FERPA & Social Media: Thoughts for Social Work Education

Laptop computer with yellow caution tape wrapped around itWhat about FERPA?  This is one of the most common questions I hear when presenting about using social media in the classroom.  FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is the US federal law that protects the privacy of students’ educational record, and ensures that students have some control over their records.  Examples of what is included in an educational record at the post-secondary level include grades, transcripts, class lists, student course schedules, and student financial information.  Social work educators are often very aware of privacy and disclosure of personally identifiable information because of our practice backgrounds and the NASW Code of Ethics, so FERPA makes sense to us.  It is understood that we should abide by FERPA and our professional standards of privacy and informed consent while modelling appropriate ethical standards for our students.  However, this does not mean that social media is off-limits as an educational and professional development tool (Drake, 2014).  Rather it means that as social work educators, we can use social media with students as long as we do so in ethical and legal ways (Rodriguez, 2011).

The purpose of this post is to provide some examples and best practices for FERPA-compliant social media assignments based on my understanding and experiences, and insights from colleagues.  As with any ethical challenge, there are no black or white answers, but it is my hope that information in this post will provide insight on how social work educators can embrace the benefits of social media assignments while being mindful of the risks.  And there are many benefits to using social media as social workers such as contributing to public conversations, building relationships with other practitioners, and staying current on news and research.  Further, helping social work students develop the values and skills to professionally and ethically use social media is included in Council of Social Work Education’s 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards.

Here are ways I work to ensure that I am being ethical and professional with social media in the classroom:

1. Explain the Why before the What: This is one of my pedagogical tenets and fits nicely with being FERPA-compliant as a social work educator. First, using the practice of informed consent, I talk with students about FERPA on the first day of class – what the law says, what it covers, what my responsibilities are to protect their educational information, and what their rights include.  I then share with them how I use social media in the classroom.  Specifically, I share my social media policy with students which spells out how I use social media and other digital technology as part of my teaching.

Second, I try to raise awareness with students about the benefits and challenges of using social media as a student, as part of the class, and as a future social worker.  The key is making sure students understand what is acceptable and ethical for social work professionals.  I incorporate this content in my classroom discussions throughout the semester.  My colleague Brendan Beal of the University of Montevallo uses an in-class exercise to help the students clearly see what professionalism looks like and does not look like in online environments.  He writes:

“I tell my students that even if it might sometimes be frowned upon, employers, clients, and even professors can easily find most of their social media profiles. I do an activity where I partner the students up, and have them “investigate” the other student online and dig up as much as they can in 15 minutes. They share what they learned with each other. We then discuss privacy settings and I have them tell me the different ways to stay safe.”

2. FERPA-ize your Assignments: Most of the reading I have done about FERPA and social media assignments suggests that content created by students of social media platforms as part of course is probably not part of their educational record. Regardless, there are a few steps that you can take ahead of time to address potential student concerns and prevent problems with assignments:

– Encourage students to create a separate or professional social media accounts for their assignments. This way there is a boundary between their personal and professional online profiles.

– Offer options for students concerned about privacy such as allowing them to use an alias or complete a comparable assignment offline. For example, a student could create a mock-up of a professional social media profile on Twitter and write up their comments without posting online.

– Identify any possible ways that the assignment might reveal a student’s location or connect them to a specific class. For example, some social media apps have location settings that could identify where a student is located on campus, or course names and titles incorporated into content may inadvertently connect a specific student with a specific course.  I identified this problem with my Twitter assignment.  I required students to use a specific course hashtag that included the course number – #SW422UAB.  To avoid this, I created a more generic hashtag for students to use – #SocWorkUAB, which had the added benefit of allowing student to connect with each other across courses, separate from the assignment.  My colleague, Jane McPherson at the University of Georgia, takes a similar approach by using #UGAglobalSW with her students in an effort to highlight global social work and create connections with social work students across the planet.

