Cybersafety and Education

– Meeta W Sengupta 

“If you don’t mind, could you share a copy of the cybersafety policy of your school? I want to compare it with the one I have from my old school”

The slightly defensive, bewildered look in response to that question told me all I needed to know. That school did not have a cyber safety policy, which meant they did not have a consistent way of teaching their children to be safe.

There are two ways a school can look at cyber safety. Either they can ‘keep children safe’ online, or they can ‘teach children to be safe’. Most schools that allow their children to go online freely know that they must adopt the latter – teach children to be safe. But it is also easier to chose the first route – put in restrictions. This of course has its costs, both monetary and in competencies.

Typically, in most schools ICT is still seen as a separate subject, not as a tool to conduct normal schoolwork. In that sense, schools are about two decades behind workplaces where most of our work is conducted in a connected world. This hardly prepares our children for work. Nor does it help our students to have restricted access to school intranets or restricted sites, especially as they grow through secondary school. Often, a school has a few IT teachers, and they decide how much access students should have on the internet. This is often ad-hoc and very dependent on a teacher’s individual training and knowledge of cyber threats. Those who are too cautious restrict access, thus denying students both the benefits of research via the net, and the opportunity to learn to avoid the dangers online. There are the rare few who give their students the tools and guidance to keep themselves safe and active online. There are even fewer who catalogue these to create a consistent and sustainable school policy.

Our children and students are online more and more, and much of this is unsupervised access. School children often collaborate for homework and projects on facebook, they form friendships across continents online. In many schools across the world assignments are submitted as classblogs, and some teachers run open twitter classrooms. As they grow older, many will participate in MOOCs where they will collaborate and work with unknown peers across the globe. Connectivity and collaboration are bound to increase as much for work and study as for social reasons. Our schools need to prepare our children for this future.

This must start with the teachers and administrators of schools. They need to decide collectively how best they can serve student welfare. An enlightened group will soon realise that (i) students cannot be restricted from online activity (ii) Even if they are restricted at school, they will be online from other places, and this will still reflect on the school, and (iii) they, the teachers are best placed to show the students the principles of staying safe online.

First, the school needs to have a cybersafety policy. Some schools will extend this to a cybersafety pledge, or an easily remembered acronym that the students can use to remind themselves or others. Set out the norms, learn to be alert, share no personal information – many of the rules are the same as that of the real world. While it is tempting to set out a set of norms right here, let me use this opportunity to call for a round table (preferably virtual!) where we come together and create a set of norms that can help and support teachers create a fun set of guides for their schools and students.

In the meantime, stay safe online!

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