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Creating a Safe Social Learning Environment to Improve Student Success

By by the staff of Schoolwires, Inc. - Posted Nov 1, 2013
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[This month’s issue focuses on social media in K–12. In casting about for an expert to create a solid, informative piece on the subject, we came across this already-published article from the folks at Schoolwires. It so closely fit what we were looking for that we sought, and received, permission to republish it rather than reinvent the wheel. We’re pleased to give the piece further distribution through our Internet@Schools and Information Today, Inc. outlets. The article was developed by Schoolwires and was originally published on the Schoolwires website at Ownership of copyright remains with Schoolwires, Inc. —Ed.]

Learning outcomes and student safety are two of the highest priorities for any K-12 administrator. But for some districts, the widespread use of the internet and social networking tools places these two goals at odds. It is well accepted that collaboration and interaction strengthen learning outcomes, and social networking creates participatory environments; however, sanctioning the use of social networking presents challenges and possible liabilities that include exposing students to online predators, cyber bullying, inappropriate material and other potentially harmful or negative situations.

This article outlines the potential issues associated with open social media sites and provides examples of the policies, best practices and technologies that districts are leveraging to create safe social learning environments.

Extending Participation Through Social Learning Environments

Interaction and engagement are critical components of the learning process. In the traditional classroom, teachers structure their courses to include labs, group projects and question-and-answer periods to foster participation. A social learning environment equips learners with the tools necessary to collaborate and participate with teachers and peers both inside the classroom and beyond the walls of the school. Participants can exchange ideas both synchronously and asynchronously and work together on collaborative and project-based learning. A safe social networking/learning environment can, in effect, extend the instructional day by allowing continued dialogue and collaboration beyond school hours. Moreover, the 24/7 social learning environment can leverage the productivity and energy boost experienced by most teenagers in the early- to mid-evening hours.

A well-rounded social learning environment typically will include the following elements:

• Identity – each participant has a unique identifier, including username, image and traits

• Presence – the awareness of sharing the same space; being able to see when others are online

• Relationships – how the participant is connected with others and common characteristics

• Goals – the purpose of the group and the individual members is well defined

• Incentives – there are compelling reasons to take part in conversations and to come back

• Messaging – asynchronous methods for communicating ideas

• Conversations – synchronous method for real-time exchange of ideas

• Groups – the essence of the ‘social’ element, provides a sense of belonging

• Sharing – contributing photos, links, documents and other virtually tangible items for the good of the group or project

• Moderation – managing and resolving misunderstandings and fostering participation within the online community

Weighing the Risks of Open Social Networking Sites

The popularity and familiarity of social media functionality have convinced educators that students will readily collaborate within this environment. The challenge is to create a social learning environment that is safe and transparent as well as engaging. Administrators bear the responsibility for ensuring the educational environment is free from harmful elements, whether on the playground, in the classroom, or online. Social networking sites like Facebook provide the interaction that today’s youth desire, but the risks associated with unmanaged membership on sites like Facebook are too high for most districts. The most-publicized challenge for educators who engage with students on Facebook has been the potential for communication that might be construed as inappropriate. In March 2012, New York City school officials discussed the possibility of restricting educators from contacting their students via Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. “They (teachers) don’t want to be put in a situation that could either compromise them or be misinterpreted,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott told CBS New York.1 In Pinellas County 2 (Fla.), teachers are prohibited from communicating with students via Facebook or Twitter, even about school-related matters. The policy states, “Such communication could cause the appearance of inappropriate association with students.”

In addition to inappropriate teacher/student communications, another grave concern for district administrators is the possibility of exposing a child to predators or pedophiles. These and other concerns make some administrators want to ban any type of school-sanctioned social networking; however this measure is not realistic as it will likely drive social networking use underground. This approach also results in missed opportunities to strengthen student engagement.

Modeling Responsible  Digital Citizenship

“It is not practical to keep students or teachers off social media sites,” says Bill Fowler, a leader in building effective, innovative and scalable technology-based programs for education. “Trying to bar the use of something that is this pervasive no longer works. And focusing on the negative and banning something makes it even more desirable, especially to adolescents. More important, this approach ignores all of the positive aspects of social networking for social learning. Students naturally learn and study collaboratively, and technology provides another mechanism to achieve this.” Fowler also is a former Assistant Superintendent for Business Affairs and General Council for schools in Riverside County and South Central Los Angeles, California.

