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Harness the Internet’s Learning Power while Keeping Students Safe

November 17, 2017, 15:06 GMT+1
Read in 6 minutes
  • Carmel Glassbrook looks at how schools can harness the internet’s potential for learning, without exposing their pupils to its darker side...
Harness the Internet’s Learning Power while Keeping Students Safe

Modern technology offers many positives and quality of life improvements – but when it comes to keeping young people safe, it can also present a range of issues.

Without preventative measures in place, young people can readily access content that’s highly inappropriate for their age, and use the powerful communication tools provided by social media for the purposes of online bullying.

The growing prevalence of new technologies has coincided with an increasing responsibility placed on schools for safeguarding young people. Following publication of the DfE’s 2016 statutory guidance on safeguarding (‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’), all UK schools are required to provide an ‘appropriate level of filtering and monitoring.’

This requirement to do more – often with lower budges – makes it tempting to look for a technological solution that can protect your young people when they’re online. There are many software providers who’ll promise to do this for you, but while such tools are useful, they can’t be seen as the only solution.

Ofsted don’t simply want schools to tick a box and say ‘We have monitoring’ – they want schools to be able to demonstrate and understand its impact.

Filtering versus monitoring

Monitoring and filtering are often talked about together as if they’re part of the same package, but in fact they do two very different (albeit complementary) things. Filtering is designed to restrict or control the content a user can access on the internet, and works by preventing predetermined words, phrases and URLs from being delivered to the user.

Some filtering providers may notify you if users on your network attempt to access filtered sites, which can be helpful, but it’s possible that you may only get that information weeks later. And even when they arrive, those notifications will often provide relatively little in the way of context.

Monitoring works differently. Rather than blocking data, monitoring systems operate in the background, actively looking out for preset words and phrases. Unlike filtering, monitoring solutions will log all user activity, not just what they’re accessing via the internet.

That means that whether someone’s using Google or working on a Word document, the system will be monitoring what’s going on and will report back if anything unusual appears.

However, a common problem for schools and other establishments is the sheer volume of data this type of software generates. It’s not uncommon for an individual member of staff to be responsible for reviewing the data that comes in, but in some settings this can amount to a full-time job.

Most monitoring software is clever at picking words out that have been disguised within other words – but amazing as it is, it can also be somewhat irritating.

Take ‘Pearson’, for example – that’s the name of a major educational publisher and assessment service used in schools and colleges across the country, but it contains within it the word ‘ARSON’, which (understandably) is a word of interest.

If a class of 30 pupils were to use a Pearson-provided learning platform for one 60-minute lesson, the average monitoring software might capture the same violation once or twice every minute. By the end of the lesson you could potentially have 3,600 irrelevant captures to sort through, and that’s just one example of the issue. There are many others.

Given the data volumes involved, it’s entirely possible that schools could be spending thousands of pounds on such software but not getting the full benefit from it, which could in turn lead to learners being left with inadequate safeguarding measures to support them.

Sharing the load

To help tackle this problem, you can enlist the services of an outside organisation to offer a managed or partially-managed service:

Managed services

A fully managed service will not only install the software, but also monitor your captures for you. That might sound tempting, but be aware that in exchange, many such organisations will retain the rights to said data and be able to dictate the level of access that schools have to it.

In practice, this can essentially reduce the role of monitoring to something closer to a trigger for incident response, when it has the potential to be so much more.

Partially managed services

A partially managed service involves having a third party look at your data within specific parameters. The service can notify a school in the event of any serious captures, so that even if no staff were able to check the data on a given day the school will still be covered, only with the freedom to use and learn from the captured data.

Putting effective monitoring in place needn’t mean spending thousands of pounds on software and hardware. For smaller settings, it can simply mean appointing a member of staff to physically keep an eye on what students are doing while they’re connected to the network. For larger settings where that simply isn’t feasible, a technical solution is more likely to provide the answer.

Ultimately, what works for one school may not work for another. The most important consideration when it comes to monitoring is to use the approach that works best for your setting.

What’s right for you?

Before making that important and potentially expensive decision as to what monitoring system is right for you, consider the following:

  • What’s your budget?
  • How many users need monitoring in your setting?
  • How often are you dealing with safeguarding incidents?
  • Are there any cultural sensitivities that need to be taken into account?
  • How much in the way of resources can you allocate to it?
  • Do you want to be able to access your data?

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