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Books in Translation

Winter 2011 | Volume 17 | Number 4
Can Social Media and School Policies be "Friends"?

Can Social Media and School Policies be "Friends"?

Laura Varlas

Between 2004 and 2009, the amount of time that kids ages 2 to 11 spent online increased by 63 percent, according to a Nielsen study. Driving these trends is increasing mobile access, which research from International Data Corp. predicts will eclipse wired access to the Internet by 2015. "There's no reason schools shouldn't compete with other social media sites for part of this time," Karl Meinhardt, director of social media for the Idaho Technology Council, told the social media news blog Mashable.

Many schools are realizing the "horse is out of the barn," in terms of social networking and kids, Freehold Regional High School District Superintendent Charles Sampson told the Asbury Park Press. "To try to pretend otherwise would be foolish on our part," he said. His district recently went from banning social media in the classroom to encouraging it as a learning tool. "Now the context becomes, how do we embrace it? How do we most effectively utilize it?" Sampson said.

In a poll of 368,000 K–12 students, parents, teachers, and administrators, Project Tomorrow found students are already using technology to take responsibility for their own learning and to personalize learning experiences to fit their learning styles and interests; they are also interested in incorporating these types of learning experiences into their classrooms. Students envisioned learning as digitally rich, untethered, and social-based—they leverage emerging communications and collaboration tools to create and personalize networks of experts to inform their education process.

"Social media afford the opportunity for all children with online access to contribute to the world in meaningful ways, do real work for real audiences for real purposes, find great teachers and collaborators from around the world, and become great teachers in their own right," Will Richardson wrote in his February 2011 Educational Leadership article.

Students are enmeshed in social media, and reputable researchers and practitioners point to its benefits for learning. So why are devices and sites more likely to be barred than integrated into the classroom? Can certain policies support student safety and progressive use of social media in education settings? Here's what you need to know.

Federal Legislation

The two major federal policies educators need to consider when using social media in schools are the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 and the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000.

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act

COPPA was enacted to protect students under 13 from having their personal information collected without the consent of a parent or guardian. "This law makes the job of today's educators easier, putting responsibility on website providers to keep children under 13 safe," says #EdChat founder Tom Whitby. COPPA requires stricter privacy measures on sites targeting users under age 13 and restricts marketing to those users. COPPA is the reason many social networking sites require participants to be 13 or older. Despite the law, Consumer Reports notes 7.5 million children under 13 have joined Facebook, and Facebook officials themselves estimate they kick out about 20,000 under-13-year-olds from the site daily. The bottom line, for students under 13, is that they need parental permission to share their information or work online.

Since the law was conceived before the boom in online social and mobile applications, many would like to see COPPA updated. Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) proposed a 2011 update titled the "Do Not Track Kids Act." Barton's bill, which never made it out of the House subcommittee, would expand COPPA to cover mobile Internet sites, and would extend protections not just to minors' physical addresses, but to IP addresses as well. Also, sites would have to offer an "eraser button," whereby information that could be used to identify the user is deleted upon demand.

Children's Internet Protection Act

CIPA (2000) requires that schools provide Internet filtering to prevent student access to offensive content. Schools or libraries receiving funds for Internet access from the federal E-rate program—a program that makes certain communications technology more affordable for eligible schools and libraries—must certify that they have an Internet safety policy that addresses

  • Access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet;
  • The safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic communications;
  • Unauthorized access, including so-called "hacking," and other unlawful activities by minors online;
  • Unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding minors; and
  • Restricting minors' access to materials harmful to them (particularly, obscene images).

Schools concerned about what CIPA means for access via students' own, or school-issued, mobile devices have focused on clear terms in their Acceptable Use Policies (which must be signed by parents) and ensuring safe Internet access on the school-based network. The National Education Technology Plan (U.S.) cites Florida's Escambia County Schools as a strong example of compliance despite a shifting landscape of devices and access points. It's important to note that CIPA does not require filtering devices used by adults, and does not require the tracking of Internet use by minors or adults. In addition to an eye on compliance, U.S. Department of Education Director of Education Technology Karen Cator notes that, to avoid restricting appropriate, useful information, "having the process in place for unblocking sites is definitely important," too.

