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How can we keep students safe when their internet usage increases?

by Kritika M Narula

Kritika M Narula shares a comprehensive guide to effective online learning, using specific technology tools, robust planning and communication strategies, which ensures that you maintain safeguarding students your priority during difficult times.

The recent outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In an effort to contain this exponential outbreak, public health officials are imploring the people to practice good hygiene and social distancing. 

Events are being indefinitely postponed, family gatherings are being cancelled, public places like cinemas and theatres have been shut, organisations are making provisions for their employees to work from home and schools are being closed down - all in an attempt to minimise social contact to curb the spread of the coronavirus and flatten the curve.

According to UNESCO, over 156 countries have implemented nationwide school closures at the time of writing. The suspension of physical classes, however, does not mean that all learning has to stop too. This is where technology comes to the rescue of teachers, parents and students – as we see a shift to online learning. 

The shift to online learning

Virtual learning is not an alien concept – many classrooms already make use of ‘Blended Learning’, where online learning tools are used in conjunction with traditional classroom learning. But as schools adopt virtual learning as the sole medium of teaching, students will spend more time on their devices and on the internet than they currently do. This will also potentially expose them to greater risks as they browse online, connect virtually and adjust to a non-traditional set-up of learning.

Safeguarding students during this period of increased internet usage requires the proactive involvement of the school, educators and parents alike. Whilst school administrations must update policies and pre-empt any threat to their students’ well-being and safety, the parents should take the lead on ensuring that the students have constant access to a safe space at home.

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Below you will find a rundown of all the actionable steps that can be taken to minimise threats, and eliminate hazards, in the wake of the outbreak. 

Communication is key

It is important that the school administration is thorough in setting up the digital infrastructure for online learning – and more importantly, in setting up timely and effective communication. Kate Young, CEO and Founder of the Safeguarding Association, agrees: "Schools should be providing parents/carers with clear information about what is happening." She shares with us the three action items she believes the school management needs to give priority to: 

Early information sharing with parents and carers, liaising with departments about what is available online and how that can be accessed, and finally, information about what can be provided to students without access to devices or internet or in practical-based programmes to ensure continuity of learning.

Anxiety levels are already soaring given the current environment, so clear and succinct communication is more important than ever: within preventive, protective, control or corrective guidelines. The more specific these guidelines, the better. Below you will find a template.

Preventive and protective guidelines including:

  • Charting a communication code and chain for the staff, faculty and students. Create a visual flowchart explaining who can get in touch with whom and which mode of communication is to be used.
  • Laying down specific instructions about how to join the virtual classes, the tools used during teaching and share them as a FAQ document with the parents, students and staff.
  • Before embarking on regular classes, conducting a pilot or a test run to work out the knots in the process.
  • Creating pre-joining training modules for everyone involved. These could be in the form of step-by-step guides on how to access and use online learning tools and curriculum, including the learnings from the pilot run.
  • Creating tutorials using screencasts or screen-sharing and share them as simple .pdf files. If video tutorials are created, making them readily accessible for all students and staff.
  • Providing a separate forum where students can chat with each other. At the end of the day, they are still attending classes. Talking with their peers and classmates remains a part of that experience.

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Control measures would ideally include the following:

  • Ensuring that a robust complaint and redressal mechanism is in place and communicated to everyone.
  • Setting up a helpdesk or a helpline that students and parents can use to clarify their doubts related to the tools or logistics.
  • Designing the lesson plan for classes in such a way that students are able to register their attendance, feedback and any concerns at regular intervals. Give breaks in between.
  • Protocols for regular check-ins with parents.
  • Banning the sharing of inappropriate or illegal content during the virtual sessions.
  • Protocols for managing a dispute that arises during an online class.
  • Providing resources and guidelines for crisis situations. What happens if the students don’t have internet? How can we ensure students still learn without exposing themselves to risks? What happens if a student is unable to join a class - how can they catch up?
  • Addressing the impact of relative isolation on the kids’ mental health by providing one-to-one virtual counselling sessions. Creating informal peer support groups is also helpful.

You can also have a look at the guidelines shared by Katie Rigg, CIS Head of Safeguarding & Student Well-being on how schools can shield their students from potential online threats. 

