Rights

Having a student's intellectual property uploaded to a web site with weak privacy protections is a very different situation than having a kid covered in the news, or having a kid participating in a school-sponsored video. The fact that a district conflates these very different activities undercuts the protections available to learners. This also creates the impression that the district values district-created processes more than student privacy and learner agency.

Moving on to Student Photographs, Videos and/or Sound Recordings Opt-Out, Baltimore County Public Schools again takes an all-or-nothing approach.

BCPS opt-out - Photos, Videos, Recordings

If the parent denies such permission, the student’s picture will not be used in any BCPS publication or communication vehicle, including, but not limited to, printed materials, web sites, social media sites or the cable television channel operated, produced or maintained by BCPS’ schools or offices, nor will my child’s picture be part of a school yearbook, memory book, memory video, sports team, club or any other medium.

Social media, yearbook, childcare, and sports activities are all very different events. When schools structure permissions in a way that removes agency from parents and kids, they burn goodwill. Also, given that teachers and districts are still publishing pictures of kids online in ways that share personal information, including (on some rare occasions) passwords, parents should have some granular ability to differentiate between sharing in a yearbook and sharing on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Until schools and districts consistently get this right, they have an obligation to err on the side of restraint. To state the obvious, kids don't walk through the school doors so adults can use their likeness and work on social media. Similarly, yearbooks and social media are very different things, and yearbook companies and social media companies have very different business models, and - in most cases - very different approaches to handling data.

The solution here is pretty straightforward: provide parents a granular set of options. A parent or kid should be able to say that they want to be in the yearbook; a high school athlete should be able to say they want to be in the program or in the paper; a musician should be able to be acknowledged in a newsletter - and these options do not need to be tethered to sharing directory information, streamlined access to childcare, or indiscriminate sharing on social media. That is a reasonable request, and if a teacher, school, or district lacks the data handling and media literacy skills requried to make that happen, then we have an opportunity for teachers and district staff to develop and grow professionally.

The argument we generally hear against allowing parents and students real choices over their privacy rights is that the burden would be too much for schools to handle. However, we only need to look at how parental rights are managed with regards to health curriculum to see the hollowness of that argument. In Baltimore County Public Schools - as with many schools in many districts nationwide - parents and students can opt-out of individual units in the health curriculum. Districts have been managing this granular level of opt out for years, and somehow - miraculously - the educational system has not tumbled into ruin as a result.

The main difference, of course, is that in many states parental opt-out rights are required and defined by law.

For parents: use the opt-out form provided by the World Privacy Forum to assert your rights. In an email accompanying the form, explain that you would like to see your district develop more flexible policies on opt-out and data sharing.

For teachers: if you are going to share student images and work on social media, make intentional choices about what you share, how you share, and why you share. Additionally, ask your district about more granular policies for parents and learners. While the initial change might be hard, over time the more flexible rules will make your work easier, and increase trust between you, your students, and their guardians.

For districts: get ahead of the curve and start offering more flexible options. As we have seen with health curriculum and with privacy in the last few years, state legislatures are not shy about introducing and passing legislation. Districts have an opportunity to address these concerns proactively. It would be great to see them take advantage of this opportunity.