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How Should Schools Navigate Student Privacy in a Social Media World?

Protecting student identities while encouraging web tools in the classroom is a challenging balancing act.

K-12 education operates in a unique position that is foreign in many ways to its higher ed counterpart. While college kids, who are largely legally adults, are free to explore social media and experiment with new technology tools, in the K-12 environment, consideration always has to be given to student privacy when entering uncharted territories.

A lot of the privacy prioritization in K-12 is legally mandated, thanks to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But FERPA was passed in 1974 in a pre-social media age. It was written to prevent schools from leaking information about students, but what happens when the students (sometimes inadvertently) are the ones doing the leaking?

In a recent post, Mercer Hall and Patricia Russac from the ASIDE Blog, one of 50 Must-Read K-12 IT Blogs selected by EdTech, highlight cartoon avatars and screen names as a way to allow personalization but veil actual identity.

Most projects and social networks encourage users to upload a personal ID or photograph. Student safety, however, is paramount to shelter identities. Clever and quirky avatars, therefore, can help students distinguish their profiles and still remain incognito. An avatar is a customized online icon that represents a user's virtual self. A signature avatar can give a child great pride in his or her masterpiece. Among the many cartoony or creative avatar generators available on the web, many require accounts or email addresses or are not safe for school.

To take advantage of all that the Web affords, workarounds can be used to protect privacy but still allow for a personalized identity. A few ways to do this include generating avatars, setting-up username conventions, creating email shortcuts, and screencapping of content.

The education-approved social networks and cartoon avatars will work on elementary and perhaps some middle school students, but high school kids are a whole different ballgame. Yes, content-filtering solutions can prevent students from accessing social media while they’re connected to school networks, but once they’re on their personal devices, it’s out of the school’s hands.

By the time students get to high school, they’ll likely want to use the “grown-up” social media channels, and there’s not much schools can do to prevent them from doing so. That’s why digital citizenship is key to molding students into digitally savvy, responsible adults.

David Cutler, a history and journalism teacher at Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Fla., recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled “How I Talk to My High-School Students About the Internet.”

In the article, Cutler outlines five questions that he advises his students to ask themselves when engaging in social media activity:

  1. Do I treat others online with the same respect I would accord them in person?
  2. Would my parents be disappointed in me if they examined my online behavior?
  3. Does my online behavior accurately reflect who I am away from the computer?
  4. Could my online behavior hinder my future college and employment prospects?
  5. How could my online behavior affect current and future personal relationships?

It’s not perfect, but ultimately, while schools can and should take steps to guard student privacy online, the best thing educators can do is help students be smart gatekeepers of their online identities.

How does your school promote digital citizenship and protect student privacy? Let us know in the Comments.

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Dec 02 2013 Spice IT

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