The Internet is not a naturally safe environment. From phishers to paedophiles, when kids go online they’re at risk. What’s being done to protect them? Lee Suckling investigates.
For young people, cybersafety refers to the ways students can use the Internet in a safe and cautious manner. With such easy access to the Web’s tools – from Facebook and YouTube, to Google and simply downloading files – the dangers that can affect students in today’s online world are numerous. These include harassment or bullying, accessing inappropriate content, contact with strangers, posting of private information, using copyrighted content or plagiarising, and importantly, not seeking support when an issue arises.
The good news is that huge efforts being invested in cybersecurity solutions by the Ministry of Education and independent organisations such as NetSafe, Watchdog and SuperClubsPLUS has meant New Zealand is fairing well on the international cybersecurity stage.
“I’ve talked with advocates in this field in dozens of countries in the last year, and I know the work New Zealand has done is very highly regarded,” said Liz Butterfield of Hector’s World. “But that doesn’t mean we can all congratulate ourselves and retire. There are new challenges emerging and effective strategies must keep evolving that build on what we have learned.”
Digital citizenry, the current trend in cybersafety education, works in conjunction with basic Internet filtering and restriction.
“This education has very important elements: online safety and security, digital literacy, media literacy, and information literacy,” continued Butterfield. “Young children need a solid foundation of skills and knowledge in all of these areas to help them mature into confident and capable digital citizens.”
Putting up physical barriers
Funded by the Ministry, Watchdog provides Web filtering, email filtering and hardware firewall services to any state or integrated school. Currently, it services around 1,400 schools throughout the country.
“Problems for schools can vary greatly, from something as relatively simple as an inappropriately graphic thumbnail displayed to a primary school child in Google Images, right through to the complexity of a teenager being groomed by a predator through a chat
room,” explained Watchdog’s Rohan Meuli.
Watchdog’s CampusNet Web filtering service provides a flexible and effective way for schools to ensure that students cannot readily access what each school determines is inappropriate material.
Furthermore, the MoE is constantly working with NetSafe to reflect national and international trends in cybersafety policy and implementation.
“Since 2004, the Ministry has provided centralised funding for antivirus, spyware, and Web filtering and firewall technologies,” said Neil Melhuish, MoE e-Learning Capability project leader. The Ministry invests $3.1 million a year to provide Web filtering and
firewall software at no cost to schools.
“An example of Ministry-funded software provided to schools is Symantec Endpoint Protection, or SEP (which is licensed for up to 230,000 copies across New Zealand schools),” added Melhuish.
Technological tactics and tools
Physical barriers such as firewalls and software are just one component of a holistic approach to cybersafety.
“The ‘safety equation’ includes measures such as firewalls and Internet filtering; but these alone are not adequate to address the challenges facing students and their schools,” said Melhuish. “A balanced safety equation aims to educate students to develop positive, ethical behaviours in cyberspace, and to develop skills and knowledge needed to assess and manage the challenges and risks associated with technology.”
Many organisations around the world, including NetSafe – who has been working with schools since 1998 – have shifted focus from education around cybersafety to talking about the concept of digital citizenship.
“The idea is that the online environment is a place as much as any terrestrial territory, and as a citizen of that territory you have rights, but you also have responsibilities,” said NetSafe’s Sean Lyons.
The Grid is a tool from NetSafe for promoting digital citizenship, accessible from its website. This provides teachers with a progression of cybercitizenship learning objectives via suggested activities and resources. From early childhood to Year 13, The Grid’s wealth of tools give teachers instant access to everything they need to teach their
students about integrity in the use of ICT.
“When a school looks at cybersafety in the context of what they are trying to achieve as a school by their use of ICT, then this is certainly the most effective form of education,” said Lyons. “It is better to explain to someone what blogging is and how to do it safely from the start, rather than simply telling them what could go wrong, and hoping to scare them out of harms way.”
NetSafe’s tools also include its Kit for Schools, a comprehensive programme for cybersafety that encompasses the development and implementation of teacher, parent and student ICT user agreements from an administration end.
The non-profit organisation offers a host of other online resources, many of them to deal with issues as they arise. These include www. cyberbullying.org.nz, which provides key information and resources (including a short film) about managing online bullying, and the School Incident Response Flowchart, which details the steps to take with a cybersafety incident. NetSafe also has a phone hotline (0508 NETSAFE) which schools can use for confidential advice in dealing with cybersafety incidents – including online harassment of students and staff, cyberbullying or text bullying, illegal material, and
inappropriate activity such as hacking.
Safe online activity
Currently being trialled in 24 schools, Superplusclubs is an ageverified and actively protected social learning network where young children can safely meet friends, make new ones, have fun and learn ‘cool stuff’, including home page building. “Superclubsplus’ focus is not cybersecurity as such, but teaching students safe online
behaviours, whereby they can practice their learning in a safe environment over a long period of time,” said Penny Harrison of Superplusclubs. “Our role is to change children’s behaviours, not protect them from the dangers of the Internet by simply filtering, blocking, restricting, and this programme can run alongside other Web 2.0 tools and support their safe use.”
For the early childhood sector aged two to nine, Hector’s World aims to give children excellent learning foundations for life online.
“The primary issue for me with young children online is that they can be online, often unsupervised, yet most do not have the cognitive ability yet to identify and manage risk,” said Butterfield.
With this in mind, Hector’s World aims to create a universal cybercitizenship resource for the very young. The organisation’s key resource – its website – features high-quality 2D animation, games and music, with characters designed as ‘role models’ for kids until they are old enough to develop their own critical thinking and online skills.
A responsible approach
NetSafe believes schools are dealing with issues “in a wholly appropriate way,” said Lyons. “Each of the resources serves to try and deal with one part of the cybersafety equation.”
Watchdog also sees most schools taking a responsible approach to cybersecurity.
“They genuinely care about children’s safety online and they also have some understanding of the practical consequences of issues – such as having their network compromised or paying for excessive non-education web content,” said Meuli. “There are a small percentage of schools that haven’t had the resources to [implement
cybersafety tools] and we encourage them to get alongside NetSafe, the MoE e-Learning unit and MoE-accredited service providers like Watchdog to get what they need in place.”
Next on the horizon
Watchdog will shortly be looking to run trials of NetModerator in interested schools. The software uses artificial intelligence to monitor discussions on social networking sites, online games and chatrooms, and discreetly reporting any potentially risky discussions to a parent or teacher. Hector’s World is getting ready to launch several new resources directly related to privacy and computer security, and a new venue on its website which will home digital literacy content. To complement current tools, NetSafe is also developing an infrastructure called Learn Guide Protect, which focuses on providing a focal point for educators to find the right tools to support their digital citizenship education programmes. Looking further to the future is difficult, as cybersecurity needs continuous development as technology moves forward.
“What’s next in cybersecurity is what’s next in online applications; the two things go hand in hand,” admitted Lyons. “Concepts like the semantic Web, the browser as an operating system … all of these future developments will have an impact on the digital safety equation.”
LEE SUCKLING WRITES FOR INTERFACE MAGAZINE.
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