A note about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act: FERPA (1974) requires written parental consent to disclose information from a student's education record (i.e., grades or scores). However, schools may disclose, without consent, "directory" information such as a student's name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. Schools are required to inform parents and eligible students about directory information and allow parents and eligible students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose directory information about them. For more on FERPA, see "Private Eyes: Protecting Student Privacy and Data" in the October 2011 Education Update (

Districts Adapt

With COPPA and CIPA as a federal framework, state and local policies vary. Some districts model progressive integration of social media not only in the classroom, but in how educators work with one another and with the community. For example, Michael Roe, the first-year principal of four-year-old Tahquitz High School, in California's San Jacinto Valley, uses Facebook to communicate with his school community, and has seen a big uptick in parental involvement since the school's Parent Teacher Student Association began its own Facebook page. Tahquitz went from having no mobile devices on school grounds to students using to respond to questions in class and tweets to fill seats at football games.

Increasingly, school leaders, like Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier, see their social networking presence on Facebook and Twitter as a way to be transparent about school initiatives, target messages to their specific community, and be accessible to their audience.

Enrique Legaspi uses Twitter in his 8th grade history class at Hollenbeck Middle School in Los Angeles. He says social networking has helped expose students to information, news, and tools that they wouldn't otherwise have access to. Social media proponent and New Milford (N.J.) high school principal Eric Sheninger says sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube actually push kids to do better work and attend to audience, quality research, and copyright laws.

First-grade teacher Erin Schoening at College View Elementary in Council Bluffs, Iowa, uses a class Facebook page to communicate to parents, family, and other classrooms about the work her students are doing. Schoening used to keep a class blog, but it didn't get any traffic. Facebook has the benefits of a built-in audience and the ability to do outreach on the social media platforms people are already using. Schoening has sole sign-in privileges for the account, moderates all student postings, and all participating students must have signed permission from a parent to remain in compliance with COPPA.

Districts React

Other schools and districts are getting noticed for what they don't allow. Two common practices—blocking sites and restricting teacher-student social media contact—have made headlines lately. For example, Missouri's Senate Bill 54 (or the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, named for a student who was repeatedly victimized by a teacher on social media) prohibits direct social media contact between teachers and students, unless it's deemed appropriate, education-related contact in a public setting. S.B. 54 takes the common "no 'friending'" policy a step further by applying it to both current and former students, indefinitely.

Last year, Prince George's County School District, in Maryland, banned cell phone use for all of its 130,000 students during the school day, and prohibited students from posting photos taken on school property on social networking sites. Education Week noted this would include sharing photos from sporting events, band, plays, and other extracurricular activities.

USA Today reports that the Pinellas County (Fla.) School Board in June voted unanimously to block teachers from communicating with students via Facebook or Twitter, even about school-related matters. The school board said it hopes to prevent the appearance of inappropriate contact between students and teachers via social media. Other districts block Skype, personal e-mail, photo-sharing sites like Flickr, You-Tube, and even Google Images and National Geographic.

Dangers in Disconnecting

There is a misconception that open access to social media will be completely unfiltered. Responsible adults play a role in vetting harmful content, but also in equipping students with the skills and ethics to determine appropriate materials and uses. In a policy statement, the American Library Association says prohibiting social media "does not teach safe behavior and leaves youth without the necessary knowledge and skills to protect their privacy or engage in responsible speech." Instead of restricting access, librarians and teachers "should educate minors to participate responsibly, ethically and safely."

Authors Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin argue that taking away technology when cyberbullying occurs is ill-advised, akin to sheltering students from learning opportunities such as field trips for fear they could be dangerous. In their Educational Leadership article, they describe the elements of effective policies to deter cyberbullying: "The Safe Use of New Technologies" (2010) assessed social media policies at 35 schools in Great Britain and found that students have better knowledge and understanding of how to be safe online when they have opportunities to learn and practice in appropriately open online environments. Students were more vulnerable, overall, when schools used locked-down systems, because they were not given enough opportunities to learn how to assess and manage risk for themselves.

