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!


  1. Its a very 'interesting' issue - at my new school the issue came up, however as the school has for some time been posting the school newsletter online (which includes the full names of students and photographs) and it was therefore pointed out that this was being done, and had been done for several years in breach of the internet safety policy. We shall be following developments with a keen interest.

  2. I think that this post is timely and the 'gaps' that you have identified do exist! I have often thought about things like that when I am taking a creative commons image from Flickr to use in my online spaces. I often wonder if the people in those images actually gave permission for their photos to be online or to be used by anyone that wants them. There does seem to be double standards for different kinds of media as well with fear around straight 'online' content yet a lack of concern about information in print media as you have outlined. I will be interested to hear if ERO picks up on any of this.

  3. I simplify this one a little bit by asking if it is Ok for kids to wear a school uniform and have a bag with their name on it and their name on their hat, and go to the local mall with mum. Now Mr dodgy knows your school, your name, what you look like and if they follow you home, your address. So therefore I think that mr dodgy at the local mall is more of a threat than a man in Belgium with no pants on. Its about common sense, practical preventative solutions and a bit of vigilance. Yes there needs to be education amongst our visitors to our schools and some schools need to get out of the fear factor lock down scenario, cause they are the stupid plonkers who have their newsletters up there while keeping their internet locked down.

  4. @NZWaikato
    You have added another example to our case which must be happening in schools all over the Western world. I shall be very interested to follow how your school decides to deal with this one. Should schools be putting last names on newsletters with photos even if they don't get uploaded to the website?
    @Suzie Vesper
    It would be very impressive if ERO was even aware of this level of thinking! I don't think we will be raising it now we have the tantalising carrot of a FIVE year review period if we can manage an 'Achieved with Excellence'! Would you?
    I know there are statistics out there about the majority of internet predators being folk already known to students. What bugs me is that it feels like we are just 'ticking boxes', but as I said above - a 5 yr reprieve from ERO is worth ticking boxes for! Interesting how many twitter and email responses have mentioned education to me. That's sort of my point - we DO educate the kids, but it is all the mass media and paparazzi folk who are outside of our control who are actually putting our kids online and identifying them.

  5. When I was in charge of the school web space I would spend time deleting children's names from newsletters before uploading to our website.

    I have also seen teachers not modelling safe internet use by including surnames and the like on class blog pages.

    I often marvel at the freedom the print media feel they have in printing children's names and photos in the sports roundup pages.

    We include the messages about cyber-safety in our Keeping Ourselves Safe Programme but I think these things need to modelled throughout the year and become as second nature as wearing a safety belt or driving on the left hand side of the road- not sometimes things but everyday things.

    Everyone needs to be educated- not just the children. Maybe we could teach ERO a thing as they need to be using the tools as well.

    Praise be when I read the blog of an ERO review officer! Not likely.

    Allanah K

  6. @Allanah Your comments tell me that, like us, you are preaching to the converted by now :) Doing everything within your own school to 'get it right' but outside of school it is a completely different story.
    In recent times the issue is not stranger-danger for our kids online (the mall stalker that Luke was referring to) but emotional safety and cyber-bullying from peers and others. It is a different and more worrying danger that we are doing all this Netsafe stuff for IMHO. And not giving out names and phone numbers doesn't protect kids from what they can do to each other on Bebo etc.
    Fiona pointed me to this article yesterday about an adult who objects to his image being used without his permission

  7. First thing that came to my mind when I started reading your article was "keep the students safe from what"?

    It's important to identify the danger clearly, and I think that's where there is a lot of fuzz. I've written a bunch of stuff on the subject (search my blog for "teenagers" "youth" or "myspace sex offenders" -- that one's a good starter ;-)) and am easily wound up, so I'll spare you a rant!

  8. Thanks for sharing this link. Very interesting and helpful for me at the begninning of the journey.