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Online safety: a tangled web

At a time of increased technology use, how can schools protect staff and students online, asks Hazel Davis

This article is taken from the latest issue of Independent Education Today magazine. You can access the digital edition or subscribe for a printed copy.

Back in April, UNICEF warned that millions of young people’s safety could be put at risk due to increased use of online platforms and digital solutions to support learning during the Covid-19 crisis. Another study from L1GHT looked at millions of websites and social platforms early in the pandemic.

The research found a 70% increase in bullying and abusive language among kids and teens on social media and chat forums, a 40% increase in toxicity on gaming platforms and a 200% spike in traffic to hate sites. But what can schools do to minimise this potential damage and who’s doing it right?

Continuous improvement

“Improving student and teacher safety online is an ever-evolving and dynamic minefield and we are continually reviewing our procedures and processes,” says Karen Martin, marketing and communications director at St Bees School in Cumbria. Martin says that the lockdown has changed how the school looks at internet safety.

“During the first lockdown, when all schools were closed, we taught exclusively online for eight hours a day,” she says. “As such, with the students using the internet at home, although still under our supervision, it was harder to be able to track their movements and usage.”

Martin says the school is now more aware of the need to keep on top of security as staff teach more often in an online environment. “Safety and security are hugely important at St Bees School, both in the classroom and online. We have learned that we need to continually keep on top of the evolving issues that can surround internet safety.”

Selecting and testing the right learning apps and distributing logins/passwords has been an issue with everyone at home – Kate Jillings, co-founder, ToucanTech

To that end, the school has made two-factor authentication mandatory to ensure that student and staff files remain safe while learning and teaching remotely. Warnings top all emails sent from outside the school, alerting the recipient to the potential of emails containing harmful links and files.

“Within the school itself, we have content blocks on unsuitable websites and regularly teach our students about web safety and security during computer science lessons.”

Martin says the school has noticed an increase in spam emails trying to get through the filters which, if read by a student or unknowing staff member, could cause a breach. However, she says, “the filters that we have in place are comprehensively devised which has meant that, to date, no staff member or student has reported receiving any spam emails.”

Though St Bees has always prided itself on its best-practice internet safety procedures, Martin says: “With Covid-19 added to the mix, we simply rolled out more online-specific practices, such as ensuring that students have the latest versions of anti-virus software, firewalls and website content filters installed and managed for when they work remotely.”

We’re in a time where it is easy to take your eye off the ball and get distracted with other priorities, especially, says Martin, “in a Covid world where we are trying to keep students and staff safe from the virus by social distancing and sanitising and so on. It is imperative to make sure we don’t lose sight of internet safety. As such, our regular senior leadership meetings always have a section on the agenda for safety – and these issues are always raised. Best practice is not to let your guard drop – and this is something we do exceptionally well at St Bees.”

St Bees School in Cumbria keep on top of evolving issues surrounding internet safety

Training is key

Mark Templeman is deputy head and director of studies at Brockhurst and Marlston House Schools. He’s also editor of the IT broadsheet produced for teachers by SATIPS (Support and Training in Prep Schools), a membership-based professional support body providing best-practice support and training for teachers in the independent sector.

“Most schools filter online content and implement real-time monitoring. However, safety issues can arise at home outside school hours as children spend more time online,” Templeman says. “To assist, we trained one of our staff as a CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command) ambassador. They are educating our pupils in how to keep themselves safe online when they are outside the purview of the school. They also help staff stay up-to-date with online trends.”

Work of the CEOP includes delivering tips on how to report online sexual abuse and exploitation, preventative education on online abuse and exploitation, educating professionals on how children are using the internet/social media/online technologies and how to respond to incidents of online abuse in school (including nude image-sharing among children under the age of 18).

Best practice is not to let your guard drop – Karen Martin, marketing director, St Bees School

Secure environments

“The rapid shift to online learning has forced schools and parents to sign up to new software and apps,” says Kate Jillings, co-founder of ToucanTech, which powers online communities for hundreds of schools in the UK and overseas.

“Schools need to use secure, private learning environments to ensure their students are safe within a private group (such as no random people dropping in to online meeting rooms) and seeing official learning content (such as not directed off to obscure links on YouTube).”

She adds: “Selecting and testing the right learning apps and distributing logins/passwords has been an issue with everyone at home. I’ve heard of some schools even struggling to collate updated email distribution lists to send instructions out to parents.”

ToucanTech works with clients such as St Albans High School for Girls, which have set up an online mentoring service to support school leavers and alumna to find mentors and read inspiring content about different careers (a useful substitute for physical meetings and traditional careers talks).

To support the student/alumna to use the system safely the school has published a series of guidelines on what to expect from the mentoring process, how to report any suspicious activity and how to avoid passing personal information to the mentor including contact details, recommending instead that interactions take place within the secure, logged-in careers portal.

St Bees has made two-factor authentication mandatory to ensure that files remain safe while learning and teaching remotely

Back to basics

“The stark reality of staying safe online for staff and students comes down to preparation and compartmentalisation,” says Leon Hady, founder of edtech company Guide Education.

He mentions attending an event for headteachers where a piece of software was being used for the first time.

“Some guests joined and began to interject on discussions with random and surreal contributions. Sensing something was amiss, I left, but a colleague who stayed in the group messaged after and explained all had descended into chaos as the guests shared explicit material and abuse, forcing the event to shut down.”

This could have been avoided with something as simple as a password. “With that in mind it’s important to hark back to the basics for online security,” he adds.

Hady says compartmentalisation is key for teachers, “so that there is no crossover with private work, emails or interests”. He also suggests getting into the mindset that your computer desktop is a public space.

“I know I might get meeting requests at various times of the day or night, so all my desktops have one folder where every single thing I’d ever save is in there, no recent downloads or documents can be seen. Better still, if you can, use separate devices for work and personal.” He also suggests ensuring you have control of online spaces, including microphones, chat rooms and camera enabling and disabling as needed.

It’s likely that most schools will continue to operate some form of online learning alongside classroom teaching, even long after Covid-19 is over. Says Jillings: “The flexibility for students to ‘attend’ school from home if they’re sick or quarantining, is a positive step for the future of learning, and ensuring that students can participate safely online will always be important.”

Safer Internet Day this February

The UK Safer Internet Centre is a partnership of three leading organisations: Childnet International, Internet Watch Foundation and SWGfL, with one mission – to promote the safe and responsible use of technology for young people.

Its initiatives include Safer Internet Day, which takes place on 9 February 2021 (this year’s subject explores reliability online) and online safety webinars. There’s also a range of downloadable resources for parents and teachers, and for educators or professionals, a Professionals Online Safety Helpline to assist with online safety issues or concerns any professional working with children and young people may have.


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