Banning social networking also would eliminate the opportunity for districts to fulfill their role of promoting and modeling digital citizenship and responsibility for students. According to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the need to teach digital literacy is the number one critical challenge for districts in terms of impact on teaching. “Digital media literally continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession. The challenge is due to the fact that despite the widespread agreement on its importance, training in digital literacy skills and technologies is rare in teacher education and school district professional development programs.” 3

According to the National Cyber Security Alliance,4 55 percent of teachers and more than 82 percent of administrators surveyed “strongly agree” that cyber security, cyber safety and cyber ethics should be taught in schools as part of the curriculum. Yet only about half of the teachers surveyed feel prepared to discuss - let alone teach - the subjects to students. In addition, 36 percent of teachers surveyed said they have received zero hours of training on the topics of cyber security, cyber safety and cyber ethics by their school district in the last year.

Under the guidance of Steven W. Anderson, MAEd., District Instructional Technologist at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, and Sam Walker, a technology facilitator at the district’s Kimmel Farm Elementary School, Kimmel Farm reportedly became the first school in North Carolina to include the teaching of social media in its school improvement plan. One element of the plan reads: “Create a school environment where faculty are educated and can educate students in 21st-century literacy and best practices in the uses of social media, and Web 2.0 tools, in a globally connected world.”

“In a world where three out of four teens have a cell phone, and roughly the same number have used a social networking website, it’s imperative that schools not only develop social media guidelines for their students and staff but also teach students about safe and responsible social media use,” emphasized Mr. Anderson.

Elk Grove Unified School District 5 in California is an example of a district that is providing Internet Safety workshops not only for teachers and administrators, but also for parents. District staff also created a 2WebWatchers blog and invited the EGUSD community at large into an ongoing, online discussion on pertinent topics. Information from the blog is also shared with parents in a printed format via school newsletters. The district has an Internet Safety Task Force that meets regularly to address new issues and to assess program progress. They also have expanded the program to include partnerships with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Eastern California and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Resources on the district’s Internet Safety page include a cyber space glossary and links to resources that address cyber safety and ethics, cyber bullying, copyright and fair use.

Establishing Guidelines  to Safeguard the District

Along with teaching and modeling ways to be a responsible digital citizen, districts need to create safe and acceptable use policies to protect students online, and then publish, communicate and enforce those policies.

“For superintendents, the number one concern is the safety of students. But the next biggest issue is the degree to which an incident becomes a legal liability,” says Mr. Fowler, who is also a member of the Schoolwires Board of Directors. “An incident can cost money and result in job loss. The uncertainty associated with internet access can lead many districts to decree an absolute ban on its use at schools. This makes districts feel inoculated against liability. But it is impossible to enforce a total ban on the use of the internet, so it is no protection whatsoever. From a legal and policy view, a district needs to be proactive in creating guidelines on acceptable use and communicating them. As a school system, you still have the responsibility — whether you close your eyes or not.”

Many districts have created Acceptable Use Policies (AUP) surrounding the use of the internet. For example, Petal School District 6 in Mississippi describes in detail expected behaviors for use of the internet in school along with disciplinary measures for violation of the codes. It reads in part, “All student users of the district-provided internet access are expected to exhibit behavior, while engaged online, consistent with the standards established in the PSD policy on student discipline. All users, whether student or staff, who will use the district-provided access to the internet and who engage in conduct in violation of the acceptable use standard established by PSD will be subject to having their access privileges suspended and/or revoked consistent with the school’s authority and responsibility to maintain discipline in the schools.”

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) encourages districts to take it a step further and create Responsible Use Policies (RUP). As reported by ASCD, Jim Bosco and Keith Krueger of CoSN “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.’ ”7

Resources for crafting such policies can be found at Resources and curriculum on digital literacy are available from Common Sense Media (

Regarding appropriate student/teacher interaction online, ASCD8 recommends that “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.”

One district that has created such a policy is Nashua School District 9 in Massachusetts. It states that all online interactions must meet the “TAP” test: transparent, accessible and professional. “If your communication meets all three TAP criteria, then it is very likely that the methods of communicating with students that you are choosing are very appropriate, moreover, encouraged,” reads the policy. The chief goals, according to the policy, are to: “protect the students, staff and the district; raise awareness of acceptable ways to use electronic communication tools when communicating with students; and raise awareness of the positive and negative outcomes that may result in using these tools with students.”

