ImageAn alarming trend is gaining ground in our elementary schools: teachers using social media in the classroom. Now before you cite all the wonderful statistics about how it improves academic performance and engages students, I’ll beat you to the punch. They’re right here (click for article with infographics).

I understand the power of social media in education. The same power it has to turbo boost customer loyalty for a brand is the same power it has to engage students in learning.  The danger is not in the concept—the danger is in the application. Too many schools are jumping on the bandwagon without a thought to policy or the cyber safety of both teachers and students. Educators are so enamored with the results, they are overlooking the risks. So maybe it’s time for a reality check.

The article I referenced above has no discussion of responsible use. There is a note of irresponsibility in teaching a five year-old how to drive a car just because it’s a faster way to get from point A to point B. Before we start making social media a mainstream classroom tool in the lower grades, let’s address these four basic chores that must be done first.

1. Put together a responsible use policy and train every staff member in the appropriate use of social media in the classroom. The policy should include the following, but not limited to:

  • Proper procedures for setting up a classroom social media channel. Don’t allow teachers to use personal Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. A school social media manager (or tech administrator) should set up the pages under a school umbrella that should be branded to the school and open so teachers cannot have private discussions with students. Those should take place during school hours in person.
  • Parental buy-in. If you’re dealing with minors, it's a smart move to inform parents what you are doing. At the very least, have a public forum to explain what you’re doing (see below).
  • Cyber harassment reporting protocol. In the event that bullying, stalking, or other forms of cyber harassment make their way into the classroom channels, have a swift way of dealing with it.
  • Teacher and student training. Before social media is ever used in a classroom, responsible use education should precede it. Find someone either on your staff or in your community that can provide the training. Also, think about what New Jersey recently did and offer social media responsible use education as part of your regular curriculum. They are many organizations out there that provide curriculum options for schools including Common Sense Media, iSafe, and others. Check with your state Office of Public Instruction.
  • Guidelines for interaction. Be specific about defining how teachers can and cannot interact with students. Will teachers be able to message students directly? Help them set up their own personal social media pages? Interact about non-school matters after hours? Be specific.
  • Crisis communications plan. Always address the subject of crisis communications in any social media policy. Are these accounts going to be used in the event of an emergency? If so, how? Who owns the accounts? Is there going to be a data base maintained with all school-related channels and logins?

Here is an example of what a policy might look like. It came from a friend at Sewickley Academy in Pennsylvania.

2. Best Practices Tool Box. If you’re going to go all in with social media in the classroom, develop a team of people who are passionate about it and let them put together a tool box to share with staffers. This might include popular education bloggers to follow, sites with resources, best practices they find from other schools, and Facebook or LinkedIn groups. Empower this group to reach out to your whole staff with a newsletter or microsite. Let your parents and community know that you’re serious about using social media as an education tool and not just a fad.

3. Educate Your Parents. Schools should want their parents as advocates in everything that goes on in the classroom. A recent study in the UK found that over half of children under ten have used social networking sites, but just 32 percent of parents were “very confident” they could help them stay safe online. I imagine the numbers are similar in the U.S.  If we promote social networking in the elementary classroom, kids are going to want to use it at home. Give your parents that confidence by offering responsible use education for them. Consider having a series of meetings with parents that outline both responsible use (teaching them how to keep kids safe) and best practices of what you are doing in class.

4. Find age appropriate sites for kids. Rather than throwing underage kids on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, introduce them to social sites that are age appropriate. There are a wealth of “beginner” social sites out there aimed at children. Here are a couple links to some good resources:

So what do you think? What are your thoughts on the use of social media as an education tool in schools? Any thoughts on what you would add to this list?