Professional Advisory – Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media
The Council of the Ontario College of Teachers approved this professional advisory on February 23, 2011.
This advisory applies to all members of the Ontario College of Teachers, including but not limited to teachers, consultants, vice-principals, principals, supervisory officers, directors of education and those working in non-school-board positions.
Use of Electronic Communication
and Social Media
This professional advisory is intended to provide a context for the responsible, professional use of electronic communication and social media by members of the College.
For the purposes of this advisory, electronic communication and social media encompass software, applications (including those running on mobile devices), e-mail and web sites, which enable users to interact, create and exchange information online. Examples include, but are not limited to, sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, Picasa and MySpace.
Electronic communication and social media create new options for extending and enhancing education. However, as the number of channels of communication in society increases rapidly, so does the rate of misuse. Professional boundaries can blur. Even the most experienced members may be susceptible to unintentional mistakes.
Maintaining professional boundaries in all
forms of communication, technology-related
or not, is vital to maintaining the public trust
and appropriate professional relationships
with students. Members must be aware of the
numerous challenges and the ramifications
associated with the use of electronic communication and social media.
It is the purpose of this advisory to identify potential dangers and to offer suggestions about how to avoid them.
The Starting Point
This professional advisory supports the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession and Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession. The standards, which were developed by members of the College and members of the public, guide and inform Ontario’s teaching practitioners.
The ethical standards – in which care, trust, respect and integrity are the cornerstones – identify ethical responsibilities and commitments. “Members express their commitment to students’ well-being and learning through positive influencem professional influence, professional judgment and empathy in practice,” the standards say in reference to care. Honesty, reliability and moral action are embodied in the ethical standard of integrity.
The standards of practice guide the professional judgment and actions of the teaching profession.
New Frontiers in Teaching
Electronic communication and social media can be effective when used cautiously and professionally. They serve a range of purposes, from helping students and parents/guardians access assignments and resources related to classroom studies to connecting with classrooms in other communities and countries.
Members also use the Internet and social networking sites as instructional tools and for professional development, seeking information on lesson plans, new developments and methodologies.
However, the most popular social media applications were not created specifically for educational purposes and their use can expose members to risk when it comes to maintaining professionalism. It is up to members to know and respect proper professional boundaries with students, even when students initiate electronic interaction.
Private vs. Professional
There is a distinction between the professional and private life of a teacher. Practitioners are individuals with private lives, however, off-duty conduct matters. Sound judgment and due care should be exercised.
Teaching is a public profession. Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that teachers’ off-duty conduct, even when not directly related to students, is relevant to their suitability to teach. Members should maintain a sense of professionalism at all times – in their personal and professional lives.
Practitioners can be vulnerable to unintended misuses of electronic communication. Social media encourage casual dialogue. Even the most innocent actions can be easily misconstrued or manipulated. The immediacy and simplicity of a text message, for example, may lead to longer, informal conversations. Rules may relax and informal salutations may replace time-respected forms of professional address.
Electronic messages are not anonymous. They can be tracked, misdirected, manipulated and live forever on the Internet. Social media sites create and archive copies of every piece of content posted, even when deleted from online profiles. Once information is digitized, the author relinquishes all control.
The use of the Internet and social media, despite best intentions, may cause members to forget their professional responsibilities and the unique position of trust and authority given to them by society. The dynamic between a member and a student is forever changed when the two become “friends” in an online environment.
Members should never share information with students in any environment that they would not willingly and appropriately share in a school or school-related setting or in the community.
Online identities and actions are visible to the public and can result in serious repercussions or embarrassment. As the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario notes, users may intend to share their online existence solely within their own network, but in theory anyone can access the users’ musings, photos and information. Further, the words can be altered, forwarded and misquoted.
Criminal and Civil Law Implications
Inappropriate use of electronic communication and social media can also result in a member being criminally charged and convicted or facing civil action. Examples of actions and resulting charges are:
making inappropriate online comments
that lead to civil actions, such as
disclosing confidential information about
the school, students and colleagues, thus
breaching workplace privacy policies and
provisions of the Education Act
posting the work of others without proper
attribution, raising copyright-violation
breaching a court-ordered publication
inciting hatred against an identifiable
disclosing information about a minor,
contrary to the Youth Criminal Justice
using technology to harass a student,
colleague or others, contrary to the Criminal Code
using a computer to lure a child or for juvenile prostitution under the Criminal Code
exchanging or forwarding compromising photos, videos or audio recordings of students leading to charges of
possession or distribution
Electronic communication and social media
can also be used as evidence in criminal and
civil proceedings. The findings and orders
of a criminal or civil proceeding are used as
evidence in College disciplinary hearings.