Mr. Fowler agrees that transparency in online communications and interactions is critical, the same as it is in a classroom setting. “Districts have always had policies in place to guide teacher interaction with students. Teacher interaction is appropriate when a teacher is acting as a counselor, providing input and course direction. Those same solid guidelines that we’ve created for the classroom environment should be replicated online.”

Applying the District Code of Conduct to an Online Environment

Indeed, many districts have policies emphasizing that the internet and its tools are to be used in support of, and be consistent with, the educational standards and benchmarks that are already established by the district. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools took this approach. After careful review, the district determined that the policies it already has in place to guide professional and student conduct apply to social learning environments. For example, inappropriate student-teacher relationships aren’t allowed online, just as they aren’t allowed at school.

“Because we already have clear policies in place, we did not want to create additional policies that would make social networking feel restrictive,” explains Mr. Anderson. “We want to create an environment where people feel comfortable using social networking.”

Instead, the district took a positive approach, creating a list of best practices rather than restrictive policies. These include:

• Don’t share secrets.

• Protect your own privacy.

• Be honest.

• Respect copyright laws.

• Be the first person to admit
your mistakes.

• Think about the consequences.

• Remember that quality matters.

“We stress to everyone to use common sense,” says Mr. Anderson. “Maintain your privacy, use correct grammar, and identify yourself as someone from the district. This is the same way teachers and students conduct themselves in the classroom.”

The district developed its approach after an elementary school stated its desire to incorporate social media and networking into the classroom. The school has a diverse population representative of the district’s overall demographics so the district used the opportunity to explore the possibility. First, the district asked each person who came into contact with the school seven questions, including whether they had internet access at home and if they use social networking. Ninety-three percent responded that they had access to an internet connected device and, of those, 91 percent had access in their homes. The district team, which included Mr. Anderson and Mr. Walker, also reviewed policies regarding social networking for other state employees and other districts. The district engaged students and the community throughout the process of developing its best practices. Then the team presented its research and best practices to the school improvement team, the district attorney and school board and gained everyone’s approval. The only official policy in place pertaining strictly to social networking is one prohibiting staff from ‘friending’ students on Facebook.

Engaging and Educating the Community

After determining that social learning would have a beneficial impact on student learning, and that the best practices would help ensure a safe and positive environment, the district invited constituents to participate and learn how to be good digital citizens. Teachers participated in workshops to learn how to use social networking tools to enhance learning and aid professional development. Parents and community members were invited to the district to engage and learn as well.

“Through the survey process, we learned that parents had many questions about privacy and other issues related to social networking, not only for their children but also for themselves. They welcomed the opportunity to learn more about it,” recalls Mr. Anderson.

During the presentations, the district discussed ways for students to handle inappropriate comments made online or bullying.

“We gave presentations and shared research data so that parents can better understand social media and know the questions they should be asking of their children. Then we showed them what social learning looks like and the impact it can have,” says Mr. Anderson.

Complying with Federal Government Guidelines

Whether there is a distinct social media policy, or a statement that the same guidelines for professional conduct apply online, districts need written policies for social media in order to comply with federal government guidelines. The two major ones are the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act10 (COPPA) of 1998 and the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)11 of 2000. COPPA was enacted to protect students under 13 from having their personal information collected without the consent of a parent or guardian. CIPA 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 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).

Communicating Social Media Guidelines

Developing and enforcing social media guidelines is essential. Equally important is communicating them to all constituents. Most districts publish them in the school handbook, and many require students, parents, school personnel and other users to sign a statement agreeing to abide by the district’s policies for internet use. However, the policies need to be posted and revisited at times as most children and parents either don’t read or remember them.

When sharing the policies with parents, Mr. Fowler recommends opening the conversation with information about how social learning will help their children and the district be more successful.

“Place the focus on the learning environment and the value that online learning brings. Also emphasize that a social learning environment can increase communication between the district and the parent, and the parent and the child, by providing resources for parents to help their children. Then discuss the steps the district is taking to make social learning safe. If a district opens the discussion with ‘internet’ and ‘safety’, some parents will immediately recall some of the internet horror stories and not be open to the rest of the discussion.”

At Winston-Forsyth, some parents expressed concern that social networking would take away from time required to teach reading, writing and other subjects. “When we explained to parents that we are preparing their children for the workplace of the future, they understood it,” said Mr. Anderson.

