Howard schools look at social media use, technology

As technology and social media surround our daily routine and become more prevalent in the classroom, the Howard County Public School System is proposing three policies to make sure the tools are being used in a safe and effective way.

One of the policies is to ensure the proper security of all technology within the school system, like hardware and software. Another  is regarding the acceptable use of technology within the school system and the third — a new policy — addresses the proper use of social media among students and teachers.

“Social media has opened up a world of possibilities to enhance learning, collaboration and communication,” said the school system Director of Communication Rebecca Amani-Dove, who was co-chair of the committee that created the social media policy. “It can add value to the education experience by enabling real-time collaboration, expanding the ways in which students and teachers share, respond to and build upon information.”

Social media tools can broaden the learning environment beyond the classroom, Amani-Dove said, and connect students with resources around the globe and “specialized learning opportunities” that otherwise would not be available to them.

The new social media policy would allow for teachers and students to use various sites to enhance learning opportunities. However, cautioned E-Learning Coordinator Jenny Elam, it is not the “Facebook and Twitter policy.”

“This is much broader,” she said. “It allows for rich interaction and online collaboration to enhance the learning experience for students,” Elam said.

Under the proposed policy, any professional accounts made by employees of the school system would be the school system's property, and all accounts must follow both board policy and the terms of service of the respective social media. Any third-party social media site with no terms of service or privacy policy could not be used for school system-related activities.

“Because the possibilities are so vast, it is important that clear expectations are in place,” Amani-Dove said. “The social media policy under development provides a framework for using social media to enhance our work, while also safeguarding against inappropriate use.”

The school system currently has both a Facebook and Twitter account — both seldom used. The Facebook page is designated as a “community landmark,” and the Twitter account is currently used only to send out emergency notifications like weather-related closings and delays. Neighboring jurisdictions in Prince George’s, Montgomery, Frederick and Baltimore counties and Baltimore city use their Twitter accounts, and the accounts of their superintendents, to regularly share school news.

Amani-Dove said decisions “regarding expanding the use of Twitter and developing a Facebook presence will be made after the policy is in place.”

Board Vice Chairman Brian Meshkin said the use of social media is a “game-changer” in the field of education, but he wanted to see more specifics on penalties for when policies are violated.

“We have a responsibility to say, ‘When the policy is violated, this is how it’s going to be handled,’ “ he said.

The social media policy, along with the technology security and acceptable use of technology policies, were all presented to the board at its meeting April 11. Public hearings on the policies are scheduled for May 9, with votes scheduled for June 13. The policies would take effect July 1.

Board members and staff  also are considering the possibility of combining the policies regarding social media use and the acceptable use of technology in schools.

At the board meeting April 11, the school system's technology officer, Mike Borkoski, said a highlight of proposed changes to the technology security policy is making wireless Internet available to visitors in all school system buildings.

Currently, the public is only able to access wireless Internet without a password in the board room of the Department of Education, where the board holds its meetings. Borkoski said the school system has previously enabled wireless Internet in various school buildings to accommodate community organizations. Now, wireless Internet would be available to anyone visiting a school facility, which presents a security issue if not done properly.

“We want to make sure that as we're starting to roll this out that we have a difference between open and restricted networks, to make sure we protect our resources and our assets,” he said.

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