Author and University of Texas at Austin professor S. Craig Watkins warns that limiting high-quality online experiences threatens some of the most vulnerable students. "There is an abundance of evidence that suggests that the informal learning environment (i.e., leisure, extracurricular, and enrichment opportunities) of middle-income students is just as important as the formal environment (i.e., schools) in their academic achievement," he notes. By not providing opportunities for low-income and at-risk youth to be productive contributors to online content, not just consumers, Watkins warns that the digital divide will increase the achievement gap.

Likewise, Richardson advocates for not only teaching safe publishing habits, but also teaching connection—"an opportunity to learn from those who take the time to read and respond. In essence, we want students to talk to strangers, to have the wherewithal not only to discern good strangers from bad ones, but also to appreciate the huge learning opportunity that online strangers represent." Additionally, University of Maryland professor Christine Greenhow finds that students build important bonds when they connect with school friends on social networking sites, and that those connections help boost school achievement.

"Highly restrictive Internet and mobile policies in the school environment provide only a false sense of protecting kids," write Jim Bosco and Keith Krueger of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). Cheating, plagiarism, and online safety—not only from predators and bullies, but also from invasive marketing—are real concerns; but banning devices will not change behavior. "Rules for tools don't make sense. Rules for behaviors do," says Whitby.

Toward Responsible Use

The National Cyber Security Alliance (2011) finds that when it comes to what was actually taught in the classroom about online ethics and safety (aside from plagiarism), the common response from most of the 1,000 teachers surveyed was "nothing." And only half of all American high school students have taken a class on digital media and digital literacy, according to the Future of the First Amendment Study (2011).

Bosco and Krueger believe the best way schools can contribute to safe and appropriate use of the Internet and mobile devices is to move away from traditional "acceptable use policies" and toward a "responsible use policy" (RUP) approach. They advocate for RUPs that "[treat] the student as a person responsible for ethical and healthy use of the Internet and mobile devices" and for teachers to help students acquire the skills for responsible use, including avoiding "inappropriate and malicious sites, as well as the skill to assess the validity of information found on the Internet or passed along by others via social networking." Resources for crafting such policies can be found at Resources and curriculum on digital literacy are available from Common Sense Media (

Districts that allow, or are moving toward, social media in the classroom should provide clear guidelines for teachers, including getting a supervisor's approval to use sites in the classroom, distinguishing between personal and professional uses of social media, identifying what standards social media will address and how it will advance learning, safely accessing appropriate content, and protecting students' privacy.

Learning Networks Unleashed

Clear, smart policies for behaviors, coupled with high-quality education on digital literacy and citizenship, light the way forward for educators embracing the teaching and learning potential of the social, mobile web.

"At the end of the day," writes Richardson, "high school graduates need a clear sense of both the potentials and the pitfalls of interacting online. They should be able to create their own connections in safe, effective, and ethical ways. For schools, this means far more than just doing an information literacy unit. Rather, we must envision a K–12 curriculum that seamlessly integrates these new skills and literacies in age-appropriate ways and gradually moves students into more public interactions online. Not doing so would be akin to handing teenagers the keys to the car without having taught them to drive."

Teachers are engaging students as social content creators and collaborators by using

  • Edmodo for Twitter-like classroom interaction.
  • Skype to bring experts into the classroom.
  • Blogging platforms like and edublog.
  • Google+ Hangouts and Circles, which offer more granular privacy and sharing controls, to facilitate discussion groups or hold video conferences.
  • Creative Commons to find images and music licensed for open use.
  • for students to create and share flash cards and other assessments.
  • Renzulli Learning, KidsClick, or Google's Safe Search to filter content appropriate for student use.

Laura Varlas is a staff writer at ASCD and the project manager of Inservice, the ASCD blog.


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