Monday, March 16, 2009

Keeping our students safe online?

"Are we really responsible for keeping our students safe online?" is the title I was after but it seemed too long for a blog post!
In the last couple of weeks I have been doing a bit more thinking about keeping students safe online and consequently wondering about the meaning of the safety nets we have put in place. I think that safety net policies were great back in the day when most things we were keeping our kids safe from were made of solid materials, but the online environment is fluid and there is no way that schools should really be held responsible for students' safety. The safety nets we put in place have gaping holes.

It is not just the imminent arrival of the Education Review Office (ERO) to the school that has me looking again at the school policies relating to cybersafety - though with eLearning as one of the areas they will be reviewing it probably is a smart idea. It was the 9.05 minutes of fame on TV One that really got me started. It reminded me that schools are obliged to have rigourous safety policies in place to protect our students identity online, but there are at least two other groups who seem to live on a plane above us and can do anything they like; the traditional mass media and the paparazzi media.
Our school policies include all the basics advised by the Netsafe group when we publish online or "celebrate children’s achievement" as they phrase it. With parent permission we publish first names only, tasteful photos, no addresses, no phone numbers etc. However in our experience with the mass media they are able to completely ignore this. National television, The NZ Herald and Metro magazine are examples which come to mind where the reporters involved have blithely waved away our offers of obtaining parent permission as 'we don't need it'. These same media are also comfortable publishing students full names. Incase any of you are forgetting, these media publications end up online as clicking any of the links above will confirm.
At the other end of the spectrum we have paparazzi publishings of our students online (and I am aware I am using the term loosely here). We are all aware of issues surrounding students publishing images and movies of each other on Bebo, but we also encounter parents publishing images of other people's children in spaces like YouTube, as well as Bebo, Facebook, Flickr etc. in seemingly harmless contexts. Parents with cameras at sports events, culture events, school productions or even school assemblies all contribute to this paparazzi media who upload whatever they feel like and attach as much information as they choose to the images - about other people's children as well as their own.
Another group of paparazzi publishers I have become aware of recently are the teachers who pass through our school in groups receiving professional development. As part of their visits we usually invite them into the classrooms to observe teachers and students carrying out whatever it is they have been receiving PD on. Often these visitors are slinging cameras and we presumed they were capturing images to jog their memories when they got back to their own schools and were trying to synthesise what they had been learning. Over the last six months (we may be slow observers here) our Google alerts have made us aware that some of these educators are posting our students and teachers images online - without alerting us or obtaining consent - in spaces as diverse as slideshares, teachertube, YouTube, Flickr etc.

Hence I am beginning to feel that our school online safety net in the middle is very porous and that our approach is at times pretty ineffectual.
Fortunately we are a primary school so we seldom have problems with our own students acting as paparazzi media as can happen in schools with older students.
I would be very interested in hearing thoughts from anyone else who has been pondering this. And how effective would you say that your student cybersafety is to ERO in 3 weeks time?

Some of our students photographed these visitors looking at them! These are probably not ones who published photos of our students online!