Classroom Pictures, Social Media, and FERPA

Recently I was asked this question from a teacher preparing a webinar for how to implement the new Social Studies standards in Georgia:

Can we use photographs of children in our class doing the activities we are including in the videos as long as we blur out faces and there is no identifying information on them?

Clearly the teacher is taking steps to protecting student privacy while also considering her audience’s need for visuals and examples. Assuming that there is no identifying information, the answer is yes.

But, not wanting to make assumptions, what exactly is identifiable information? How does FERPA define personal identifiable information?

To answer these questions, I found the following resources very helpful. So helpful, I’m listing them here before my own stab at sharing images and FERPA.

FERPA and Protected Information

One of FERPA’s goals is to give students some control over the information that educational institutions maintain and manage. Things like student records, health records, etc. Schools typically provide guidance when dealing with student records, so as long as teachers follow their guidelines, they will be fine. However, thanks to social media and the Internet, there is more gray area for teachers regarding what specific information is allowed to be shared with and without parental consent.

Protected Information without Permission

FERPA classifies protected information into three categories: educational information, personally identifiable information, and directory information. The limitations imposed by FERPA vary with respect to each category.

Although personally identifiable and directory information are often similar or related, FERPA provides different levels of protection for each. Personally identifiable information can only be disclosed if the educational institution obtains the signature of the parent or student (if over 18 years of age) on a document specifically identifying the information to be disclosed, the reason for the disclosure, and the parties to whom the disclosure will be made. Failure to comply with these requirements will result in a violation of FERPA. (source)

So what is personal identifiable information?

“Personally identifiable information” includes, but is not limited to:

  • the student’s name;
  • name of the student’s parent or other family members;
  • address of the student or student’s family;
  • a personal identifier, such as a social security number, student number, or biometric record; and
  • other indirect identifiers, such as the student’s date of birth, place of birth, and mother’s maiden name

That list is a fine start, but since the concern is with photographs, there is a lot of information lying around a classroom that a teacher might not consider.

Names: not just students’ given first and last names but also

  • User and screennames

Address information:

  • Email address
  • Bus routes, school address, and geolocation information from smartphone cameras

Biometric data: Yes the serious stuff like DNA, fingerprints, retina patterns, but also…

  • Facial characteristics
  • Handwriting

When Is a Picture Okay?

Beyond the basics, like making sure your students aren’t holding large signs with their names and street addresses, what should you look for when considering sharing and publishing pictures of your classroom and students?

Names

  • Are students wearing name tags, jerseys, displaying their work with their names somewhere prominent?
  • Are students names posted in the background anywhere? Projected on the board? A class list hanging on the wall? A list of class jobs?
  • Is your name and school name prominently posted?

Addresses

  • Does the photograph reveal screen names, usernames, email addresses, or reference specific online communities or hashtags that could be used to identify students?
  • Was your phone’s / camera GPS off while taking the picture?
  • Are there identifiable landmarks, street signs, or address numbers in the background?

Biometric Data

  • Are student’s faces profiled?
  • Are there mirrors or reflections that reveal students’ faces?
  • Is student handwriting prominent?

If yes to any of these then you should probably edit the photo or decide on another.

Beyond this checklist, there are two guidelines from Dr. Drake that I recommend:

In relation to FERPA compliance and social media, there are two things to always keep in mind:

When using Twitter, Facebook, or other social platforms, never reveal information about students that might indicate their grades, course enrollments, class schedules, and so on. Doing so could be noted as a FERPA violation if called out by the student.

We must realize what is and is not subject to “inspect and review” regarding our actions with others and students. Any document or communication (digital or not) that is considered an educational record for purposes of FERPA is subject to the “inspect and review” privilege by the student.

Beyond PII

While these considerations will keep you FERPA compliant, it’s also important to remember and respect students’ voices and autonomy. Bill Fitzgerald’s whole post is worth reading, especially since it offers more guidance on writing granular opt-out forms, but what I like most about it is his focus on students’ needs:

When teachers post pictures of students on social media, it raises the question of whose story is being told, and in whose voice, and for what audience. Multiple different answers exist for each of these questions: the “story” being can told can range from the story of a kid’s experience in the class, to a teacher’s documenting of class activities, to a teacher documenting activities that are prioritized within a district. In most cases, even when the story is told from the student’s perspective, the voice telling the story is an adult voice. The audience for these pieces can also vary widely, from parents, to other teachers, to the district front office, to the broader education technology world.

While students often figure prominently in classroom images posted on social media, student voice is rarely highlighted, and students are rarely the audience.

In my mind, using classroom pictures within a webinar that helps other teachers facilitate instruction is a different than the examples here, yet, it is something all educators should be more aware of.

By being vigilant about protecting PII, teachers can respect students’ voices and online space, allowing them to speak for themselves, when and should they choose to do so.

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