– Use a FERPA release form with social media assignments. Your institution may already have one that you can use and/or adapt, or you can create your own.  My colleague Beth Counselman-Carpenter from Columbia University’s School of Social Work describes how she uses a form for one of her assignments:

“I teach Advanced Practice Skills to second year MSW students in the Youth and Families concentration, and students spend the semester designing technologically relevant media for disseminating current knowledge regarding an evidence-based practice covered in one of four modules of the course: Play Therapy, Expressive Arts, Filial Therapy or Group work.  Examples of concepts from which they could choose were recording a podcast, creating a YouTube channel, recording a training video, developing a wiki space or an Apple/PC compatible app.

The project provided an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of using their own images and words as part of project development and to ensure their own informed consent.  Students were asked to sign consent following submission of the final project.  This form gives CSSW the right to share photos, videos, recordings and media created specifically for the project for educational purposes.  This allowed me to share examples of past projects and for the university to celebrate the student’s research achievements. By sharing examples, future students to see the work of prior students and how it motivates student creativity seeing what their peers have done with the assignment. You can access a copy of the form here.

Also, students were encouraged to use private YouTube channels for videos and University-sponsored blog platforms to ensure high levels of student control throughout the project (designers can opt for public vs. private sharing at any time). Students were encouraged to create projects that would be shared publicly within the community and with agencies upon completion.”

3. Mind your Content and Connections: It goes without saying that a social work educator should never tweet out a grade, share personal information about a student via FaceBook, or include critical feedback in comment of a student’s photo on Instagram. But, what about posting a photo of you and a student at graduation?  Tweeting about a student’s presentation at Undergraduate Research Day?  These are wonderful ways to promote students and their work, and we should be mindful of what we are sharing and why.  Kimball and Kim (2013) offer reflection questions that all social workers, including educators should consider when posting information on social media:

  • What information do you want to share? – Consider the type of information to be shared. Is it public or private information? Text, data or images? Is it fact-based, a professional judgement or personal opinion?
  • Why do you want to share this information? – Think about the reasons for sharing this information. What are the benefits or deterrents of sharing? Is there an expected outcome from sharing this information?
  • Who needs to see this information? – This is when you consider the audience or reader. Who will read this information and how will they benefit from it? If personal, will clients or supervisors see this information?
  • Where do you want to share this information? – Reflect on which social media platform would be the best venue for sharing or if you want to share across multiple platforms such as Twitter and LinkedIn.
  • How does the NASW Code of Ethics or other organizational policies guide sharing this information? Always examine and reflect on the NASW Code of Ethics and other policies that may affect the sharing of this information. Here where you would also think about FERPA.

When I post information such as images or comments about students (that are not part of their educational record) or connect with them online, I use the following guidelines:

  • Ask if it is okay to post their picture or share the information on social media. I usually do this verbally such as “Is it okay if I tweet your picture and comment that attended your poster session?” If they say no, I do not do it.  If they say yes, I try to show them the picture and tweet before posting.
  • I do not openly correct a student on social media and work hard not to embarrass a student online.
  • Ask students to initiate any online connections. For example, if I run across a student with a LinkedIn profile, I do not send a request to connect, but let the student initiate the connection. This is the same for communication via direct messaging or texting.

I am very interested to learn what other social work educators are applying FERPA to their assignments, professional practice and online activities.  Please add a comment to this blog post or direct message me via Twitter at @laurelhitchcock.


Council on Social Work Education. (2015). 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education. Retrieved from http://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=81660

Drake, P. (2014, February 24). Is Your Use of Social Media FERPA Compliant? Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2014/2/is-your-use-of-social-media-ferpa-compliant

Kimball, E., & Kim, J. (2013). Virtual Boundaries: Ethical Considerations for Use of Social Media in. Social Work, 58(2), 185–188. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/swt005

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. 20 U.S.C. § 1232g.

National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp 

Rodriguez, J. E. (2011). Social Media Use in Higher Education: Key Areas to Consider for Educators. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(4), 539–550.

How to cite this post:

Hitchcock, L. I. (2017, June 9). FERPA & Social Media: Thoughts for Social Work Education. Retrieved from http://www.laureliversonhitchcock.org/2017/06/09/ferpa-social-media-thoughts-for-social-work-education/

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

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