Keeping students digitally safe
Interactive web applications offer a variety of ways for students to share their work with teachers, classmates, and the world. This article suggests best practices for keeping students' identities safe while using these tools.
When the Internet started to explode in the late 1980s and early 1990s, few imagined how powerful it would really become. Originally designed as a communication tool between scientists at several major research universities, the Internet is now a home for millions of innovative minds interested in creating content collaboratively. New applications are developed constantly as people across continents recognize the power of human connections.
Today’s children have grown up immersed in this media. Unlike their parents or grandparents, the students in our classrooms are truly children of a digital age. They are energized by digital partnerships. They’ve learned to explore their worlds and to express themselves electronically. Instant messaging, social networking, and gaming drive thinking in young minds.
Changes in our children’s habits mean that classroom instruction is changing as well. Teachers — recognizing that technology is a motivating vehicle for delivering content to their classrooms — have begun to embrace blogging, podcasting, asynchronous discussions, wikis, and digital movie-making. New projects and new products are becoming increasingly common and are having a significant impact on the quality of teaching and learning in the classrooms across America.
But are we keeping our children digitally safe?
While new Web 2.0 tools are incredibly exciting and powerful, they can also be dangerous because they expose students to a wider world that isn’t always closely monitored and protected. Risk taking is inherent any time that a child ventures into cyberspace unprepared for what they might encounter there. Providing opportunities to explore content through Web 2.0 technologies comes with an increased responsibility for introducing students to Internet safety practices that often go overlooked in our enthusiasm to try something new.
This column offers a set of best practices for safely engaging students in the collaborative world of the Internet. Along with understanding the specific rules set by your district for using digital tools in your instruction — which are often defined in your employee handbook — adhering to these practices will help to teach your students how to be careful while working online.
Use password-protected services
Most Web 2.0 tools are intentionally designed to promote collaboration. Posting and editing content are the shared responsibility of many individuals creating final products — wiki pages, blog entries, shared conversations — together.
While such public opportunities to participate are appropriate for communities of adults collaborating together, classroom efforts should remain initially small and private in order to give both teachers and students the chance to master safe online practices before opening their work to the world. When selecting any service for classroom projects, look for a company that offers password-protected forums. This will allow you to ensure that outsiders are not able to gain access to the content that your children are creating or to communicate with your kids until you know that your classes are ready for that exposure.
Require that students log in when contributing
Most Web 2.0 products aimed at the education community ask users to log in before making contributions. Teachers using new tools should require that students enter a teacher-generated username, their first name and last initial, or an agreed-upon classroom pseudonym when logging in to any service.
By doing so, teachers can refer back to a project’s history pages to identify students responsible for individual contributions. If digital vandalism — the intentional destruction of content or the posting of inappropriate material — occurs, teachers will have an electronic record that can be used to hold students accountable for their actions. Requiring students to log in also ensures that teachers can monitor visitors to classroom projects. If unrecognized names appear, teachers can take appropriate action to identify new users.
It is important to remember, though, that students should never use their complete names while working in digital projects open to the world. While password-protected forums offer a measure of security against revealing student identities to the broader Internet community, they are not “hacker-proof.” To ensure that student identities are protected in the instance of an unknown visitor, teach your children to use only their teacher-generated usernames, their first names and last initials, or their agreed-upon pseudonyms when logging into your digital projects.
Monitor all discussions and conversations
Asynchronous discussion forums aren’t the only Web 2.0 tools that enable conversations between users. In fact, almost every Web 2.0 service — blogs, wikis, video- and image-hosting sites — offer places for users to collaborate with one another as a topic is being developed, a concept is being studied, or a final product is being reviewed. These conversations often occur under tabs labeled “comments” or “discussion.”
Because these boards are somewhat hidden from immediate view, it is essential to monitor the comments being added to any ongoing conversation. While student usernames or pseudonyms are often automatically attached to any comments added, inappropriate material tends to appear on discussion boards instead of the main pages of Web 2.0 products. Regular monitoring, therefore, is required to ensure that students are following the acceptable use guidelines established for your classroom project.
Many Web 2.0 services make monitoring these conversations easy by providing a list of recent comments added to any page of an active project. Be sure to look for this functionality early and to check it often after turning your students loose!
Always enable comment moderation
Like the planning conversations facilitated by Web 2.0 tools, instant feedback from a broad audience is highly motivating for students, promoting additional contributions to classroom projects. Even if comments are left by parents or relatives, the immediacy of having outsiders review work captures the attention of students of any age.
Responsible educators, however, always use services that allow for comment moderation. Comment moderation prevents comments from being automatically posted to any digital project. Instead, comments are delivered via email for pre-approval. By enabling comment moderation, teachers are able to sift out comments that are generated automatically by computer spammers — which often contain links to inappropriate or pornographic material. Comment moderation also enables teachers to guard against comments left by questionable adults. Students are left to see only those feedback comments that are positive in nature.
Always remain personally anonymous
Most Web 2.0 projects that are created and maintained by students, teachers, or entire classrooms are widely available on the World Wide Web. This element of audience is highly motivating for students and for teachers alike, providing a purpose for polishing final products. Because of the open nature of Web 2.0 work, however, it is essential for both teachers and students to remain completely anonymous when completing digital assignments.
When working on a project that is open for viewing on the Internet, the minimal standard for keeping students safe is to never pair first and last names together. For added security, it is highly suggested that all participants in digital projects adopt pseudonyms to use as identifiers for their contributions. By adopting pseudonyms, teachers have a means for crediting individual student efforts and children have the opportunity to have their work spotlighted safely. What’s more, most students will enjoy taking on an alternate identity while working online. The mystery is motivating.
