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Social media rules revisited by university system

A proposal to relax the rules governing student and faculty use of social media is expected to be approved Friday by University System of Maryland officials.

A committee of the USM Board of Regents proposed a variety of amendments to the policy, which was implemented in November of last year to protect student privacy on their social media accounts. The goal of the policy is to limit university employees’ ability to monitor students’ activities online.

But USM officials said they received feedback that the rules are too restrictive and effectively prevent “even legitimate academic uses of social media — both inside and outside the classroom,” according to USM documents.

So, the Committee on Education Policy and Student Life redrafted the guidelines. The new policy would still protect students’ privacy on their personal accounts but would make it easier for faculty to engage with students on social media.

The revised policy “recognizes the importance of privacy in a student’s personal activities” as well as that “the use of social media by university employees plays a valuable and appropriate role in academic- and career-based activities to the benefit of students,” the proposal reads.

The amended policy will be considered by the full 17-member Board of Regents at its meeting Friday. The board is expected to approve the changes without issue, according to M.J. Bishop, director of USM’s Center for Academic Innovation, who helped draft the new policy.

The original rules were written hastily last fall in response to a legislative mandate, and there wasn’t enough time to consult with enough stakeholders, Bishop said. The resulting policy was overly broad and, in some areas, too vague, she said.

The current policy restricts faculty and staff from requiring, requesting or even suggesting that students (and prospective students) disclose their social media “access information.”

But the term “access information” was defined as including user names, which are generally public, in addition to passwords and other private details.

So, the policy actually bars university employees from even suggesting that students use their social media accounts for anything university-related, even if doing so would be beneficial to the student.

“I think some of the problems may have come from a lack of understanding about how social media works,” Bishop said. “The way it was written before, it wasn’t even permissible for advisers to help students with their LinkedIn accounts for career-related purposes.”

Even the fundamental phrase “social media” was not well-defined and had to be revisited.

Bishop said she hopes the amendments will make it easier for professors and advisors to incorporate social media into their lessons, where appropriate.

For instance, faculty members would be allowed to require the use of social media for academic purposes. However, students must be allowed to complete those assignments by creating a new, generic account rather than using their existing personal account.

There is language in the revised policy that Bishop said is meant to allay potential student concerns, such as the fear that they might be compelled to connect with professors on Twitter or Facebook.

She said the amended policy recommends that individual academic departments create their own guidelines on whether it makes sense to require social media use.