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I'm not planning on requiring my students to use Twitter, but it popped up on someone else's syllabus and got me thinking as to whether it's appropriate with respect to student privacy.

I don't think it's right since Twitter allows public viewing of messages and their sender, exposing the enrollment of the course to the wider world and the CMS the professor uses has sufficiently similar technology baked in that's FERPA safe.

I'm curious if anyone else sees it differently.

Per comments, I should note that this is not just a marketing-type class. The syllabus I saw intended to have students comment, converse, and critique work on-line.

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    exposing the enrollment of the course to the wider world - does the professor require use of Twitter with real name in profile? Or is pseudonymous use - perhaps a new, separate Twitter account just for this class - also OK? – ff524 Aug 21 '15 at 5:06
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    Is the topic of the mentioned course in any way related to Twitter? E.g., if the course is called "How to use Twitter as a marketing tool", then that puts the question in a different light than let's say "Advanced mathematics". – Danny Ruijters Aug 21 '15 at 5:14
  • My brother-in-law took a film writing /editing degree. His assignments often required him to produce films and put them up on Youtube. Presumably so he could them report on the responses from viewers etc. – Lyndon White Aug 21 '15 at 5:33
  • @Oxinabox YouTube allows you to keep video privates but Twitter is public. This is the biggest difference between the mediums. It's doubtful that it contributed to the course by reporting comments and views because getting views and having people to comment starts to fall under branding your channel and marketing which is unlikely to play a big role for a film degree. – Memj Aug 21 '15 at 5:37
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    What's CMS and FERPA? And why is this US-centric? The rest of the world has Twitter, students, syllabi, and course enrollment too. – Sverre Aug 21 '15 at 7:23
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To elaborate on @Danny Ruijters comment:

The acceptableness of using Twitter as a course requirement greatly depends on the course itself and how Twitter will be used. Courses which could easily integrate Twitter are business courses focusing on topics such as:

  • Marketing
  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
  • SMO (Social Media Optimization)
  • SMM (Social Media Management)

If a course wanted to use Twitter as a form of communication (could be an argument to make with a business communications course depending on the syllabus) then there's no reason to use Twitter. I don't know a single school that doesn't have a student email system and more and more schools have online learning centers used by both virtual and ground (in class) courses.

In a case where Twitter was acceptable students should NOT be forced to use their own personal accounts or even release the name of their personal account.

  • I didn't think about a business course using it (this isn't a business/marketing class — I updated the question), that's a good point. Re non-personal account, there's still a strong chance of students giving out PIE for their fellow students, I'd think. So my handle may be 9afbc7y981f and used for nothing else, but if someone sends a tweet at me "Hey John, happy birthday! #thecourseoctatherp" then my name, birthday (and relatively guessable birth year, given most students are 18-21), and my course/university enrollment. – guifa Aug 21 '15 at 12:12
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    @guifa It's also possible for someone to tweet "Hey ff524 thanks for lending me a pencil in linear algebra today" even if our linear algebra class does not use twitter... – ff524 Aug 21 '15 at 12:29
  • @ff524 has a great point. There's nothing stopping someone in any class using their own personal account talking about another student in there class. They could tweet "Happy 20th yourNameHere" or "I love that YourNameHere goes to InstitutionName with me" or less desirable things such as "My lab partner yourNameHere never does any work" if they used the right hashtags they the tweet would easily be found and even if the last tweet I mentioned isn't true, you have no way of knowing that someone said that about you unless you find the tweet. – Memj Aug 21 '15 at 14:40
  • I don’t think students can commit FERPA violations by giving details about other student’s personal lives. It’s a gray area though if it’s done as a result of something an instructor has required. But again, I think who releases the information matters. – aeismail Jun 30 '18 at 16:01
  • @aeismail Probably true. I don't think that the details given away by students can be considered education records. However, the instructor(s) will need to be careful what messages they reply to, or forward. – Anyon Jul 2 '18 at 0:13
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If the purpose of using twitter is simply as a platform, you should consider various methods of restricting viewership and comment source. I don't know if Twitter has that, not ever having logged in. But you want to restrict access and comments to certain selected people, not the entire portion of humanity connected to Twitter. There are mail lists, free wiki servers, blogs, etc., that all have different versions of this idea.

Then you can make it only the class and the prof, and any other invited person, who can see it and comment. Then you can keep the reviews down to people who have been pre-vetted to be expected to be able to give useful reviews. The reviews you are likely to get from the general public are likely to be deliberately unhelpful.

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It can be fine if done well.

Ways to do it well:

  1. Foster anonymity. You could permit pseudonymous accounts (perhaps by having them registered with the instructor or the class), permit private accounts (i.e. those whose tweets can only be viewed by an approved list of followers), or have studentd use Twitter by only reading tweets and not publishing them, thereby eliminating the need for logging in altogether.
  2. Make it clear what should and should not be discussed on Twitter. Course content, dialogue, conversations, etc. are probably fine. Grades, assignment submissions, personal information, etc. are not.
  3. Have an honest conversation up front about FERPA. Explain on the first day what it is, what it requires, why it's important, and how it intersects with Twitter.
  4. When in doubt, get preclearance from your chair or supervisor. Personally, I think this is overkill, but to each their own.

I think it's not hard to thoughtfully integrate Twitter in a way that respects FERPA. Compare it to, for instance, discussion-based classes or classes that meet in public / semi-public spaces. There are of course ways to misuse it and run afoul of regulations, but if you keep in mind what FERPA says and why it says it, things should be fine.

  • Addendum: whether Twitter is a good medium is quite another question. I think it probably isn't, for most classroom uses. But I'd hate to recommend against it just due to my own limited imagination in that regard. – Aaron Montgomery Jul 2 '18 at 0:33
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I think that the existing answers have a good handle on giving advice about how to do it. In particular, it seems Twitter for a specific purpose within a course is a much better idea than using it for general communication. If nothing else, it seems unprofessional to me to communicate via twitter unless something about the course is specifically twitter or social media centric.

To add a personal anecdote, as a student at Georgia Tech I was told that a student-created Slack wasn’t an official channel for communication but that a professor-created Slack could be. The concern was about potential FERPA violations, though no specifics were given.

I am not a lawyer. That said, it doesn’t seem to be an issue with FERPA to me. The status of digital communications doesn’t seem to have been addressed much in US case law, with two relevant cases that I could find.

Owasso Independent School Dist. No. I-011 v. Falvo (argued before SCOTUS) seems to imply that there is reason to believe that electronic communications aren’t “student records” as defined by FERPA, for the same reason that the records in that case aren’t: they aren’t maintained or kept by the teacher or the school. The one court case on this specific issue seems to take this same approach. * S.A. v. Tulare County Office of Education, 2009*, found that

Emails, like assignments passed through the hands of students, have a fleeting nature. An email may be sent, received, read, and deleted within moments. As such, Student’s assertion – that all emails that identify Student, whether in individual inboxes or the retrievable electronic database, are maintained ‘in the same way the registrar maintains a student’s folder in a permanent file’ – is ‘fanciful.’ Like individual assignments that are handled by many student graders, emails may appear in the inboxes of many individuals at the educational institution. FERPA does not contemplate that education records are maintained in numerous places. As [SCOTUS] set forth . . . ‘Congress contemplated that education records would be kept in one place with a single record of access.’”

So, I’m inclined to think that digital records aren’t intrinsically problematic. That said, there are many issues at play including institutional policies and you shouldn’t do this without talking to your university lawyers first.

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