Keeping students safe in a digital world

It is becoming increasing challenging for schools to keep students safe in a digital world.   This is largely due to the easy with which students can make use of solutions designed with privacy in mind.  These technologies weren’t designed with the safeguarding needs of schools in mind.   As a result, I believe we need to be increasingly pragmatic about our approach.

One big factor in keeping students safe relates to whether the devices being used belong to the students and their parents or belong to the school.    Where they belong to the school there is greater potential to use technology solutions to help keep students safe, however these same solutions can easily be circumvented or removed where the devices belong to the students, e.g. where a Bring Your Own Device scheme is in place.    Personally, I suspect we will only see BYOD growing in terms of how common it is in schools.    It is also important to note that students will bring their own devices to school irrespective, likely in the form of personal mobile phones, therefore protections in place of school issued devices are rather limited in their effect given students can simply switch to their personal mobile phone should they not wish to be filtered or monitored.

The big reason for writing this post comes following reading a post where it recommended advising students to make use of VPNs in order to keep their communications safe and secure.   From a cyber security point of view I can understand this.   Using a VPN will stop someone snooping on my personal data in transit.   When thinking about it a bit more broadly however I think it would be a bad idea.   Firstly, it would hamper school filtering and monitoring, which is in place largely for safeguarding reasons.   Also, although there are very good VPNs available, these tend to be paid services.  Parents and students are unlikely to want or possibly even be able to afford to spend money on these services, which will therefore push them towards the various free VPNs which appear so readily available.   These free VPNs may either be fully malicious in nature, not being a VPN at all or may be gathering and selling user data.    Either way I am not sure if the cure, in a free VPN, is any better than the risk.

I think schools must now look to tackle safeguarding in a digital world in a more holistic way.   Its not down to the safeguarding and pastoral team to define filtering of sites, or access times for students, nor is it down to the IT dept. to make sure firewalls and filtering are in place.  It needs to be a collective approach where all involved discuss the risks and what they have in place, and what they can put in place going forward.    Within this, I continue to believe the principle focus needs to be on awareness rather than seeking technology solutions, ensuring students, teachers and parents are all aware of the benefits and risks of technology use, plus aware of how to keep themselves safe and secure online.

As privacy online continues to grow in focus, and as technology companies increasing bake privacy and security into their solutions, the act of keep students safe in a digital world will only continue to become more challenging.

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Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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