Preventing online risks

A realistic approach to monitoring what students are up to online can be more effective in helping them learn how to use new technologies safely

By Chris Sigley, general manager of Redstor 

Over the last twenty years we have seen an exponential growth in the capabilities of technology, which has had a drastic effect on the learning environment with schools noticeably relying more on technology as an educational tool.

It is now compulsory for students to learn how to use a vast array of technologies and there has been a massive integration of cloud services within schools, allowing for a more ubiquitous learning approach. This has opened up many opportunities for pupils as learning materials can be transferred to and accessed from mobile devices within a matter of seconds.

Being able to facilitate learning from anywhere no doubt enriches the learning experience for students, and becoming familiar with technologies they will use in future careers will prepare them for life after school. However, this begs the question – are schools prepared enough to teach online safety, security and digital citizenship? If pupils are not properly educated about the  potential dangers of online activities, then this kind of reliance on technology could expose pupils to many online risks, such as loss of data, access to explicit material, accidentally downloading viruses, and cyber-bullying.

Although there is software available to schools that help towards preventing these risks by monitoring and blocking, it’s crucial that schools do not rely solely this; the main focus should be on educating the end users on how to act while using digital technology.

A huge benefit of an ubiquitous learning environment is that the teacher is able to change from being the ‘sole source’ of information to becoming the ‘information facilitator and supervisor’. Students are able to research their own learning materials, helping them to use their initiative and be proactive all the while having their teacher for support and guidance.

However, there is an increasing gulf between those who are growing up with technology such as apps, cloud computing and smartphones and those who modern-day advancements remain esoteric. Students have the ability to naturally understand how technologies work meaning teachers are facing the stark reality that children are outsmarting the adults when it comes to the digital world.

Many of today’s educators never grew up in a world of instant mobile content sharing, social media and ample amount of technologies available; and given the speed at which advancements now arrive and online trends shift, it has never been more important for both teachers and students to be thoroughly educated about digital citizenship.

Schools need training and ongoing education in digital citizenship and online safety now — not in the near or distant future. Teachers are taught how to deal with bullying offline, so it should not be any different for online. A ‘one step ahead’ approach is necessary to keep abreast of online dangers, social media sites and technical loopholes that pupils may look to exploit.

Keeping staff in the know about these issues means they know what to look out for with students’ online activity. It is a good idea to distribute resources such as reports about the latest e-safety guidance and concerns. Furthermore, condense any appropriate information into a newsletter for pupils and use school assemblies as a time to educate students about online risks. Only by proactively teaching positive computing and digital lifestyle habits can such problems truly be addressed.

Whilst technology in school isn’t necessarily new, the users are becoming younger and more tech-savvy and therefore more vulnerable to the security risks technology can bring. Therefore, discussions surrounding digital citizenship and online safety must start at the earliest years, and continue throughout a child’s education.

A frightening 43% of children have experienced bullying online and 81% believe it is easier to escape punishment for bullying online than in person. To prevent this, it’s important to integrate standardised educational solutions, such as e-safety learning integrated across the curriculum and training programmes that teach high-tech safety rules. By having this information taught to them on a regular basis, pupils will be better equipped to retain the information and will understand the consequences of inappropriate online behaviour, such as cyber-bullying.

If e-safety learning is embedded across teaching and learning, not ‘bolted on’, it ensures that pupils have opportunities to develop their knowledge and understanding in this area. This way, student’s awareness of the issues can be maintained throughout their school year.

Schools have favoured a ‘locked down’ approach in the past, using software to block and filter online activity in schools. However, this alone is not sufficient to protect children whilst on the Internet, not least because most intelligent 14-year-olds can easily bypass blocked sites using a proxy server address. Blocking and filtering software can also have an adverse effect on children’s learning by indiscriminately blocking potentially useful material.

Whilst such systems do contribute to an overall e-safety strategy, they do not flag bullying or grooming behaviour, nor do they alert teachers to the fact that students have attempted to access prohibited or worrying material. 

This approach is also unrealistic as not only does it not reflect life outside of school but also if a student has a smartphone with 3G they can go online wherever they are without any restrictions. Furthermore, ubiquitous learning within schools means that students are able take their work from school to home with ease. However, school systems might have virus blockers but if a student doesn’t understand how to prevent viruses they could be at risk. If a student accidentally downloads a virus on their own device, they could lose all their work or not be able to work from home, which could affect them at school.

Having a more realistic approach to monitoring what students are up to online can be more effective in helping pupils learn how to use new technologies safely. This is because they allow children to make mistakes in a safe online environment where they can get used to working within a defined set of boundaries.

The connected life can bring many challenges to schools, but if teachers, parents and students are educated effectively and properly then it also brings many advantages.

Integrating an ubiquitous learning approach into schools prepares students for ‘real life’ and encourages students to become ‘life-long learners’ as they learn how to use multiple devices to access and search for knowledge and information while developing their searching skills. Moreover, ubiquitous learning can create an environment that is free of stress as teachers and students communicate and share information rather than the teacher being the main source of information.

Furthermore, in order to ensure pupils behave responsibly online, it is important for schools to set realistic boundaries on the Internet. Schools may need to adopt a much more advanced safeguarding system, which enable staff members to closely monitor the online activities of students within the school. This method of e-safety ultimately allows teachers to independently identify and manage potential online dangers as well as educate the students on inappropriate internet activities.

It’s important to remember that most cyber-bullying and access of malicious and explicit material will happen outside of the school walls, and only one in 10 children will report negative online experiences. For effective digital citizenship, it is fundamental that schools encourage responsible online and offline behaviour and adopt an intelligent e-safety solution to ensure there is a direct approach to keeping pupils online activities safe. 

The internet is a valuable classroom commodity and children should learn to use it safely in a controlled environment. If schools effectively teach both staff to integrate e-safety information and set realistic boundaries for students then there is no reason why the ever-growing advancement of technologies will not work in harmony with education.


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