A key reason that the community accepted the district’s decision to embrace social learning is because they involved parents in the process of developing the guidelines, said Mr. Anderson.

“We were very transparent and talked to them every step of the way. I think a lot of districts make the mistake of bringing in parents after the fact. That’s a mistake.”

After the guidelines were agreed upon, the district communicated them through the district website, phone messaging system, open houses, PTA meetings, and other forums. The best practices also are posted in the schools.

“We needed to show people that social learning is a positive and that it should be encouraged. It was a huge community- wide effort to let people know that the tools themselves are not evil. If we can educate and inform our students and the community, then we will have a citizenry that is smart and responsible and we won’t have those instances of inappropriate behavior,” emphasizes Mr. Anderson.

Creating a Secure Technology Infrastructure

In addition to clear guidelines and open communications, another critical element necessary for safe social learning is a secure technology infrastructure.

“Facebook and other free tools are uncontrolled environments and can lead to inappropriate contact and exposure to improper material,” says Mr. Fowler. “Safety has to be a priority; a district cannot skimp on safety measures in order to save money. Equally important, there are no tools for measuring real engagement on these free sites. The primary reason for creating a social learning environment is to improve student performance, so the environment needs to include measurement tools in order for the district to know if it is effective.”

The collaborative learning environment should give the district control over content and membership management, protecting users from inappropriate content and limiting the exposure of districts to liability issues and their students from potentially unsafe online, public environments. Following are key features that districts should consider when evaluating social learning software packages.

Transparency: Communications need to be shared and available to all authorized users, such as the students and teacher in a math class. This means that chat functionality is open and private messaging is not possible. Each person in the group receives a message when any member posts to the group. Features like open chat do not allow opportunities for inappropriate teacher/student interaction. It keeps conversations on topic and productive, and ensures that everyone feels welcome to join in.

Membership monitoring: Just as districts don’t allow strangers to wander the halls of their school, they should not allow them to log in to their social learning environment. Private membership limits access to those who belong there. Teachers/moderators determine whether a group is open (to any student in the district) or closed (open only to a history class, for example). Functionality within membership monitoring should include:

• Ability for approved users to create and manage public and private groups.

• Ability for approved users to define and manage groups for any district-sanctioned activity, club, class, event, or association.

• Ability to create custom groups for professional learning communities, parent teacher associations, booster clubs, foundations, and school boards.

• Ability to control what groups are formed, who participates in the groups, and who provides moderation for each group.

Profanity, language and content filters: The infrastructure should provide adequate web encryption and filtering of content. These filters, which are required under U.S. federal law, help prevent students from being exposed to inappropriate content.

District control: District administrators must have the ability to manage users, access and settings; monitor network activity; and apply filters to ensure that all networking is productive, safe and transparent. District administrators must have a 360° view of how the system is being used, including access to user activity logs to monitor potential issues, and have the ability to change permissions.


Safe and acceptable use policies that are clearly communicated and backed by a secure technology infrastructure help ensure that a district can embrace the benefits of social learning without placing it at odds with student safety. Here is a brief summary of the steps necessary to create an effective and safe social learning environment:

• Create a purposeful social environment with learning at its core

• Model responsible digital citizenship

• Establish clear guidelines for all online activities that take place inside and outside of your safe social
learning environment

• Communicate and enforce policies

• Engage and educate the community

• Create a secure technology infrastructure


Reach the Schoolwires authors and staff via Susan Malzahn,

©2012 Schoolwires, Inc.



1. CBS New York; March 22, 2012;


3. Johnson, L., Adams, S., and Hay­wood, K., (2011). The NMC Horizon Report: 2011 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.




7. Varlas, Laura; Can Social Media and School Policies Be “Friends”?; ASCD; Winter 2011;






Forsyth County Schools
To follow Steven W. Anderson, MAEd., District Instructional Technologist at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools on Twitter: @web20classroom

International Society for Technology in Education

The NMC Horizon Report:
2011 K-12 Edition

National Cyber Security Alliance

Elk Grove Unified School District

Petal School District


Can Social Media and School Policies Be “Friends”?; ASCD; Winter 2011

CoSN Acceptable Use
Policies Guide

Common Sense Media

Children’s Online Privacy
Protection Act (COPPA)

Children’s Internet
Protection Act (CIPA)



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