FERPA and Social Media

FERPA is one of the most misunderstood regulations in education. It is commonly assumed that FERPA requires all student coursework to be kept private at all times, and thus prevents the use of social media in the classroom, but this is wrong. FERPA does not prevent instructors from assigning students to create public content as part of their course requirements. If it did, then video documentaries produced in a communications class and shown on TV or the Web, or public art shows of student work from an art class, would be illegal. As one higher education lawyer put it:

“FERPA cannot be interpreted as building a total and complete wall between the school and the community. We would have really bad schools if that happened and very disengaged students. This is a good example of where the lawyers can’t get in the way of the learning. Podcasting is a fabulous learning tool. Digital storytelling, amazing. I love Voicethread, as do thousands of educators around the country. Sharing is an important part of learning and the ability to share has increased exponentially in the past couple decades. Some students right here in Kentucky are sharing with students in Brazil every day, for instance. FERPA cannot be extended to prohibit all of this sharing.” (Bathon, 2009)

FERPA was never intended to place students into the box of a physical or online classroom to prevent them from learning from the public. Rather, FERPA requires schools to maintain control over certain student records (Fryer, 2009). These records include medical information, social security numbers, and grades.

Some people think that students cannot release any personally identifiable student information, but this is also not true. There is a large category of personally identifiable student information that can be released as “directory information.” Moreover, colleges routinely post photos of sporting events, club activities, or lectures that contain personally identifiable images of students.

FERPA and Social Media
FERPA applies only to information in the possession of the institution. This is an important point if instructors require students to post to a blog, social networking site, or any other site not affiliated with the institution. In this case, “the activity may not be FERPA-protected because it has not been received and therefore is not in the custody of the university, at least until the student submission is copied or possibly just reviewed by the faculty member.” (NC State FERPA Guidelines)

Policy Suggestions
While it’s important to check with your own institution regarding FERPA policy guidelines, here are some policy suggestions culled from a variety of university sites for instructors who want to incorporate social media into their classrooms:

  • When students are assigned to post information to public social media platforms outside of the university LMS, they should be informed that their material may be viewed by others.
  • Students should not be required to release personal information on a public site.
  • Instructor comments or grades on student material should not be made public. (Interestingly, grades given by other students on “peer-graded” work can be made public under FERPA). (ACE, 2008)
  • While not clearly required by law, students under the age of 18 should get their parent’s consent to post public work.

FERPA does not forbid instructors from using social media in the classroom, but common sense guidelines should be used to ensure the protection of students.

American Council on Education, Letter on FERPA, May 8, 2008.

Justin Bathon, Controversial New FERPA Rules take Effect Next Week, EdJurist, December 30, 2008, (edjurist.com/blog/controversial-new-ferpa-rules-take-effect-next-week.html)

Justin Bathon, Keeping the Definition of Biometric Records Under Control, EdJurist, October 8, 2009, (edjurist.com/blog/keeping-the-definition-of-biometric-records-under-control.html)

Fryer, Unmasking the Digital Divide, (unmaskdigitaltruth.pbworks.com/w/page/7254094/ferpa)

NC State University FERPA Guidelines, (delta.ncsu.edu/teach/ferpa)

Norwich University FERPA Guidelines, (norwich.edu/academics/pdf/registrar/ferpa-compliance.pdf)

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. G Andrew

    Thanks for this timely article. It is important that educators at all levels are proactive with this knowledge about the use of information and communication technologies and not wait until the safety of a student is jeopardized before reacting. Cybersecurity and privacy violations such as identity theft, cyber-stalking, phishing, etc, are valid threats to students' digital presence. As mobile computing and the use of Web 2.0 technologies become more ubiquitous, the privacy and well-being of students needs to be TOP priority. Here's a valuable link with specific tips promoting computer readiness: http://www.us-cert.gov/cas/tips/

  2. Leroy Cothran

    This article is very informative. The restrictions are very similiar to other program such as medical. However, there are ways to get around it. As professional of education, I believe we are to use common sense on this matter and not go overboard with the liberty we do have when it cone to grades, student personal files and other information that is not for the general public. In using comunication tools for learning there are established method of communication without viloating FERPA.


    While I agree with policy suggestions, I disagree with much of your article. FERPA also protects biometric data. Thus when ever a student appears in social media their voice and facial features could be recorded and used to later identify them. Secondly: "FERPA defines "education records" as "those records, files, documents, and other materials which –
    (i)contain information directly related to a student; and
    (ii) are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution."
    When you have student's post on YouTube, YouTube is acting in the place of the institution.
    The peer graded work was wrongly cited since it dealt with students seeing the graded work while in the classroom, not outside of it. However FERPA applies to students work outside of the classroom. Two other important items were left out. First, students own the copyright on their work, in most cases they don't sign it over to the college upon enrolling.

  4. Home Education

    Great article. Very clear, relevant, concise, and worth awareness. Thanks for the information.

  5. Bill Augman

    This article confirms my thinking about FERPA. It tries to protect both faculty and students.

  6. Roger Evans

    It seems that FERPA may need to be revisited as social media continues to evolve and change. What is available for all learners through social media is gaining an increasing percentage of learning material, and while much of it is useless, an engaged professor can sort through all of the mess and point his/her students to the data that is actually helpful.

  7. Aleena Jakson

    Nice article and you give some useful information.

Comments are closed.