Online Safety in Urgent Shifts to Remote Teaching and Learning
The COVID-19 pandemic that has spread across the world has affected our entire lives and everyday routines.
To absorb its impact and adapt to the changes brought about by the compulsory lockdown and other restrictions applied by governments fighting and containing the spread of the Coronavirus, many organizations and locations, including schools, universities, playgrounds, cinemas, and offices, have been compelled to review their operating models during these circumstances, and to implement a suitable business continuity plan in order to sustain their activities, while also behaving with social responsibility in protecting their employees, customers, students, and children from exposure to the virus.
Being at home under lockdown, parents, youths, children, and even the elderly have been granted additional opportunities to stay connected and increase their online activity, be it to run their businesses, search for information, engage with academic classes, pass time, or even socialize with friends and family members. There are risks, however, to such increased screen time and online activity. The sudden shift to online learning, without sufficient planning, training, and awareness, has substantially increased the risks faced by students and caregivers in terms of privacy and security, exposing them to various threats while they use these new technological tools.
Children’s Privacy: Being exposed to additional technological platforms, whether to attend online learning classes; collaborate with classmates on specific assignments; or de-stress and socialize, children are being asked to share and provide personal information. Sometimes this information is obligatory, such as when accessing academic resources or attending classes.
Such personal information (e.g., national ID, name, address, email, phone number, date of birth, school name and address, social security number) is highly confidential, and should be handled with care and not shared unless extremely necessary, and then only with trusted peers. Failure to abide by these guidelines puts children at risk of identity theft. Therefore it is a best practice to review the privacy terms and conditions of the platform you are going to use before subscribing to, as this gives a clearer idea on how your data and personal information will be treated by the company owning that platform.
Family Privacy: Being confined with family members increases the risks of sharing private family details and behaviors, especially when attending video and audio conferences. No one would wish for their classmates or teachers to hear a family member yelling at another, or to listen to a highly confidential family conversation, or to see their mother or sister in the background of a video call without a niqab or hijab, or dressed in pyjamas.
It is very important, then, to take such family behavior into consideration, as it may present an unfavorable idea about your family lifestyle and/or cultural ethics.
Establishing an online family agreement explaining where and how to engage in such activities is highly important. This agreement should also address screen time, physical activities, and the type of family information that may be shared with friends online.
Besides the privacy concerns, the extra time spent online during lock-down may increase students’ exposure to:
Harmful content: This might arise while seeking information related to the COVID-19 situation in the country and the wider world, which may raise students’ fears and anxieties about their family members, especially given the vast quantities of misinformation shared on social media platforms. Alternatively, it may arise in the form of inappropriate websites accessed while doing a class assignment.
It is highly recommended to stay close to your children and guide them on how to verify and validate online information, using trustworthy and reputable sources, in addition to using a kid-safe search engine during their assignments.
Cyberbullying: Staying at home for long time periods, separated from friends and routine activities, makes children bored. This may increase the likelihood of them picking on one another, by recalling old posts or writing a new chain of comments. Such a scenario usually ends up hurting someone’s feelings. The likelihood of this is all the higher given the current lockdown situation, where children are disconnected from their usual support systems, including close friends and teachers. It is important to keep an eye on your children’s social media activities, looking out for cyberbullying signs and making sure to have a frank discussion with them on the subject and its consequences and ask them to stand up for that.
Having mentioned some of the important risks associated with urgent shift to online learning, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MOTC), developed and published in 2015 the Information Security Framework for Schools, which determine the internet usage by students and staff at schools to serve education purposes in a safe environment and ensure data privacy of students and staff as well as the school management.
Parents and students are advised to view the Student Acceptable Use Policy, which clearly defines schools’ responsibility to provide a secure digital environment, including e-safety training for students, as well as to protect students’ personal data. At the same time, it addresses students’ responsibility to abide by the rules and regulations in place on assigned digital devices and to not deactivate any filters applied.