Instant messaging has become a big part of classroom life for many, and for a number of good reasons.
It allows a more immediate, two-way communication between students and teachers, both in terms of operational matters (class feedback, due dates, class cancellations, or urgent notices), as well as co-learning.
Plus, it helps keep the classroom atmosphere alive, which is a good way to preserve camaraderie when students are not physically in the same location, as has been the case in the last couple of months.
But despite the benefits that instant messaging brings, it can easily turn into a minefield, where messages get piled atop each other, without any meaningful communication and plenty of difficulties to track what’s going on. And worse, schools can easily fall into the non-compliance trap, leaving theirs and their students’ privacy up for grabs.
Here are the key rules schools and teachers need to follow to make sure that they use instant messaging in the classroom properly and safely.
1. Use only approved educational software
Under FERPA, teachers are not allowed to use educational software (which includes instant messaging tools) for which the school doesn’t have the vendor contract.
So in case you discover a piece of software that might suit your class nicely, it’s best you check with the school administration whether they have a vendor agreement in place.
In addition, it’s also important to check which instant messaging apps your school approves and adhere to the list of only those tools that have been vetted as safe. Otherwise, you’re risking to expose your and your students’ data.
2. Ask for consent before using social networks
FERPA also introduces the rule under which schools need to get parents’ permission for underage students to use social networks and tools and connect them to classroom pages.
Similar applies to students who are above the legal age: you need to get their consent before you can start using a platform for school-related matters.
Make sure you receive consent before adding any new social networks to your teaching arsenal, as it’s the safest way to avoid fines and repercussions for non-compliance.
3. Preserve information exchanged via instant messaging
Instant messaging content is considered to be official business records, the same as email. This means that in case a student or parent files a FOIA request under which they ask for your school to disclose all records that pertain to the student, you would need to also make available the content the student exchanged from instant messaging software used for class purposes.
Given the unstructured nature and volume of this data, it’s impossible to do this manually, so in order to stay compliant with the regulations, your school’s tech team should investigate how this information capturing can be preserved automatically.
For example, if you use tools such as WhatsApp to exchange class information, then it’s wise to have a dedicated archiving tool that can keep your WhatsApp archive running in the background. That way, in case there is a FOIA request, you can easily extract all the content related to the request and provide it to the party asking for information.
4. Use only business emails and accounts
When it comes to protecting students and school data, it’s safest to refrain from using personal emails for those purposes, no matter how inconvenient that might sometimes be (for instance if you don’t have remote access to your email from home or your personal device).
Most schools have archiving tools in place that keep track of all communication between schools and teachers and third parties. That way, all official business records are safely stored and encrypted and can be reproduced in case of an emergency.
But if you choose to use your personal emails or social media accounts, you might leave the data vulnerable to cyber-attacks and data thefts, with little to no chance of retrieving the data.
5. Use only trusted networks
To access your instant messaging tools you might need to log in using a network that’s not safe and with the potential for your messages to be stolen and your data exposed. Check with your school’s tech department for specific cyber security guidelines on which type of networks you should use and how to detect harmful ones.
6. Follow communication policies
The final step towards compliant instant messaging in the classroom is to create, or if there is one, to consistently implement existing communication policies. This means that no personal information or personal messages should be exchanged between teachers and students, and communication should take place only in designated and approved venues.
It’s important to mention this as sometimes, no matter how versed we are in following the rules, we might take a wrong step, and distribute information that we should not have exposed. This can then make us exposed to fines and penalties for non-compliance with current regulations.
So, set clear guidelines and make sure everyone follows them consistently. Finally, instant messaging is likely to take up an even bigger part of communication in a school setting, so it’s key that we set it on the right footing from the get-go.