Rethinking School District Social Media Policies for Teachers / Students

I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in a school district that blocks very little – blogs, Twitter, Flickr, wiki’s, YouTube, Cover-It-Live, and more are all open. FaceBook and the obvious porn and other sites are blocked. However in my job as STEM Facilitator I hear from teachers locally and nationally in school districts that block most to all the above and more. If there are any social possibilities, whether it is moderated or not … it’s BLOCKED, no questions or comments allowed.

I’ve also been asked to share with local, state and even the US Department of Education, “What would be the most useful thing we could do to encourage district leaders to rethink their social media policies for teachers/students?”

So for everyones benefit it would be more than helpful to get feedback about that here. Especially if you are an administrator or government representative that has successfully dealt with this issue. The Common Core State Standards require students to collaborate globally, and certainly many of us can sing the praises as to why and how that is a valuable learning experience. So again – What would be the most useful thing we could do to encourage district leaders to rethink their social media policies for teachers/students? PLEASE share in comments and I will pass on.

Thanks in advance!

Learning is messy!





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19 thoughts on “Rethinking School District Social Media Policies for Teachers / Students

  1. For some, there reluctance to support the use of social media is ignorance. The best thing to do is simply tell stories.

    There are lots of stories to show leaders how children, teachers and leaders themselves are leveraging these spaces for powerful learning. You yourself have oodles of examples and yet sometimes, as I’m sure you know, we don’t value our own very much. So collect these stories and be ready to share them at any appropriate time.

    For others the stumbling block is courage. They might understand the value and maybe have heard stories too but are afraid. For them they need to be continually challenged to see if they have the courage to be bold and make the change. If they see the value are they able to understand the gains far outweigh the potential issues. No doubt, there are issues anytime you offer more freedom. Democracies are much more complicated and messy than dictatorships but for most people, the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

    These aren’t likely stunning revelations but I don’t know if there’s another way.

    From Brian: Great thoughts Dean, I’ve felt for a long time that sharing the stories of effective, safe use – including all the why’s and hows that happens in a classroom are key. Teaching these skills however, takes time many can’t, but mostly won’t take. So when we’re sharing examples so that, to quote you, “..they are able to see the gains far outweigh the potential issues,” we have to emphasize what we did to teach online ethics and safety along the way. Otherwise this can blow up when students use powerful technology and pedagogy without that upfront and ongoing discussion and modeling.

  2. I really think that the lack of understanding of both the value of the internet as well as social media comes from a lack of personal experience by those making the decisions. Ultimately this is a decision the superintendent has to make for their school district, but like many other decisions without any background they have to rely on the expertise or experience of others. I think too often they listen to people more interested in network security than in the learning opportunities for students.

    I would say the only real way this change will happen on a national scale is to require it to happen through (I can’t believe I am writing this) legislation or through the withholding of federal funds. As opposed as I am to the federal government having their hooks in public education generally, sometimes we need them to step up and make things right everywhere (not unlike civil rights, I see equal access to the net as social rights.)

  3. I think being very candid laying out the different fears that we all know Districts have, and then twin them with how the more open districts have handled them.

  4. I agree with what has been stated, show other success stories from other districts and then teach students how to teach students to be digitally responsible. My students (5th graders) and I discuss all the time what to do if we land on something inappropriate even with filters in place. I would rather equip them with tools for a non-filter internet then pretend that there will always be safety measures. I think it is part of our responsibility as teachers to teach them proper responses and help them work through issues.

  5. I’ve wrestled with these issues for many years too in many districts, and found the only pathway to “scalable change” when it comes to filtering in districts is helping school leaders understand the need to embrace more balanced and open filtering policies. Peers influence peers, and our best bet is following the example of Apple in their “Executive Retreats” for superintendents, principals, curriculum directors, and (sometimes) tech directors. Apple understands key policy decisions in school districts can be driven / led / spearheaded by these teams. They find (generally) local, innovative superintendents and principals who then “tell their stories” (as Dean suggested in your first comment) about what they’ve done and how.

    I think we need to encourage more of these kinds of administrative get togethers, but they need to be focused around educational and learning innovations rather than just hardware / platforms. I honestly think this is the #1 way to move the filtering conversation forward at a district level.

    Look at the example of Iowa 1:1 schools which Scott McLeod and others have worked with the past 5 years. My perception (which is not research based) is that word-of-mouth conversations between neighboring superintendents and principals has been KEY for this transformation. There are a lot of factors, CASTLE plays into this, but I think the conversations between leaders have been key:

    Encouraging leaders to connect with others with social media and “tell their story” as a district is also a piece of the puzzle. Administrators understand the need for positive PR. I think every school needs a student journalism club which leverages the power of social media. Unblocking sites where students (as well as teachers) can publish content is necessary for successful PR. This is an area I’m working to promote through Storychasers:

  6. I think that in many cases it is either fear or lack of information that causes the “lockdown”. I think that other people here have called out great examples of how to proceed. Pairing a district who is now open to understanding how other districts have made the change with one that has is a great way to go.

