Helping Students Create and Protect Their Online Identities

Image by Salinafix is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What we do on the internet follows us right into the physical world. Likewise, what we do in public in the physical world can easily end up on the internet. We’re only a tweet, a public action, or a live mic away from notoriety. Sometimes this can be a great thing. Other times, not so much.

The International Society for Technology in Education’s Standards for Coaches invite us to “Empower educators, leaders, and students to make informed decisions to protect their personal data and curate the digital profile they intend to reflect,” (emphasis added). The organization recognizes that unless we proactively take steps to protect our data, we cannot have the profile we desire.

That led me to ask the following question on behalf of myself as a professor and my students:

“How can a university adequately inform students of their FERPA rights related to ‘directory information’?”

What I like about this question is it does inform students of a potential privacy issue somewhat in their control. Additionally, on a higher level, it helps students think about what kind of information is out there about them and whether or not it aligns with who they want to be online about them. The curation of online presence is SO important for the student’s reputation and job chances later. It’s also important for wisdom and well-being.

Since FERPA is a federal law, I was straight to an official federal source for guidance (another meta-lesson – .edu and .gov are official sources). The U.S. Department of Education maintains a FERPA FAQ explaining what FERPA is, how one is informed of FERPA rights, and what “directory information” is (United States Department of Education). This is a trustworthy resource in my mind because it has authority, concisely lays out the necessary information, and gives students the right kinds of terminology they would need to investigate on their campus. Being able to articulate what you are looking for is important because it’s hard to get help without that. Likewise, the correct terminology also signals to others you know what you’re talking about. There are confidence and authority that comes with that. The first word of the ISTE standard is “empower,” so this focus is appropriate.

A couple of downsides to this source – (1) the website is not aesthetically pleasing, or at least is out of line with what frequent social media users are seeing in terms of design; (2) it mentions federal law but doesn’t link directly to it; and (3) students may not know how to find up-to-date federal law.

Using the meta-lesson above concerning official sources, I would encourage educators to share FERPA and directory advice to link to an official source for law. That step would model for students where to find official law online. Even a direct link to the code in question allows students to backtrack from the particular URL to look up other things. Sometimes there is value in browsing around a given section to find additional relevant information.

(Legal disclaimer – this is general advice. Case law or further administrative interpretations may also be necessary to understand full interpretations of any statute. That’s why official guides can help such as DOE’s FERPA FAQ or this Texas Education Agency FAQ for K-12 privacy for younger students.)

It would also be appropriate to share with students where this kind of information could be found for their schools. For example, here is where information about “directory information” could be found at my three institutions of higher ed:

Abilene Christian University
University of Texas
Seattle Pacific University


Family Educational Rights and Privacy, 34 C.F.R. Sec. 99.37 (1988).

Texas Education Agency. General inquiry – Student faq.

United States Department of Education (2015, June 26). FPCO frequently asked questions

United States Government Publishing Office (2020, September 9). Code of federal regulations.

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