Teachers must be particularly careful to remain anonymous themselves, as information about grade levels and subject areas taught are generally widely available on school and district websites. When teachers are careless about guarding their own identities online, they are inadvertently revealing significant information about who their students are as well.
Always keep your school anonymous
One of the mistakes that many teachers and students make when creating content for the Web is identifying their school or community in the profile sections or initial posts on their final products. This desire is natural: Educators want to celebrate the work being done by their students and principals want to celebrate the work being done by their teachers. Unfortunately, digital projects that include information about the name of the school or the community that the school serves give away far too much information to keep children safe.
Responsible teachers, then, take precautions to reveal as little as possible about their school or community. Their school name is never mentioned. Their school’s location is never mentioned. The grade levels served by individual classes are never mentioned. Most importantly, direct links to and from the school’s primary website are never included.
While this seems counterintuitive — digital projects are about audience and advertising through links on school or district websites promotes page views — it is essential. When paired with the information that is widely available on school websites such as street addresses, bell schedules, building floor plans, and faculty members, links that seemed initially harmless can draw unwanted attention to your students.
Digital projects are best promoted in traditional ways: Teachers can inform parents through email newsletters and principals can draw attention at school functions and PTA meetings. However, promotion on school websites is not suggested.
Carefully monitor visual content
For students, creating and manipulating images — either in photographs, as prompts in conversations, or as content for student-generated videos — is far more motivating than text-based final products. Images have stimulated most children since they were born, and advances in graphic technologies have made streaming video content increasingly engaging and easy to produce. The websites that our students find most motivating are those that incorporate interesting visual content.
Using student-created video clips and photographs that spotlight the students in your class, however, introduces a new level of risk as the physical identities of students are clearly revealed. Before any teacher begins a classroom project that relies heavily on these kinds of visuals, he or she must carefully check their district’s policies for obtaining permission from parents for students to be spotlighted on the Internet.
Most districts require that an official video and photo release form be completed in these situations to ensure that parents understand that their child’s image is going to be available to a wide audience and have the opportunity to deny permission. It is never acceptable to post a photo or a video of a child on the Internet before having attained parental permission.
After parental permission has been received, it is important to monitor the content of any video or photo for inadvertent disclosure of identifying information. Common examples include students wearing clothing that identifies a school’s name, mascots, or colors. Other examples include signs or posters that identify schools or specific teachers. This kind of content can accidentally become a part of backgrounds and provide identifying information to viewers. Finally, pairing student names with their images is never a good idea — and is often a direct violation of district policies.
Perhaps the safest way to begin projects built from visuals with students is to create files that do not include images of children at all. Consider having students use drawings or stick puppets as the focus of the visual recordings that you produce. Not only will your students have to brainstorm ways to articulate ideas through illustrations — a higher-level thinking skill — but their identities will also be protected.
You might also consider sharing images that reflect the focus of the instructional activity being spotlighted in your final product. A field trip to the farm can include photos of animals. A classroom effort to create a mural can include photos of colorful hands and paintbrushes. Many teachers also include photos of final products produced by students, which can often be as interesting as images of the students themselves!
Review student scripts
Teachers that engage students in Web 2.0 projects that involve digital recording of any kind — podcasts, vodcasts, student-made movies — often develop scripts for particular product styles that are used to guide student efforts. This practice ensures that projects follow a particular format and ensures a measure of polish in each performance. The challenge with live recordings, however, is that students often let their guard down. Conversations become casual as students enjoy the opportunity to broadcast to the world. In the course of these casual conversations, it is not uncommon for students to reveal identifying information about themselves, their teachers or their schools.
To prevent this accidental release of identifying information, teachers should review every student script beforehand and be present during student recording or editing sessions. By doing so, teachers can ensure that identifying information is protected. If information is revealed accidentally, it can either be removed during the editing process or the final product can be re-recorded. Never allow podcasts, vodcasts, or student-made videos to be posted until you have had the opportunity to specifically review final products for any identifying information.
Use pseudonyms for accounts at hosting services
When creating digital content, teachers often sign up for storage accounts at free web hosting services providing much-needed places for final products to be made available online. Without such services, classroom projects — particularly those built from images or videos which require tons of storage space — would be impossible simply because Web 2.0 content has to be housed on the Internet.
While it is perfectly acceptable to create accounts with free services for this purpose, teachers should never use their real names — or the names of their schools — as usernames on such sites. Often, the media stored by free services are identified by the username of the account holder. In these situations, users attempting to access files posted in classroom projects are redirected to links that include the username of account holders. If these usernames are based on the name of the classroom teacher or the school, identifying information can be inadvertently revealed.
Considering usernames before creating accounts at free storage services is another simple way to keep your classroom anonymous.
Using tomorrow’s tools — safely
Any teacher working to introduce Web 2.0 tools to their students should be commended for their efforts. Digital creation, collaboration, and communication are playing an increasingly important role in 21st-century businesses, which means that students with no experience with the kinds of services becoming common beyond schools will be under-prepared for the knowledge-driven world they will inherit.
That being said, teachers working to integrate new tools and technologies into their classrooms must accept responsibility for keeping their students safe. Along with the guidance offered by your district’s technology services division, the suggestions in this column are good starting points for understanding the steps that progressive educators take to teach Internet safety in their classrooms.