    The world isn’t filtered and with more and more students having access at earlier ages, we need to model and teach rather than block and ignore. I personally feel that by ignoring this issue or creating a false-reality in the school by blocking/banning is actually detrimental to students.

  7. I think the deeper question is, “What do we want our students to take home from school?” Is our underlying goal that they have a safe learning experience where the adults are on a pedestal as the teaching experts? Or, is our goal that our students become their own learning advocates and ready for their future – not ours. In short, is a student’s learning experience about the student or is it about the educational system? What do they need to internalize? I believe they must learn to communicate while being responsible with technology tools; they must have opportunities for positive collaboration with peers; they mus internalize the process of critical thinking; and they must practice being creative with learning as the goal. How is any of this relevant without using social media?

  8. Great questions Brian,

    Personally, I think that for our students need to be able to use all of the connected tools at their fingertips to further their own learning then we need to have open conversations and open access. Denying access is a denial of trust and it is a terrible premise to build any type of learning environment upon. Our National Association of Secondary Principals has been advocating for the use of these policies since May of 2011

    I don’t believe that our students can meet the definition of what it means to be literate in the 21st Century outlined by NCTE in a locked-down environment

  9. I am not sure I can add much more than what has already been stated so well by everyone above. I do agree that the blocking tends to stem primarily from a combination of ignorance or lack of awareness of the success stories and certain fears held by district leadership. Educators are generally very risk-averse, and those in leadership very often tend to be the most risk-averse which leads to a very top-down command & control culture.

    I think the suggestions listed above — telling stories of successful examples, acknowledging (and respecting) the fears that are held by administrators, and being persistent in efforts to help district leaders become more accepting of the need and value of eliminating many of the social media filters — are excellent suggestions.

    The only other idea that I can suggest at this point is that perhaps these leaders might also benefit from some sort of toolkit and/or guide that would help them see some concrete steps (perhaps with real-world examples) of how to move their district from a “walled garden” to a more open, globally-connected learning environment. If they can see some concrete steps that other districts have taken it might be easier for them to envision how they can proceed. The toolkit might include examples, stories, and model resources such as AUPs and other items that other districts have created to support a more open and connected learning experience for students and teachers. There are many different resources that currently exist — this toolkit might just be a curated collection of all of the existing content and resources.

  10. I have a couple of thoughts.

    First, software does exist (and it’s quite effective) that let’s teachers monitor websites that kids are accessing as they are accessing them. It simply reports to the teacher while kids are online. This offers a much-needed chance to help children develop an understanding of proper use of the Internet. I have a feeling there’s not much training on that going on – there’s simply no opportunity at schools.

    Second, developing proper social skills is always important, and especially in today’s digital world. Who is teaching them what constitutes proper online social skills? We need to provide this generation with some social guidance in addition to our tendency to use the Internet as a giant electronic encyclopedia.

    Third, our children are going to be right there with children in third-world countries with regard to their skill in using the Internet as a learning tool. Blogs, Twitter, Flickr, wiki’s, YouTube, Cover-It-Live, and other tools are really powerful learning tools if the teacher knows how to guide students in using them.

    Throughout my K-16 life I depended on teachers to guide me in learning effectively and prepare me for my world. When did that change for students? Can’t we allow our teachers to still accomplish that – prepare students for their 21st Century world?

    Go get-em, Brian!

  11. I agree with others here that the key factors are the knowledge of and comfort level with social media held by district leaders. That being said, leaders need to be shown how social media and global collaboration can improve student achievement in addition to how they can support 21st century skills. Collaboration is important but the rubber hits the road with student achievement. We will bend over backwards to implement something if we can see a proven link between it and improving a student’s ability to learn new essential knowledge or skills.

    In addition, many leaders still view social media as a drain on productivity instead of a powerful professional development tool. My district (school division in Virginia edspeak) recently adopted a new acceptable use and social media policy that allows staff members to access social media during the work day as long as that access is related to their job function. This change allows teachers to tap in to the professional development potential of social media during their planning periods and to also use it with students in their classrooms. We are still reluctant to turn teachers loose completely and have guidelines requiring that communication between staff members and students occur over tools and sites that the division can monitor such as division email and the division’s Facebook, Edmodo, Blackboard, and Ustream accounts.

  12. Our district has not blocked social media tools for about 6 years now. We realized early on that the kids will get to what they want to get to, and it is impossible to teach them the appropriate way to utilize these tools if they cannot practice with them while at school. Considering Karen Cator’s Mind/Shift interview several years back about how eRate doesn’t require the blocking of the tools, you’d think less districts would use the lame excuse that they have to block it to continue to receive funds. Our staff has done a great job of modeling proper use of social media as well as utilizing it within their own learning practices. What more could you ask for?