Parents need to talk openly with their children too

Communication and open dialogue are equally important between parents and students. Parents are just as worried about the students’ safety and it might seem like a good idea to put hard limits on their usage, to monitor their online activity and to introduce punishments when the children surpass those limits.

But at a time when panic and anxiety levels are already so high, using fear and punishment as tools to regulate children’s screen time may not be the best approach. Your conversation about keeping your children safe should instead emanate from a place of empowerment. Give them information that makes them feel secure.

What are some things parents can tell the students to keep them safe? Start with the basics: explain to them what privacy settings are, why safe browsing is important, how a strong password can protect them. Make them feel that they are in charge of their own safety. Kate Young emphasises certain ground rules that should form a part of this conversation:

"Tell your children to not ‘meet’ anyone online if they do not know who they are; to not open any links they are unsure of, particularly if those links have not come directly from school or college and that they should not use unsecured networks to access personal information, such as cafes/public spaces to access their records or personal data. Tell them not to place themselves at risk for a wifi connection."

Empower them with relevant information rather than punishing them for getting into trouble. That way, if they do find themselves in hot water, they will feel more comfortable approaching you and reporting any problems.

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Limiting the time spent online: school time vs. personal time

Another emerging concern from the parents’ perspective is that online learning is bound to increase the time students spend glued to screens. So how do we regulate the time students spend online?

An effective strategy here is to demarcate their school time and personal time - and not just the time spent with screens. Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans In a Digital World and Founder of CyberCivics agrees that balance is key in the action plan: 

"Parents already worry about how much time their children are spending online, and with the prospect of kids staying home, online times (and, therefore, parental concern) are sure to skyrocket. So, it is imperative that parents help kids balance their online and offline lives!"

Graber offers a friendly, hands-on solution:

"When your children go online, set a timer to a predesignated amount of time (that you both agree upon), and when that time is up, help your children find off-screen activities to engage in. One way to do this is to have your children create a “wish list” of offline activities they’d love to do in their offline time, this can include anything from learning to skateboard to finger painting!"

It is also important to lead by example. For example, you can introduce a weekly day in the household when everyone collectively decides to ‘unplug’.

Provisions to combat problems

Effective and timely communication will ensure that the staff, parents and students feel empowered. But the fight to ensure the safety of the students does not end there. It is important to adhere to the safeguarding measures laid out by law, even when we shift to virtual learning.

Kate Young lays special emphasis on certain statutory provisions:

"Who can be contacted if there are concerns? Keeping Children Safe in Education requires the Designated Safeguarding Lead or Deputy to be available at all times. That does not change even if the classes move into an online space."

It is imperative to track your action plan in response to COVID-19 in a compliant manner so that you don’t miss out on any guideline. This is where SCR Tracker’s technology can help you with your contingency plans, actions and records. 

It is also important to ensure accessibility measures are in place. Figure out ways to include students in classes who may not have steady access to a computer device at home. Have a conversation with students with disabilities to figure out how to include them and what resources can help them.

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If you are looking for tools that can help you during this time, here’s a quick checklist:

  • Tools like Zoom, Skype, Teams, Google Hangouts Meet, Parlay, Nearpod, Kahoot, EdConnect, Classtime, Flipgrid can be used as the media for communication and as forums for feedback. Some of them have even extended a free version for a few weeks or months.
  • There are a plethora of online learning programs as well: Khan Academy, Outschool, Epic App, Education.com, BrainPop are a few of them.
  • Many other educational companies are also offering their services and tools for free. You can find the list here - these can be really helpful if you are yet to make to pivot to online teaching.
  • UNESCO has also provided a list of digital management systems, MOOC platforms and even systems with strong offline functionality!
  • Finally, if you have thought of the perfect EdTech tool during this time but haven't been able to find it, SCR Tracker is offering to build tools for you – enter your requests here.

There is no denying that moving to online learning and teaching is a massive adjustment for everyone involved. In the process of online learning, it is necessary to make sure the children are safe as they access various media and tools for studying.

Armed with the right technology tools, robust planning and timely communication, it is possible to keep the momentum of education going while keeping students out of harm’s way.

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posted 4 months ago
Kritika M Narula
Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.