Of all the advancements in modern technology over the last 50 years, the evolution of the internet is quite possibly the one that has had the biggest impact on how we live.
There are now no children at school who were born before the internet was being widely used, and “in 2016, 89% of households in Great Britain (23.7 million) had internet access, an increase from 86% in 2015 and 57% in 2006”.
However, on 5th January 2017 an alarming news story was published with the headline “Online safety: Internet ‘not designed for children’”. Both teachers and parents are now having to grapple with helping to protect children from harmful content online, which may be a nigh on impossible task given the enormity of the internet, whilst also equipping them to benefit from the vast range of useful tools the internet includes.
Schools need to implement a culture shift in their approach to online safety that goes beyond explicit lessons on staying safe online; they need to make it part of the everyday use of the internet in school and in homework tasks. Part of the challenge with e-safety is that the internet is constantly changing, as are the people drive these changes.
Schools must take a two-pronged approach to keeping young people safe online: giving clear warnings and guidance about the obvious threats the internet can pose to young people, and teaching their students to be highly critical of the content they find online. The second of these is far less common but is, perhaps, the key to lasting protection for our young people.
It would be very unwise for teachers to present a negative view of the internet to their students, despite how many problems the internet might cause. Young people expect to use the internet, and the key must be in empowering young people to know both the strengths and limitations of it. Taking an overly negative view will only serve to alienate young people and stop them from engaging with this important issue, thus placing them in more danger.
This is a safeguarding issue, but is also the business of any form tutor and classroom teacher. Useful for implementing SMSC across the school as well as encouraging academic rigour, each subject could be asked to set tasks linked to developing students’ awareness of the limitations of the internet. If it becomes second nature for students to question the authenticity and reliability of what they read online, they will be much better prepared for identifying malicious or threatening online activity and will develop resilience towards it. Here are some examples of such tasks for a range of subjects:
Types of writing and the intention of authors is included in a range of English topics. How about a project examining a given topic and the way in which it is handled by “the internet” (social media, blogs, YouTube, forums), newspapers, novels and television? This can lead to a comparison table to show the author, the intended audience, any bias included in the writing and the reliability of each source, which will encourage students to understand that the content they read on the internet is created by human beings who have their own agendas and flaws.
It will also highlight that much online content does not have a clear author, and that can lead into discussions over accountability for what is written online, a highly important issue.
One of the pitfalls of the internet is that an answer to a question is found and then often accepted as truth, both by students and by adults. There are certain mathematical sums where you can use different methods to reach the same solution such as subtraction (counting back/up, chunking, carrying; all methods used with different age groups).
How about a task within a unit on subtraction where you give them the question and the solution and then award them points for the highest number of different methods they can come across online? This will teach them to not accept the first answer they find and can lead to higher cognitive skills such as analysis and evaluation of which methods are more useful.
Ask a series of simple questions on any topic and ask students to research the answers to the questions and record the first 5 answers a search engine provides, giving both the answer and the website. This can be subject-specific (for example, it could be on data in relation to space) or it could be on a range of subjects as part of a unit on accurate testing.
This will illustrate clearly the range of information available on the internet and help students become more critical of what they read online, as well as developing an appreciation for accuracy (for example, is it better to say that the earth is between 5 to 4.6 billion years old or is it better to give the age as 4.543 billion years?).
Ask students to complete a timeline of a given period and assign them specific websites to use (slips of paper with a web address including a range for the class to cover). The students will likely have different events on their timelines (for example, one timeline might be focused on technological advances and another on political developments) and some may have different dates (for example, was Germany founded in 1870 or 1871?). This can then be the basis for a discussion about historical accuracy, a project on different views of the same period or the start of a unit which contains several contradictory accounts.
Ask students to create a Facebook profile for a religious figure by providing a worksheet to complete (not by instructing them to sign up to Facebook!), including who the person would likely have been friends with, their favourite books, things they may have said in status updates etc.
These can then be peer assessed in terms of accuracy, encouraging students to justify their choices (for example, saying that Jesus would be friends with Moses would be a rather difficult choice given the centuries believed to have passed between their lifetimes, whereas listing the disciples would be a good choice).
Set students the task of translating a passage using an online translator, then asking them each to email you their findings. As the next lesson’s starter, copy and paste some of the translations they sent through into an online translator so they can see the reverse translation, highlighting any potential errors. Then give them a list of key words and grammar rules to consider before asking them to translate by hand. (For example, “it’s a nice day today” translates to “hoy es un buen día”, which then becomes “today is a good day” if translated again.)
There are countless ways teachers can instil a level of caution in their students through tasks like this, but it is also essential that schools provide clear e-safety lessons to students, too. Many schools include units on e-safety in ICT and PSHE lessons, especially given the high levels of cyber bullying now taking place. In addition to these lessons, here are some other methods of online safeguarding:
Posters around school are a helpful way of reminding students of the lessons they have learnt in relation to keeping their online information private, mottoes which could guide their online behaviour and reinforcing their accountability for their online actions. For example, “the internet is written in pen not pencil: think before you post” or more simply, “think before you click”.
Toilet notices are a valuable tool for providing information to students and staff alike, and putting information on key organisations available on the back of a toilet door is a simple but effective method of informing students of support services available.
Stickers on school computers can be subtle reminders that can have big impacts. For example, “Caution: this machine has no brain, use your own”.
Newsletters are a good opportunity to highlight the importance to online safety to parents, too, and they can be used as a way of providing parents with websites which can provide further guidance. It might also be helpful to have a weekly space in the newsletter for articles from the national or local news relating to safeguarding. This can include not only e-safety but also other issues surrounding child protection, and by keeping this a focal point for all members of the school community there will be a culture of prioritising the safety of students at home and in school.
Parents evenings can be called to provide parents with key information surrounding online safety. They can include a range of staff who can each deliver a few minutes of information on a range of themes, in the same way as some schools offer welcome evenings to new Year 7 parents or hold exams and assessment evenings for parents at times of change.
The PTA can be a useful tool for disseminating information to parents by organising e-safety events. These can involve discussions or presentations and will be driven by the concerns of current parents.
E-Safety days or weeks can be points in the school calendar when the whole school takes time out to focus on the issue of online safety. Collapsed timetable days are a popular way of giving focus to a particular issue and can help to raise the profile of e-safety across the school. If they become an annual feature of the calendar, each year group can then have a session tailored to the age-specific issues the internet presents.
Handbooks and policy documents relating to safeguarding should be available to all parents, and it would be a positive and pro-active step to provide these with the school prospectus at any open evening or during tours of the school. This does not have to be a complicated or lengthy publication, but could simply be a statement on the school’s position in relation to e-safety and a list of websites providing advice to both parents and students.
Visiting speakers in assemblies can be a simple way to remind students of the issues surrounding online safety and, depending on the speaker, will also highlight key services to the students such as Childline and the NSPCC.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to help keep students safe in our increasingly digital world. However, e-safety is a difficult topic to deliver when many students don’t feel they need the help, and so making it integral to everything that takes place in school is a simple but effective way to protect our young people online.
Find out other ways to ensure that your students can safely, responsibly and positively use digital technologies, by reading our other blog post in conjunction with Safer Internet Day 2017 – “Keeping Safe Online: how you can know more.”
 Office for National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/bulletins/internetaccesshouseholdsandindividuals/2016