FERPA & Social Media: Protecting Student Records

Social Media app screen

When I first began teaching online, I considered using a social media hashtag for class activities and related content. To make it a simple and cohesive conversation, I thought to use the course prefix and number, i.e. #THE4400. When discussing with a colleague, it was suggested this could potentially violate FERPA. Unsure about this, I researched FERPA & social further.

Often, students use social media platforms for diverse purposes and at different stages in their life. They share information about themselves publicly. Instructors are seeking to engage with students where they already digitally reside. Plus social media is a “free” tool to use. Therefore, many instructors are interested in using social media for educational purposes. However, privacy concerns are often a concern for them.

Is social media specifically covered by FERPA? Not exactly. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about FERPA implications if you are using social media in your classroom activities. Let’s discuss what some of those considerations might be.

FERPA, Protecting Student Records

Universities are required to keep records on students. Directory information is data that can be released publicly. This includes student names, email addresses, participation in officially recognized activities, and photographs. Student educational records are protected by FERPA, which includes grades, assignments, and financial records, to name a few. 

Two asian women look at a phone

What is FERPA? The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was instituted in 1974. It provides four rights to students, pertaining to the privacy of their educational records. Students:

  • can see information being kept about themselves,
  • may seek amendment to those records, and in some cases, may append a statement to a record,
  • can consent to disclose records to others, and 
  • may file complaints with the FERPA office if they feel their rights have been violated.

One of the key points regarding educational records is that it is data that is maintained by the university. Think of examples like social security numbers, grades, class schedules, and medical information. My colleague’s FERPA concern was related to student’s engagement with a course hashtag. This may reveal they were enrolled in my course at that particular time (similar to a class schedule, but less relevant for a fully online class if one was trying to locate a student on a physical campus). 

Canvas messages and university account emails can be considered educational records. However, a WordPress blog or a text message might not because it is not maintained by the university. Additionally, a safe bet is to always check with your institution regarding FERPA guidelines before using social media for your classes.

Using Social Media for Education

  1. Inform students social media will be used in class and how it will be used. Consider including a FERPA statement within the course syllabus. Also, include privacy statements on the syllabus for any social media platform that you and/or your students might be using.
  2. Do not require students to release personal information publicly. Specifically let them know that their material may be viewed by others. 
    • Students under the age of 18 should get their parent’s consent to post work publicly.
  3. Gather permission from students using a non-graded Canvas quiz. Doing this allows you to easily store this information securely in one place. The permission you gather should extend to your intended activities to include, sharing a student’s likeness or work on social media, reusing student work as a sample for future classes, and/or reusing a recorded lecture for future classes where previous students can be identified. Alternatively, if planning on reusing a lecture- consider making 5-15 minute chunked videos. This is a best practice for recorded content and maintains student privacy.
  4. For those who need or prefer to do so, allow students to use an alias that they make known to you.
  5. Include a module or lesson on digital citizenship, their digital footprint and internet privacy.
  6. As the instructor, do not discuss student’s grades using social media; instead use a password protected and FERPA compliant tool, like the Canvas gradebook or Canvas Inbox messages. Refrain from using personal email or personal text messaging when communicating with students.
Zoom 50-participant-gallery-view-example

Video Conferencing, FERPA, & Social Networks

With the recent surge in remote and online learning, many asked if it is permissible to record class sessions. FERPA does not prohibit instructors from making a recording of the lesson available to students enrolled in the class, given the following conditions. Similar to in-person classes, students must be informed that they will be recorded. Additionally, the video recording cannot capture the disclosure of any personal identifiable information from students’ educational records. Students may choose to not participate by refraining from using the video feature and/or not speaking aloud during the recorded session.

This means the recording should not be re-used for future classes, unless you have express written permission to do so from every student whose name, likeness or voice was present in the recording. The same holds true for sharing a fun picture of students who are attending a virtual lecture on social media. 

FERPA Violation Reporting

Violations of FERPA are reported to FIU University Registrar at ferpa@fiu.edu, or using the Ethical Panther Line.

Read more about FERPA and social media.

Disclaimer: FERPA is public law. All information in this article/post is for general informational purposes and is not a substitute for individualized advice from a qualified legal practitioner.

Valentine [Sky] rocked the FIU Online Instructional Designer "hat" for over 10 years. Her areas of expertise included social media, user interface design & game design thinking, Quality Matters, and the Canvas LMS. Since 2019, she was an Instructure/Canvas Advocate. Additionally, Valentine provided her HigherEd expertise as a Canvas Certified Educator program course facilitator. She was also an Adjunct Instructor with FIU's Marketing and Logistics department.

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I like what you said about how collaborative learning involves two or more students who work together to create a finished assignment or project, like a presentation or case analysis. I remember doing projects like this in school but I never heard them called that, though it does make sense. Thank you for the information about self and peer-assessments can be used when grading to provide feedback on the performance of each group member and the collaboration as a whole.

Great article Sky, with excellent suggestions. I’ll share this with my faculty.

Dr. Miyazaki,
Thank you for your comment and for also being a great example to share with other faculty!

Sky V.

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