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Ensuring online safety in schools is everyone’s business

This year Google turns 19 and Facebook turns 13. Most school kids and teenagers are younger than them. Tablets are taking over a growing number of households, and VR glasses may also have a promising future. The role of technology will be ever more firmly embedded in our lives — and our children’s lives.

The positive opportunities offered by technology can be harnessed to create a generation of empowered digital citizens. However, things are not always only cupcakes and rainbows; heavy black clouds exist as well.

As education becomes more and more digital, with an increasing number of devices accessing networks, educational institutions face a new wave of threats, like cyber-attacks, cyberbullying, sexting, online radicalization, and even human error breaches.

If the classroom used to be the safest place for students to be in and learn, with the expanding technologies, things are no longer the same.

What can schools do to ensure online safety?

With emerging and fast-changing risks, it’s more important than ever for all schools to make online safety a priority.

The first thing is to acknowledge that there actually is a growing number of threats students face, nurtured by the extensive use of technology — at school and beyond its walls. Then schools need to develop and constantly adapt new policies regarding these threats.

One of the most important issues to be regulated is data protection. Schools handle massive amounts of sensitive data related to students, their families, the faculty body, the supporting staff, and external stakeholders. These data are being stored in multiple locations, both physically and digitally, and are being accessed by an increasing number of people, both in school and remotely.

Unfortunately, many schools not only are not as good as they should be in terms of protecting data, but they don’t always realize how poor their handling of data really is. That’s why creating, updating, and implementing data protection policies, along with other security-related ones — online and offline — is paramount to ensuring all students can have access to education in a secure learning environment.

But policies alone can only go so far. Online safety is ultimately a human issue. People are standing behind all online problems, and people are the ones holding the solutions to solve them.

Ensuring online safety in schools is everyone’s business.

Teaching teachers

Teachers should be subject matter experts and they should have strong pedagogical skills. This seems like a full plate for them. Except that it isn’t. They also have to collect more student data, sort it and make use of it, manage classrooms and online courses, and satisfy a steady stream of other changing requirements.

School management already have their hands full with, you know, managing their big-to-huge educational organizations, and making sure to meet the various local and state requirements.

On top of that, the generation gap and the fact that all of them remember the world as it was before Google and Facebook make them inferior to the tech-savviness of today’s students.

It is therefore an unreasonable demand to expect all school staff to create online safety policies and courses, update them, implement them, and basically ensure online safety in their school, without first receiving some sort of training, support and guidance.

There may not exist a silver-bullet solution to overcome all online threats students and schools might encounter, but online safety should be a part of every educator’s CPD. Keeping faculty educated about the heavy black clouds that can cover all school activity is the only way to keep up and rise above this rapidly-changing challenge.

Read more: Navigating e-learning cybersecurity threats as a teacher

Empowering students

Children, too, need to be educated on how the technology they’re using works — and the risks attached to it. By empowering them with this knowledge we can increase their chances of navigating through all these online threats successfully.

Students need to learn how to be kind communicators, how to make responsible decisions when creating and sharing content online, how to offer support to their peers that might need it, or when to seek help from adults. But the most important thing they need to do is to become responsible digital citizens, to be active participants in their online communities by taking action over the negative things and promoting the positive ones.

These digital skills are essential now and will become ever more important as technology continues to develop and new online risks emerge.

Read more: 6 Classroom resources that help students become digital citizens

Educating parents

Last but not least, parents should also be encouraged to participate and get involved in the online part of their children’s education.

Some parents may not need much encouragement, as they already supervise everything. But there are parents who are technology-shy, so they can’t really provide support for their kids if or when they have to deal with online safety issues.

Parents should likewise encourage children to embrace technology, but like many other activities, this is better enjoyed and understood when done together.

Read more: What can parents do to keep their kids safe in the context of cyberbullying?

Useful resources

Ensuring online safety in schools is a big deal in today’s educational landscape, and it will continue to be as online education takes over more and more classrooms. Everyone needs support and guidance in order to know how to make the best decision when tackling online threats.

Check out this comprehensive article about the various ways schools can deal with online safety education and prevention. And here are a couple more, from the fellows across the Pond. There are tips and useful resources for school leaders, teachers, students and parents alike.

Again, ensuring online safety in schools is a human issue, and all stakeholders have the power to overcome all online threats.

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