Educational technology tips for teachers, librarians and schools.

Instant Messaging in Class: Tips to Avoid Legal and Privacy Risks

Instant Messaging in Class: Tips to Avoid Legal and Privacy Risks

This year has put elevated pressure on teachers and schools. They are torn between the task of delivering education to their students remotely, while at the same time avoiding cybersecurity risks and venturing into a largely unknown territory of apps. This has to be done while still catering to individual students’ needs and backgrounds. It has a real challenge to do the job properly.

Luckily, technology has helped close the gap and provide some kind of structure and consistency to students, which is much needed in these uncertain times.

For one, we’ve seen that embracing edtech tools has allowed us to facilitate remote learning and create cohesion in the classroom. It might take us some more time to fully adjust and make use of the entire scope of possibilities that technology offers. 

But for now, at least, we’ve seen that technology can help with a variety of issues teachers face: from knowledge retention, to building students autonomy, to creating digital classrooms when schools are left with little budget to invest in tools and apps.

Instant Messaging Comes to Class

One of the most prominent areas of remote classrooms is of course online communication, and in particular, instant messaging.

Instant messaging tools, including widely popular apps such as Google Talks, Slack, Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, as well as less familiar ones, have brought value in that they allow teachers, parents, and students to communicate in real-time and exchange important news and updates.

This of course is even more pronounced during lockdowns and remote classes, where all it takes to communicate about an assignment or project is a quick text or voice message, and some GIFs and emojis to accompany it.

But for many of its benefits, instant messaging tools come with a downside: teachers and schools alike need to bear in mind the complex regulatory landscape that governs how these tools are used in the classroom. 

The most common rule of thumb is to keep the communication boundaries as you normally would in a physical classroom setting, but with more elevated awareness of student privacy concerns and non-compliance on the part of the school or yourself as a teacher. 

So here are some tips to help you make the most of instant messaging while ensuring full compliance with privacy and record retention laws that govern education.

Only Use Approved Apps in Class

Under FERPA, schools can only use the educational software, which would include instant messaging, for which they have a contract with the vendor. This applies to teachers in the sense that if they want to try a new piece of software for classes, they need to ensure there is a valid contract between the school and the vendor.

Similarly, if a teacher wants to try out a new app for a school activity, they need to have parents’ consent to use the app (this goes for K12 teachers). 

No matter how convenient the app is or how much it can help with learning, it’s really important that everyone is aware of the implications of its use before it’s implemented in class. It’s best if you communicate with the school administration and check the safety of the application with the school’s tech team and then get support from parents. It’s the safest way to ensure you’re compliant with FERPA.

Protect Students’ Privacy

A convenient part of instant messaging tools is that they allow teachers to send vital information to all students at once. It is an efficient way to reach everyone at the same time, but in this one-to-many communication lies the potential for mishap. 

A single message can break the rules of student privacy, exposing their personal information (which under FERPA, include email address, as well as grades and test scores, and health information).

For instance, if you sent a link to test scores to an entire class via an IM tool, you would be breaking FERPA rules. So it’s important to always double-check the privacy and communication rules and just transpose them to communication tools you use to talk to students and parents. 

Keep Records of Instant Messages

As teachers, we know that screenshots of our messages to students float around, exchanged between students through their own private groups and channels. 

And when it comes to instant messaging, it’s even more important to have a full trail of all communication taking place between teachers and students. After all, despite the fact that IM tools are not the default means of communication, this is still official communication between a school representative (teacher) and students. 

Under record retention laws, it’s treated as official business records and needs to be preserved for a period of time, and is used in any legal proceeding that might come your school’s way.

This means that any official communication (let’s say an announcement to your class or a message you send to a student about attendance) should be collected and preserved for a defined period of time. In most cases, these records are to be kept for about five years, but it’s always best to check with your legal team.

For instance, if your school uses WhatsApp to send quick messages to students, such as assignment deadlines or report updates, your school needs to have a safe WhatsApp archive that in case of any potential lawsuit against your school, there are valid pieces of evidence to prove your point. This applies to any other channel.

Now, proper record-keeping is a lot more complex than screenshots. In fact, the fallibility of screenshots is that they might not stand in court, as screenshots can easily be tampered with. Your communication with students needs to be preserved in an unalterable format, with metadata (information about the sender, the recipient, and the content of the message), in a safe and secure archive.

Again, this ties back to the first point — rely only on the solutions for which the school has the means to monitor and capture, as well as warn of potential incidents going on via IM channels. 

Finally, as educators, we should not be shying away from technology, but rather embrace it. There is a lot of room for efficient learning if we as teachers and schools respect communication boundaries and apply them to instant messaging channels. 


Stefan Vucicevic is an EFL teacher by vocation. He currently works as a tech writer for Jatheon Technologies, an enterprise information archiving company that specializes in archiving solutions for email and social media to organizations in regulated industries globally.

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