Learning environments differ widely. At an extreme, the physical learning environments in places such as refugee camps, village schools in rural Africa and large inner-city schools are learning environments physically compromised by external factors, resulting in a learner’s physical, social or emotional well-being not being at an optimum. The concept of a safe learning environment is well-worth examining, specifically in the context of online safety.
As educators, we do what we can to manage and influence these external factors. However, on a day-to-day level, a more pragmatic response is to physically and psychologically try and incubate our learners, even if only for a period of time from those factors. Encapsulating our learners in a space and atmosphere of our own making enables us to focus attention, and control inputs. Gifted, hard-working and experienced teachers can create a learning environment that feels safe, and is enabling and stimulating in even the most difficult of circumstances.
Arguably, the task of incubating our learners in an enabling atmosphere is easier online. The online learning environment is more egalitarian than the physical learning environment. Learners are not distracted, or disabled, by the physical environment, other learners, or their own social anxieties. On the surface, online learning presents as a pristine educational bubble, when compared with what many teachers will know is a rowdy, socially charged, hormone-drenched real-world learning environment.
Ensuring safety in the online learning environment
However, as we also know, the Internet is another kind of jungle - particularly for young people.
Educational researchers, child psychologists and other social scientists are clamoring to understand and quantify the effects online and social media interactions have on young minds. From the extreme virtual violence of cyberbullying and the predations of child pornographers and child traffickers, through the intractable damage of the revenge porn phenomenon, to dangerous forums where issues like suicide, self-harm and anorexia are glamorized.
So, the question is: how do we, as educators, and dyed-in-the-wool proponents of online education, once again incubate our learners from a dangerous, and obviously debilitating wider environment in which our classrooms, in this case online classrooms, have to exist?
Two major issues to consider are cyberbullying, and online safety and security.
Cyberbullying is a growing pandemic fueled by what many say is social media’s inability to engender empathy. A study by the University of Lincoln demonstrates how physical proximity lead to greater empathy, read it here.
A good place to start addressing cyberbullying is together with your learners — explore its forms, impacts and consequences, through shared experiences, compositions, art or other lesson forms. Find great ideas and lesson plans in this cyberbullying teaching resources page of TES.
Monitoring your class computers is also an obvious and easy step to take: there are a number of off-the-shelf, as well as open-source programs that enable teachers to monitor all online activity in their classrooms. Also, depending on its features, the school LMS can send alerts to teachers and administrators whenever certain keywords are used in student conversations within the platform.
Beyond that, the US courts have begun reserving many students’ rights to free speech with a specific view to empowering schools to limit how a student's speech affects the school directly. It must be said, however, that laws specific to cyberbullying remain challenged in lower courts, as lawmakers struggle with the extent of their responsibilities to victims vs. the First Amendment.
Cyberbullying is naturally an extension of physical bullying, and some standard classroom procedures can also apply in trying to inculcate respect and acceptance:
- Use as many opportunities as possible to encourage and reinforce acceptance and respect.
- Include anti-bullying messages and information in your curriculum and environment.
- Implement a kindness culture by rewarding kind and empathetic behavior.
From an administrative perspective, be proactive in understanding your school’s policies and procedures when reporting bullying. Ensure that cyberbullying is understood and accounted for in these procedures, and that the school is aware of its rights with regard to school property (i.e. computers) and abuse thereof. Get a great overview of current statistics and trends in cyberbullying here.
Another danger students will be exposed to in an online learning environment is a lack of privacy, and by extension a lack of safety and security.
Horror stories abound of how predatory adults gain access to children and young adults through social media. Basic online security techniques can also empower children and young adults to protect themselves from more basic threats such as phishing, malware, adware, information breaches and identity theft. In the US many states are already contemplating policy that requires schools to build Internet safety into their curriculum from grades 1 through 12.
Whether teaching older or younger students, the fundamentals of good online security include:
- Apply the same critical-thinking skills from normal study to research and interaction on the Internet.
- Students must know where to go for help if they come across something offensive or threatening.
- Communicate that Internet messages and the people who send them are not always what they seem; explore what signs to look out for in a suspicious online friend.
- Examine email and how easily a student’s system could get infected with spyware or malware through phishing.
- Explore why students should not open emails or attachments from unknown sources.
- Privacy and identity should be carefully examined; identify the types of information that should never be shared online.
- Students should never share online where they live or attend school.
Older students could benefit from more advanced lessons in fake news, online sources and the effect that political and personal agendas have on a news or information. A great project would be to compare how different websites present information on the same topic.
Ironically, there are a number of interactive online programs designed to make online security fun and engaging to learn about. The Australian government has a well-resourced hub, the National Cyber Security Alliance is a public-private partnership of concerned corporate citizens with a wealth of online security resources for teachers and a similar NGO in the UK, Internet Matters, has further resources.
As educators who believe in the power of online media and technology to reach more students, as well as enhance educational engagement we have a specific responsibility to ensure the online environment, within which our students learn, is as safe and secure as possible. As with most things, our influence over our students’ lives does not extend indefinitely — but the tools are freely available to at least create safe, enabling online learning environments.