November 11, 2020

Interview: Instituting Social Media and Technology Policies in Schools

By: Micah Adams, Head of Content at The Social Institute

For Deans of Students throughout the country, instituting social media and technology policies sits among the most unenviable tasks.

How do you keep up with technology that changes every day? 

How do you stay informed about all of the different ways students are incorporating it into their daily lives? 

How do you balance the growing need to integrate technology into the rigors of everyday school life while placing personal limits on the very devices needed to play on the cutting edge?

No two students share the same experience, no two parents maintain the same expectations, and no two educators align on the best way to implement all-encompassing solutions that lean on subjective interpretations. In other words: good luck pleasing everybody.

It’s a challenge that Josh Lutkus knows all too well. 

Before joining The Social Institute as Partner Success Manager, Lutkus spent 13 years working in independent schools, including five as the Dean of Students at Gaston Day School in North Carolina. As a senior school administrator, he oversaw the transition from flip-phone to smartphone and social media’s rise to prominence, a seemingly overnight development that left schools scrambling to play catch-up. He knows what it’s like to collaborate with administrators, teachers, parents, and students to engage in productive discussion and develop effective policies from scratch without any pre-existing playbook.

On November 12, Lutkus will participate in a Dean of Students Roundtable hosted by the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS). The panel will discuss social media policies, including what they should cover,  how they tie into honor codes, how to avoid common missteps, and how to effectively communicate to all school community members.

Ahead of the SAIS event, we caught up with Lutkus to dive into some of the most pressing issues related to social media policies in independent schools.

Reflecting on your time as a Dean of Students and now in your role collaborating with schools to integrate social media curriculum, what are some of the most common challenges faced when it comes to developing community technology standards?

Lutkus: It’s funny, the same fundamental challenges schools face today are the same ones they faced over a decade ago. They just take on different forms.

I started working at Gaston Day School, essentially right when the iPhone came out. Up until that point, we really didn’t have much of a need for technology policy beyond how students used computers in the library. Once students started bringing iPhones to school, suddenly, everything changed. Throw in the rise of YouTube and the introduction of Instagram and Snapchat, and almost overnight, it felt like we didn’t have a grasp on what students were doing. Everything felt new. 

Everyone agreed that something needed to be done. The challenge, of course, was determining what exactly that looked like.

  • How did it change from grade to grade or across divisions? 
  • How did it reflect our pre-existing standards? 
  • What about access to devices between classes or during open periods? 
  • What about individual circumstances? 
  • How would it be enforced? 

Administration, faculty, parents, and students… everyone had a different opinion!

Flash forward to today, and we’re in a constant state of flux. Guess what? it’s all still new. The speed with which technology changes almost makes it nearly impossible to stay current. What’s true today might not be true tomorrow. Add in increased efforts to integrate devices into the classroom plus the heavy reliance in the wake of COVID-19 and it’s without a doubt a tall task with no one-size-fits-all answer.

What’s your most significant piece of advice for building effective social media and technology policies?

Lutkus: It has to be a group effort.

One of our initial mistakes early on was not involving the students. Adults were making all of the decisions, largely about things they didn’t fully understand either. As technology became more integrated into the classroom, we started incorporating the students into the decision-making process. That proved immensely beneficial.

Do you have an example?

Lutkus: One specific example related to eighth grade. Our school had both middle school and upper school divisions, each of which had its own standards. Middle school students kept their devices in lockers or at home the entire day while upper school students had access the whole day with permission to use them during designated periods. Upper school students had far more freedom and it’s something that resulted in lots of our ninth-graders struggling to adjust.

We started talking with our student leaders, mostly juniors and seniors along with our elected student-body government. Together, we decided to start that transition into upper school during the second semester of eighth grade. We started extending those technology responsibilities earlier and found that they were better prepared and more equipped to handle that extra freedom when students got to ninth grade. 

Students felt empowered knowing they played a role in making those decisions. 

How else has your role at TSI shaped your perspective on involving students? Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently as a school administrator?

Lutkus: Technology becomes engrained in students at a younger age every year and so that education not only should start sooner, but should address how those students are using technology in their community.

That means more time spent on device management and also specific skills like proper email etiquette. If your students are submitting homework assignments or asking questions over email, ensuring they know the difference between messaging a friend and sending an email to a teacher. Technology and social media policies need to extend far beyond simply how to use devices and when it’s OK to use them but address the specific skills required in the classroom and at home.

We’re now expecting far more from younger students and our technology policies should reflect that.

What are your three essential keys for implementing a strong policy?

Lutkus:

  1. Establishing transparency with students
  2. Preaching patience with faculty
  3. Emphasizing flexibility with everyone

Establishing clear technology privileges, attaching them to specific goals, and explaining the “why” to students helps build trust. That way, there are no surprises.

For example, linking certain privileges with grade-point average and checking in every quarter or semester makes it much easier to enforce any policies that might impact a struggling student. Being overly specific about times and places to use devices also reduces any grey area left open to interpretation. Transparency with students goes a long way.

It’s also hard to overstate the importance of allowing room for grace. It’s critical to remember that no policy will be perfect, and that’s OK! Preaching patience and fostering a culture of personal accountability helps ensure faculty remains aligned. While it’s certainly important to keep consistent, empowering faculty to tweak policies to best fit their needs makes it easier to navigate those challenging moments sure to crop up.

Recognizing the complexity of fast-changing tech trends among students against the backdrop of unusual circumstances means acknowledging that a policy in August might different in December. As trends and behaviors change, so too should our approach. That holds true for students, parents, faculty, and administration at all levels. Even parents should create common standards for their entire family to live up to… together! 

Ultimately, we’re all in this together. The more we can bring all members of our community together to establish clear and consistent standards, the better off we’ll be.