    We share the great stories of global connectedness with our community all of the time. If it weren’t for the Facebook accounts and email subscriptions to our blogs, parents would never know what’s happening. They are as time strapped as the rest of us, so they like those conveniences. They also truly appreciate us taking the lead in teaching digital citizenship.

  13. I recently had this conversation with my computer teacher, my principal, and the district IT person. The decision was made to lock down Google apps. This decision was made while I was in the middle of a project with another teacher in another part of the country. So all my docs were locked to them.

    When I explained why this was a ridiculous decision, based on all everyone said above, I was told that I am worlds ahead of everyone else in the district and not everyone teaches the children how to handle inappropriate material or online etiquette. My response: 1. It is our job to prepare our students for their future. Common Core says we are preparing for college/career. When our students go to college or get a job, they will…not may…they will be using technology to communicate with others. We cannot possibly prepare them without using tech in class and allowing to make mistakes while we are around to help them. 2. I am not an effective teacher if I “dumb down” the curriculum for my slower students and ignore the ones who learn quickly and are ahead. Why then would it be okay for the district to make a policy that essential forces me to “dumb down” my classroom tech use while waiting for everyone else to catch up.
    By the end of the meeting, all the Google apps were again unblocked and a decision was made that, prior to making any more decisions, teachers (meaning me) would have to be involved in the discussion.

  14. Just to echo some of the comments above, I feel that teachers have a responsibility to to instill their students with social media skills and etiquette. As we’ve read in the last few weeks, high schoolers are being rejected from colleges due to inappropriate social media posts. Likewise, social media provides a number of advantages for teachers: students – at least the ones I work with, who (full disclosure) are mostly from middle to upper-middle class households and have full access to tech – are much quicker and more efficient on devices than we teachers are. Twitter can act as a quick updating medium (for changing due dates, reminders for upcoming tests, etc.) as well as a place to provide enrichment opportunities.

    While some districts and administrators may deride technology’s ability to distract and otherwise harm student learning, I would point to Lisa Nielsen’s recent post ( which lays out why anxiety over tech is inflated at this juncture. Schools that adopted tech early on are not seeing the dramatic improvements in achievement they were hoping for, and now funding is starting to dry up. But as Lisa writes, “We don’t research the effectiveness of paper in relation to learning to read…instead, we focus research on strategies that support reading i.e. phonics.” Likewise, tech and digital tools can’t be thought of the fix-alls; rather, they are part of a new world in which our students are just coming of age. Shouldn’t we realize that their success depends on our ability to respond to these changes?

  15. I have experienced the same “not in my district” mentality at my school over the past decade or so. We were working to implement the use of computers in our classrooms (piecing together old laptops, desktops and whatever we could find) and met with a roadblock at every turn. The school district administrators were like a bunch of medieval monks afraid to venture out of their monasteries for fear of sin. They cared not that it was a huge task to get it up and going or that it might be beneficial to the students. All they cared about was “the possibility of . . . . “ It just goes to show you how they are so far removed from the classroom. Their only concern was whether or not the phone might ring.
    Eventually we got discouraged and limited our activity to materials we could put on CDs and the very limited sites to which they allowed us to go. Trying to use blogs and social media was just out of the question.
    We finally stumbled upon a sight called which allowed us to at least share and blog, quiz and message our students. It is all internally maintained so the “outside” world doesn’t leak in, but it does at least allow for some simulated “on-line” activity. You can download items and post them so students can access them internally, so it looks a little like the real thing.
    It is just frustrating trying to get the office to see the light. Beleive me, we tried. Oh well, the next century is not too far off. Maybe then . . . . ?

  16. Hi I am from an Australian secondary school and we have gone from having total restriction on all sites (aside from what is arranged to be cached by individual teachers via a technician, this would sometimes take a few days to get access). It became a case of students gaining access by hacking, and teachers being frustrated and limited in what they could access.
    Now, we have access to all but facebook, porn and violent sites. Students also are presented annually with cybersafety classes provided by local police to inform students of the risks associated with social media, privacy law, and child pornography law. It is best to have access but to also support students with educating them of the risks associated with the internet.

  17. Brian, you have received numerous comments on this issue, and like most of them, I think sharing stories of successful implementation is a good place to begin. However, that is going to be a long and tedious process which may or may not end in the desired result. This issue will probably only be resolved with legislation, as mentioned in one of the other comments.
    It’s not just the administration that’s to blame; it’s parents. Have you noticed parents today are very overprotective of their children? I’m guilty too.
    Think about this. Childhood obesity was on the rise so parents pushed for soda machines to be removed from schools! Most parents would rather remove the possible danger than teach children the skills required to make good choices. This is the problem you are really facing. If you can get parents to understand the value of social media in education and assure them that their children will be monitored and taught to use it ethically, you might get something started. The parents would then push the administration for changes which might eventually lead to changes in legislation. If you want to see changes, show parents how using social media will help their children be more successful in earning that scholarship! Show them how students in other districts are successfully using social media, and they will not want their children being “left behind.”