The College’s disciplinary process is based on the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair hearing. However, intentional or inadvertent misuse of social media and electronic communication could have serious disciplinary consequences professionally.
Inappropriate online, e-mail and telephone conversations between members and others, including students, colleagues, parents/guardians, employers, family and friends, expose members to the possibility of disciplinary action. Cellphone use, for example, is one of the largest entry-level gateways to the distribution of child pornography. Even one-time errors in judgment involving the exchange of photos, videos, audio recordings or comments of a personal nature may lead to a complaint of professional misconduct.
Inappropriate use of e-mails and other forms of electronic communication have been used as evidence in disciplinary cases and cited in findings of professional misconduct.
Some behaviours that have warranted disciplinary measures include:
- inappropriate electronic communication
with students, colleagues, parents/guard-
ians and others
- sending graphic sexual materials electronically to students
- using school equipment to access, view
or download pornography, including child
- luring students and non-students via the
Internet, as defined by the Criminal Code.
The Ontario College of Teachers Act and the Student Protection Act include “behaviour or remarks of a sexual nature by a member towards a student" in the definition of sexual abuse. Thus, some behaviours that do not include any physical contact can be considered to be sexual abuse, and remarks of a sexual nature communicated online fall within the definition of sexual abuse.
Members have been found to have groomed a student for sexual purposes, using electronic messages to gradually win a student's confidence and establish an inappropriate relationship.
Even if a member waits until the student has graduated before a sexual relationship occurs, the electronic communications with the student could result in findings of professional misconduct against the member.
Minimizing the Risks:
Advice to Members
Interact with students appropriately
As a digital citizen, model the behaviour
you expect to see online from your students.
Alert students to appropriate online behaviour and the proper use of comments
Maintain your professional persona by
communicating with students electronically at appropriate times of the day and
through established education platforms
(for example, a web page dedicated to a school program, project or class rather
than a personal profile).
Maintain a formal, courteous and professional tone in all communications with
students to ensure that professional
boundaries with students are maintained.
Avoid exchanging private texts, phone
numbers, personal e-mail addresses or
photos of a personal nature with students.
Decline student-initiated “friend” requests
and do not issue “friend” requests to students.
Notify parents/guardians before using
social networks for classroom activities. Let
them know about the platforms you use in
your class to connect with students and
consider giving them access to group pages.
Understand privacy concerns
Operate in all circumstances online as a
professional – as you would in the
Manage the privacy and security settings
of your social media accounts. Privacy
settings can shift and change without
notice. Check the settings frequently.
Assume that information you post can be
accessed or altered.
Ensure that the privacy settings for content and photos are set appropriately and
monitor who is able to post to any of your
social media locations. Students should
not be among those who are allowed to
view or post on it. Remember, no privacy
mechanism is guaranteed.
Monitor regularly all content you or others
post to your social media accounts and
remove anything that is inappropriate.
Ask others not to tag you on any photographs without your permission.
Ask others to remove any undesirable
content related to you.
Consider whether any posting may
reflect poorly on you, your school or the
Be transparent and authentic. Use your
true professional identity at all times.
Even if you create a false identity, courts
can compel disclosure of your true identity.
Avoid online criticism about students,
colleagues, your employer or others
within the school community.
Avoid impulsive, inappropriate or heated
Ensure that your comments do not incite
others to make discriminatory or other
professionally unacceptable comments.
Respect the privacy and confidentiality
of student information.
Be aware of your employer’s applicable
policies and programs regarding the use
of social media/e-communications and
the appropriate use of electronic equipment. Even if your employer has no applicable policy, it is your responsibility to
exercise good judgment.
Important questions to ask yourself
When interacting with students electronically am I using electronic communication and social media to enhance their
learning or to satisfy a personal need?
What are my reasons for sharing this
information with a student – are they
professional or are they personal?
Is this picture or comment something I
would be comfortable with my students,
their parents/guardians, my supervisor,
my family or the media seeing?
Would my peers or supervisors consider
what I have posted as reasonable and
Would I communicate this way in my
Are the photos, videos or audio recordings I am posting susceptible to misrepresentation or manipulation?
Am I keeping current in my awareness
and knowledge of social media technology developments to protect myself from
Members should be able to answer this:
How does my online presence – that which I
control and that which is posted by others – reflect mu professionalism, and how does it reflect on the teaching profession?
Maintaining professional boundaries in all forms of communication, technology-related or not, is vital to maintaining the public trust and appropriate professional relationships with students.