Back in 1960, author and comedic storyteller, Alexander King, recounted how a particular friend always left King’s house with the benediction, “May this house be safe from tigers.” Upon questioning, his friend pointed out that in all the time he had been doing this, King had never once had a problem with tigers. In King’s own words, “Perfectly correct!”
In my K-12 internet house, various devices provide me with daily benedictions letting me know how keenly they want my house to be safe from viruses, spyware, hacking, bots and phishing (just to name a few!). I have artificially intelligent bouncers to keep things out that I don’t want in, and I have virtual parents that insist on knowing where everyone is going and what they will be doing and are perfectly willing to give opinions on whether that seems to be a good idea or not. “I thought you were going to the library, young man! Your father did not give you the keys to the car so that you could go cruise the drive-in!” Each of these devices is an insufferable tattletale. They blab all day long about what everyone is doing to a virtual older sibling with a very long memory.
In our district, we do our best to train our students and staff about online safety issues and teach them their roles as good digital citizens. As users, they agree to our acceptable use policies and acknowledge their training as well as the risks inherent to the digital world. Internet safety: Check?
As it turns out, while I find all of this somewhat reassuring, ultimately I feel that it is, by itself, inadequate. I am not ready to give up my internet-watching virtual minions, but they don’t make me feel that things are particularly safe. And while we strive to find more effective ways to teach our students and staff about internet safety, I am not convinced that training alone is enough to mitigate the dangers. But what am I worried about? Which internet threat that we are not prepared for do I expect to be knocking on my door tomorrow? And that is just it. I don’t know! It will be unexpected!
Our school playgrounds are safe places, right? We buy products that are properly load-rated, snag-proof, pinch-proof, burn-proof and anti-microbial. We install them on surfaces that help prevent scraped knees, splinters and twisted ankles. We make sure the equipment is well-placed and spaced to prevent bumps, knocks and falls. We establish rules for the children to follow and teach them our expectations. We put signs at the doors so that they are reminded of the rules every time they go outside. So then we just open the doors and tell them to have at it, knowing that everything will be in perfect order in 30 minutes time. Well, no, we don’t do that! We keep our children under close human supervision. We watch and wait for the things to happen that we expect might happen, as well as things that we never thought we would see. “Sally, even if a cricket DOES just crawl into your mouth, you shouldn’t EAT it! Spit it out!”
For me, this then is the answer to the online threat I can’t name: vigilance. Preferably of the human kind. We don’t let our students onto the playground unsupervised and the digital playground should be no different. Supervision itself provides students with a feeling of safety and allows them to be comfortable in their tasks. In larger school venues, physical supervision of students’ internet use is not likely to be enough or to be practical. Software tools can help teachers to be in more than one place at a time.
Often enough, the students themselves are aware of problems when teachers and staff are not. Providing a means for anonymous communication between students and designated staff can make students feel secure enough to let staff know about their concerns. Modern software packages can provide some automated help with the vigilance by helping to look for symptoms and indicators of online safety concerns that should be reviewed. This more selective approach of drawing our attention to indicators can prove invaluable because the log files that are part of the minions’ long memory are collected at a rate of tens of millions of entries per day in our schools and we aren’t a particularly large district. It would be impossible for us to pick out issues on our own. I should mention that the vigilance should probably come from someone as close to the students as is practical. While a substitute teacher might be better than having nobody on the playground, the students’ own teacher will know which ones have acquired a taste for munching bugs.
If your internet house isn’t safe from tigers, I do suggest that you address that right away. Watch out for lions and bears too. You really can’t be too careful. Once you have secured yourself against the zoo, you can start to focus on the really dangerous things. The threat of online bullying and harassment is much more likely and more hazardous for students than elaborate phishing frauds meant to separate adults from their money. And while a rampant virus can ruin your tech department’s day and disrupt instruction, threats to our students’ well-being can have a life-long impact.
Brian Pitts is technology director at the Longview Independent School District in Texas. He has been in charge of technology there since 1998. He oversees computing, networking, communications and physical security for the 8,500 student school district located in the piney woods of east Texas. Brian’s love for people, technology and learning drive him to find technical solutions that leave people smiling. Longview ISD uses Impero Education Pro to support its students and staff with classroom management and Internet safety.
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