Cautionary Tales

flickr photo shared by Tim Green aka atoach under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

There are numerous benefits to actively creating a digital identity as an instructor and taking one’s own digital citizenship into account. There are, however, risks if one is not careful or knowledgeable about the potential problems that can arise.

At the base level, it is important to be careful of saying something obviously problematic. Such statements could get you into trouble in any venue but if said online, it is significantly easier for such statements to be spread widely as can be seen in the example of someone like Justine Sacco.

There are some specific things instructors should be aware of.

Students have more and more access to social media which many of them consider a positive thing but this can be problematic for their instructors if instructors have not prepared themselves.

  • There are examples of students who have recorded activities in the classroom and later posted it to the internet. A way to help prevent this (aside from being thoughtful about classroom behaviour) would be discussing with students issues around recording in the classroom, recording without permission, and putting together joint guidelines for acceptable behaviour that you and students agree to abide by.
  • Any email you send could be shared with people other than the intended recipients. Even the use of disclaimers that emails are solely for the intended recipient do not provide any real protection. It is thus important to consider carefully what you write and to whom you send it. Emails sent to students should be considered professional communication, even if you are using an informal tone, so it is good to reread anything you type before hitting send.

It is also important to be thoughtful about what you choose to share and with whom.

  • It is important to think carefully when sharing another instructor’s experiences.
  • Ranting about students or publicly shaming them, even without names, is also something to consider carefully. It may seem like a harmless release shared with friends but once it is shared on the internet, it is all too easy for it to spread far beyond the intended audience by accident. It is best to keep such things off the internet with the awareness of one’s position within a hierarchical relationship (leaving aside any copyright issues or those of academic conduct).
  • It is important to be aware of any accounts you have created and pay attention to security around those accounts. Losing control of a social media account could have unpleasant consequences. This means having a secure password for each account, knowing of any security breaches at any sites you use that could result in passwords being leaked, and deleting any unused accounts.
  • Even if you are being careful, your presence could result in fake accounts. This is why it is important to do things like Google yourself, to be aware of any such possibilities. There are also issues like catfishing which could result in false account using your image with the intent to defraud people, even if your identity is not being stolen or directly falsified. Again, being aware of how your name or image appears online is useful (you can use a reverse image search to see where images you have posted appear online).
  • Sometimes, even a straightforward post that does not feel controversial within one’s discipline can become problematic when the audience is widened. It is important to remember the venue one is using and who the audience could be. Twitter, for example, is either completely public or private to solely intended audience. Anything said publicly needs to assume an audience of anyone, not just followers or someone being replied to.
  • Misinterpretation is significantly more possible when using social media so it is important to be prepared for that. When using social media as an instructor, it is important to recognize that what you say can and will be considered to be coming from you as an instructor.

While it may seem like no big deal, there are more and more cases of instructors having a a tenure-track offer rescinded or losing tenure.

Academic freedom and social media are having an uneasy relationship right now, as you can imagine from these examples. It is important to be aware of any action your university has or has not taken in regard to other instructors or faculty members if at all possible. Know if there are any policies at your university that would impact your academic freedom when it comes to social media.

One common fear is around research being stolen or plagiarized. The use of sites such as can help researchers connect with one another, get exposure for their work, engage in peer review before the publishing process but it is important to be thoughtful. Be aware of any restrictions publishers have about sharing material online. Also, do some research on venues where you might share research. is actually a for-profit site although others are working to create similar sites that are actually by academics, for academics.

flickr photo shared by inheritancemag under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

In the end, one thing we need to work towards is being forgiving. We need to accept that as humans, we will make mistakes. This is especially true as we navigate the quickly changing digital landscape. This means forgiving ourselves but also forgiving others who have made mistakes. We need to do our best to be informed and ensure that our colleagues and students are also aware of the potential risks and consequences but, to put things in perspective, we need to also talk about empathy and the benefits of allowing mistakes and failure as part of the learning process.