Nature of Social Media Makes Use Policies Complex

Social media is now having enough of an impact on education that a growing number of school boards, district officials and even states are putting an effort into crafting policy around the new medium. From rules that govern interaction between teachers and students to the consequences of using sites like Twitter and Facebook on school grounds, schools feel that nothing should be left to chance when it comes to new media and communication.

By asserting control over social media, those in charge don't want to stifle the use of a tool that could play a positive role in education. Therefore, most of the policies don't just put sweeping set of rules into place, but take into account the context and the content as well.

The main focus of these documents is that "guidelines" are the intention rather than mandated policy and, interestingly, they read more like a professional guideline on intercommunication and appropriate professionalism in the workplace than an actual policy document on social media tools. Additionally, even the tools are listed often with the tag "and so on" or "etc." given the fast-paced changes we experience in the world of social media.

The Journal of Higher Education asks if it is even feasible for schools to police the use of social media by its students and employees. Even schools that offer guidelines rather than setting down rules are brought short by the fact that placing limits on how and when people access and use what has become a vital part of the internet experience is not within the powers of individual institutions — especially when that access takes place outside the "walled ground" of the schools' own technology infrastructure.

Once the access points are minimized and "secured" behind digital barriers, they lose the social aspect and, therefore, the essence of their purpose. As a result, those sites will not be utilized as it is the immediacy and constant currency of social media like Twitter and Facebook and other specific interest exchange sites such as Pinterest that keep users coming back. For the most part, policies are reactive and can only guide the use of tools and state that "tagging" and linking without permission is not advisable in the interest of security and protection of privacy and professionalism.

To simplify matters, many school systems – including the Metropolitan Nashville School System – simply forbid access to social media while on school grounds or using school equipment. However, as if recognizing the basic impossibility of enforcing such rules, the policy also offers implied exceptions by laying out the kind of posts that are and are not in agreement with the institutional ethos.

User policies for social media are now in place in over 40 states, and in the next several years it is expected that such policies will be standard all over the country. Many attempt to make a distinction between the public and private contexts, although in light of the social media's public nature, such lines have become much harder to draw.

That is, there is usually a call to distinguish between professional and personal contexts in regular use of the technology. This may have been more manageable when email was first introduced and while that technology remained mostly linear and hosted within closed networks. With the expansion of the Internet and, in particular, the "webbed" advantages and continual connectivity available, those distinctions are becoming more difficult to not only manage but to identify.

03 13, 2013
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