December 2018

Tech Access, Privacy and Literacy

By Russell A. Sabella, Ph.D., and Madelyn Isaacs, Ph.D.
Technology has created a 24/7 world of access and opportunity that raises questions for school counselors. How can we maintain boundaries that can blur with a simple click or a swipe? How can we help students and their family members access and use technology effectively and efficiently? How will technology help or hinder us from delivering comprehensive school counseling programs to all students, not just those who are easiest to reach? And how can school counselors maintain sufficient technological competence and literacy in a rapidly changing world?

The school counseling profession must maintain a relentless focus on which rules, policies, standards and practices will maximize the potential and minimize the risks of using increasingly powerful technologies.

Equal Access

The basis of equal access is to ensure all students and families have access, on an equitable basis, to school counseling and other educational programs that ensure student success.

The nature of modern education is a collaborative process between home and school, but even when students are technology-savvy and have access in the classroom and through personal devices, families may not have ready access to the equipment or the know-how to support their children in ways that provide equity. School counselors therefore have the ethical responsibility to engage in both old-school outreach and technologically enhanced outreach.

Students and families use technology access for career and postsecondary planning, communication, and to reduce barriers around language and physical access to services and information.

Can Doesn’t Mean Should

School counselors are sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Groups and blogs, to name a few. Counselors also may sometimes forget they are sharing time – posting information that will be read by future audiences. Sharing mutual space and time gives us great power to combine our resources, strengths and opportunities, right now and cumulatively, over time. Make sure, however, that you know your school district’s policy related to social media. And be sure to heed the wisdom of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The majority of school counselors who share online seem to be well aware of their responsibility, although a few make us cringe. Usually out of frustration or anger, they post criticisms that are outright inappropriate, unprofessional or unbecoming.

Would you want your post on a billboard or on “Dateline”? If not, don’t post it anywhere, and consider this each and every time you are about to send a communication or post. Let’s be clear: privacy no longer exists online. Anything you send or post can and may go viral at any time, even years from now. The rules are now simple: If there is one person in your school or anywhere in the world who shouldn’t see what you’re about to post, then nobody should see it. If there is one person you want to share with, next door or around the world, you have to live with the entire planet being able to see it, both now and in the future.

So, in addition to the billboard test, consider the following:

No social network, especially Facebook with 1.4 billion users, is appropriate for complaining, venting, putting down another person or using derogatory words. Only post positive comments. If you need to be critical, you should probably contact that person directly and have a more private chat.

Facebook and other social networks are great for sharing and getting relevant feedback about professional matters, cases or questions. Postings should be intended to do just that, not to make you feel better about your work, career or your life.

When getting feedback, make absolutely certain you aren’t providing so much information that readers can easily identify not only you but your school, your administrator and perhaps the child/family you are discussing. Can we identify your student or others by searching and connecting the dots?

What you post not only reflects on your reputation and professionalism, but on the collective reputation of our entire profession. A post can easily reach thousands of school counselors, but it can also reach vast invisible (and perhaps unintended) audiences. What will others think of you, of us, and our roles in schools after they read your post?

As we tell our students, THINK before you post:  Is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and, especially, is what you are about to post Kind? If not, don’t post it.

Be rational and reasonable about your interactions. If you post a question for your colleagues publicly, you will need to live with the answers you get. When someone disagrees, don’t take it personally. Simply decide which answer is best for you and move forward.

Finally, even when you are able to protect confidentiality and you believe the post is appropriate, think about what you are asking. Is your question just a Google search away or typically covered in School Counseling 101? That is, if you have read the ASCA National Model, position statements, ASCA Ethical Standards, ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors or similar foundational documents, would you know the answer to your own question? Do some research first and only use online groups after you have thoroughly vetted your own question. We should never sacrifice smart for easy.

Should Doesn’t Mean Can

Technological literacy is far more than your knowledge of the appropriate use of available tech tools and functions. Technologically literate school counselors employ systems-oriented thinking as they interact with the technological world, mindful of how such interaction affects individuals, society and the environment. That is, technological literacy is the ability to understand and evaluate technology.

How can you maintain an adequate level of technological literacy, especially as technology continues to change so fast? This is a particularly excellent question because, as school counselors, we have an ethical obligation to stay current and competent in all areas of our work.

One of the first challenges we all face in relation to technological competency and literacy is finding the time to learn the knowledge and skills to keep up. The good news, however, is that continuing education is offered more conveniently now than ever before. ASCA and individual school counselors provide a plethora of webinars, live “hangouts,” blogs, online courses, Pinterest boards and more. And school counselors can adapt general technology resources to acquire the specific skills and knowledge they need. Journal articles, dissertations and educational technology books can help us better understand the consequences of technology use, both positive and negative.

As a school counselor, you’re obligated by ethics and best practices to become technologically literate, which means you need to know when you should use technology and ensure that when you should, you can.

Manage Your E-mail – and Time

Take steps to balance and protect your time, especially with electronic communications. If at all possible:
  • Develop policies promoting a culture of reasonable response time, perhaps 48 or 72 hours.
  • Set rules for prioritizing communications. For example, answer student e-mails first, then staff, then external communications. Most e-mail programs allow you to set rules and automatically sort your e-mail accordingly.
  • Don’t install your work e-mail on your smartphone or tablet. Keep communications to one location, such as your office computer.
  • Instead of responding to e-mail as it comes in, block out time at the end of the day to focus on communications. Time-management experts discourage checking e-mail first thing in the morning as it can easily interfere with other important duties that should take higher priority.
  • Consider all modes of communication, including voice calls, which may ultimately take less time than lengthy e-mail threads.
Finally, just because someone e-mails you doesn’t mean you are required to respond. What e-mails can you delete, especially external, without compromising your performance? Does your e-mail software include tools such as Microsoft Outlook’s “Clutter” that can automatically help you filter low-priority e-mail and place it in a folder for later?

Learn More

Russell A. Sabella, Ph.D., is a professor and Madelyn Isaacs, Ph.D., is professor and chair in the department of counseling, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Fla. Contact them at rsabella@fgcu.edu and misaacs@fgcu.edu, respectively.