Are You a Digital Threat to Your College? Read This to Find Out

There are approximately 3,700 higher ed institutions in the U.S. There are about 1,329,900 teachers employed by these institutions. Add in roughly 144,880 administrators, and that means nearly 1.5 million post-secondary educators are at risk of losing their jobs today by performing one single act: Posting on social media.

Around the world there were 4.20 billion active social media users at the start of 2021, according to DataReportal.com. Many of us familiar with social media brands with large numbers of monthly active users—such as Facebook (2.74 billion monthly active users), Instagram (1 billion), Twitter (353 million), and the ever-popular TikTok (1.2 billion)—may be unaware that there are more than 100 social media platforms for users to choose from to suit their digital engagement tastes. With the estimated 19.7 million students attending a college or university in the U.S. during the 2020-2021 school year, one of these students is bound to be on the same social media platform as their college instructors or university administrators. If not the students themselves, surrounding community members and institutional stakeholders certainly are.

So, does this article imply that educators should not engage in social media? Absolutely not. However, what this article does argue is that educators should know how to (best) conduct their digital engagement activities, primarily for three reasons.

Identity and Reputation, Online

But before sharing those three reasons, we must define two important terms: digital identity and digital reputation. In her new book, “Digital Leadership in Higher Education,” consultant and higher ed scholar Josie Ahlquist defines both.

According to Ahlquist, digital identity represents what you choose to post online, both consciously and unintentionally. The term also encompasses content posted by others about you (i.e. tagged images or posts). In North America, the average amount of time spent on social media a day is more than two hours (and many people have increased their social media activity significantly since COVID-19 hit), which means your digital real estate is potentially growing around the clock, either thanks to you or those affiliated with you. Depending on the nature of all that content (i.e. encouraging quotes, questionable photos, or potentially hateful language), there could be consequences for your digital reputation.

Ahlquist defines digital reputation as your desired message and how others perceive it. Simply, your digital reputation is how you want to be seen and known in the online realm. A key takeaway for all to remember when engaging digitally: Intent and perception are two totally different things that may or may not align. As a result, you must be intentional when engaging on any social platform.

With those foundational terms provided, here are three factors for educators to keep in mind when engaging digitally through social media:

Students expect their institutions and educators to be engaged online.

Times have changed. At one point, social media was viewed as a distraction in higher education. Now, that distraction has become a necessity. Whether inside or outside the classroom, the digital engagement expectations of students have increased and higher education is answering the call. More educators are communicating digitally with their college communities and as a result, social media is fostering increased connectivity amongst students and their institutions.

For educators, digital engagement with students opens the door for creative dialogue and insightful thought. It also strategically informs prospective students, current students, alumni, and institutional stakeholders of your interests and activities inside and outside the classroom. The key is to have a consistent presence and be ready to respond as students participate. Authenticity is also essential, and expected. For example, sharing your personal thoughts on particular matters is welcomed.

However, understand that although your social activity may occur under a private, non-institutionally designated page, your digital identity is still associated with the institution and its digital reputation.

Your digital activity could make you lose your job.

If you conduct a Google search of colleges with social media policies, a plethora of institutional sites will display their policies, procedures and institutional expectancies of faculty and staff. The point here is, if you are not aware of your institution’s policy, become familiar. Furthermore, if you are an administrator and your institution does not have a policy, create one. Without a policy, the institution and its educators are at risk.

Freedom of speech tends to be a primary defense used by people facing reprimand from their institution of higher learning due to their personal digital activity. While every case is unique, it is important for educators to become familiar with what is known as the Pickering Connick test. Named after two Supreme Court cases, Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) and Connick v. Myers (1983), the Pickering Connick test is used today in court cases regarding organizations and the digital communications activity of their employees. Depending on the particulars of a matter, a freedom of speech defense may prove ineffective.

As some high-profile examples have already shown, educators’ use of social media raises new questions about the academic freedom that professors have traditionally enjoyed. As Mark Carrigan, a sociologist in the faculty of education at the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian last year, “There are huge tensions.”

He added: “On the one hand unis are pushing their staff to be active online, on the other they are assessing their use of social media. We’re going to see ever-more problems.”

Or, it could prevent you from landing a job.

Last year, Education Week and Inside Higher Ed reported that college admissions counselors have been looking at the social media activity of student applicants. Counselors have said that they review social activity because students include those materials. The fact remains: Counselors are looking.

In 2018, a Career Builder survey found that 70 percent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates during the hiring process. Applicants who assume that their digital footprint won’t be considered during the screening process are increasingly likely to be incorrect. As more institutions of higher education increase their digital presence and aim to improve their digital reputation, it’s not radical to believe that these same institutions might screen the digital identities of their job applicants in the same manner they now screen student applicants for admissions.

Purposeful Digital Leadership

Educators are leaders. That leadership extends far beyond the classroom, physically and digitally.

While this responsibility may be a bit more than what some hoped for, it is a reality that should be respected and embraced. For so many students, educators not only instruct about curricula. They offer life: a living example of productive citizenship, ethical decision-making, and the continuous quest for knowledge and innovation.

Digital engagement, in all forms, is an extension of who we are and what we do. In that same vein, we must ensure that what we do never jeopardizes who we are. Here’s to educators engaging digitally, with intention and purpose.

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