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Saturday, February 13, 2010

More online freedom for students=lower risk: UK watchdog

Students who are "given a greater degree of freedom to surf the Internet at school are less vulnerable to online dangers in the long-term," the BBC reports, citing a just-released study by Ofsted, the British government's education watchdog found. Ofsted looked at the state of online safety in 37 schools for students aged 5-18, finding that five of the schools had outstanding Net-safety conditions and instruction. The five shared some interesting characteristics: They had a whole-school-community approach to student Net safety, and they had "managed" rather than "locked down" systems for filtering and other safety measures. "'Managed' systems," Ofsted explains, "have fewer inaccessible sites than "locked down" systems and so require pupils to take responsibility themselves for using new technologies safely. Although the 13 schools which used 'locked down' systems kept their pupils safe while in school, such systems were less effective in helping them to learn how to use new technologies safely." The weakest area was Net-safety training for school staff, the report said. "Most training provided was 'one size fits all' and therefore did not always meet needs. There was very little evidence of schools drawing systematically on the views and concerns of pupils, their families or governors in identifying priorities for such training."

What Ofsted seems to be saying is that teaching students the critical thinking skills of media literacy ultimately lowers risk. The schools rated "outstanding" in online safety all had managed systems whereby "pupils were helped, from a very early age, to assess the risk of accessing sites. For example, at the elementary level in one of the top 5 schools, students are taught to ask themselves these questions:

  • "Who wrote the material on this site?"
  • "Is the information on it likely to be accurate or could it be altered by anybody?"
  • "If others click onto the site, can I be sure that they are who they say
    they are?", and
  • "What information about myself should I not give out on the site?"

    We would add a key 5th question for full social-Web safety (or "Online Safety 3.0"): "What impact will the information (photo, video, etc.) I give out on this site (or cellphone) have on my friends and my community?" We at ConnectSafely feel this question is essential because the preceding four excellent questions deal only with the impact of the info uploaded on the student himself/herself and, to move forward, we need all to understand that online well-being and safety in today's social new-media environment is, by definition, a collaboration – ideally starting in elementary school and broadening outward as a child matures. Interestingly, too, based on the research, posting negative or harassing info about others also increases risk to oneself (see this). [A pdf version of the full report can be downloaded from Ofsted's site here.]

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