Once you allow learners access to the Internet there is the potential for them to get into trouble. On the other hand, the same is true when you let them play outside in the playground. Except the risk is probably greater outside. We do not want to sound cavalier about this but we need to get the risk in perspective.
There are some basic rules.
1. Decide where your learners can and can’t go on the Internet. This might be embedded in school policy or your own professional judgment call. Know where your personal boundaries are and, after a rational and informed discussion, what the school has decided is OK.
2. If you have a choice between using on line software or software that you download as a local installation, go for the latter, even if it means you have to install it on every machine yourself. If you have a network, then that makes it easier, however, your IT people will probably not let you install any software yourself, which is the downside. There is also more free stuff on-line.
3. If you are using on-line software on the interactive whiteboard (smart board) then you only need to set up one account in your name. You will obviously check out the site as you are preparing the lesson to make sure that clicking on a link doesn’t take you somewhere you don’t want to be. One thing to watch out for is that most free sites will make their money out of carrying advertisements. The advertisements are constantly changing. Although most sites geared to children are very responsible about the adverts they carry, other sites you may want to use are less concerned. So try and do a last minute check on the site you are going to use right before a lesson.
4. You will probably have a heavily firewalled system. If not, you will need some sort of nanny software installed which blocks inappropriate content before you see it. Failing that, look at the settings on the search engine or browser you are using because you will probably be able to adjust the filters to edit out unsuitable images at least.
5. Make sure you have anti virus and antispyware software installed – even though the anti virus software in particular can slow up your computer
6. Accounts, usernames, email addresses and passwords!
If learners need to work on-line but they don’t need to communicate with each other on-line, then our preference is to set up the account yourself, choose one log in for the whole class and one password. That is, everyone uses the same account. It means you can either log in every computer to this application yourself so they are ready to go (meaning learners are at no stage ‘roaming around’ on the web) or share the log in and password and let the children do it.
(Learners will always tell learners in other classes what the password is – not that this is a real issue because it will only access an application you have selected. However, if you want to avoid this, you can sometimes get away with having a very officious sounding password – e.g. Class5only. Other learners are less likely to use it than a password like ‘chocolate’.)
The downside of this single account approach is that a lot of the freebie sites will have a restriction on the data you can store on one account, or the number of times it can be used without upgrading to a premium (paying) account. If you have an entire class using the account, this limit will be reached very quickly. Also, it obviously does not work well if you want learners to mail, Skype or tweet each other.
So the third solution is to let each learner set up a separate account for on-line software. We have had major arguments with our colleagues about whether to allow learners to choose their user names and passwords and whether they should be allowed to keep this private. Whilst we understand the ethical concerns – and it is an issue for discussion – the main reason for knowing the user names and passwords of learners is not only that it’s safer, but also that they forget them. Always. The other thing you can do is to allocate them names (e.g. NicClass4) and tell them all to use the same password, which you put up on the board. Most children will accept this.
Also, some online applications will only let you set up accounts if they are linked to a unique email address. Again, one way of doing it is to use a combination of your class name, school abbreviation and learner’s initials to set up an email account
So this would be Class 6 at Ysgol Evan James, John Jones. (It isn’t by the way!) Then you allocate passwords from a list and keep the master copy. The downside of this is that if you want to allow learners to publish their work, they won’t get the satisfaction of seeing their name in lights. The alternative is to use software that allows you a choice of privacy settings (more below).
Finally, if you are doing some of the activities mentioned, for example the Twitter activity, then you really need to let learners decide on their own user names. However, you can still allocate them a password from a list or make them use the same one! In these cases, I would just close the accounts as soon as you have finished with the activity.
If all this sounds Draconian, just remember that whilst they are in your classroom, they are under your control and you can make professional judgments on how to protect them. And you’ll have all but the most radical parent behind you.
7 Discuss some ground rules with your class and write them up on the wall. We would advocate teaching lessons specifically about appropriate on line behaviours. You would want to include rules such as ‘never saying anything hurtful to other people on line’, ‘being polite’, ‘not publishing photographs until you have permission from the people in the picture’, ‘never communicating with anyone outside the classroom unless under the direction of the teacher’. You should also discuss why these rules are needed and what the consequences could be if they are broken.
8 Carry out checks – this is not snooping, it’s protection. Check the history settings on the browser you are using and make sure that it is set to save all history or something similar. (You can usually do this by going to the ‘preferences’ on your browser and looking for the ‘security’ and privacy’ tabs). Look at the history after each assignment. Apart from ensuring learners have not been to ‘undesirable’ sites, you can see how they have approached the task by looking at the sites they visited. We would always tell children that we are going to do this; it’s not meant to be a secret and it’s important that they know that we are keeping them safe, not checking up on them, which implies we distrust them.
9 Get real – the average child is said to access their first pornographic web site, intentionally, at the age of eight. And by the time they are nine, 1 in 3 children will be using a social networking site. Children can be bullied at any age and let’s not forget, bullying was not invented on the Internet! Whilst we’d all prefer that none of these things happened on our watch, so to speak, as long as your school has a sound policy in place – and you follow it to the letter – you will be completely safe.