Cyber issues in schools can impact students, teachers, staff, and physical or virtual elements of schools and districts. Schools are driven by the notion of improving student learning through the tools and skills of educators. Unfortunately, cyber issues can stop learning without warning because systems are corrupted or a data breach occurs.
Because Lightspeed Systems and Amazon Web Services are dedicated to improving digital safety in schools, they partnered with Tech & Learning on a Digital Safety Summit in Austin that brought professionals together from around the country to brainstorm, advise, and then support them moving forward with ideas and tools. I was lucky enough to be one of those individuals, and I was moved by the conversations and the drive of Lightspeed Systems, Amazon Web Services, and all the dedicated educators in the room.
The day focused on five pillars of digital safety:
• Build an Understanding
• Create Better Supports
• Build Stronger Protections
• Influence Policy
• Communicate Policies with Parents and the Community
1. BUILD AN UNDERSTANDING
The focus areas are five separate points; however, to create a digital safety playbook, all areas need to function together to create a strong human and information system plan. This starts with learning and building an understanding of digital safety.
The Internet provides an opportunity for children to learn, explore their world, and socialize with friends. Teachers and school leaders need to understand the potential dangers students face. Districts and schools can start by evaluating the access, privacy, and messaging policies of all apps, subscriptions, digital games, social networks, and online tools used by teachers and students. This evaluation can be done internally or by a consultant. It requires a deep dive into current practices and gaps in security.
Once they know the areas for improvement and/or dangers, districts can begin to educate staff and students. Building an understanding will help schools have safer digital experiences. Educating students and faculty about potential hazards and what appropriate online conduct looks like can ensure a safe learning environment is adapted.
2. CREATE BETTER SUPPORTS
Better supports is not about locking down systems; it is about knowing which supports create a safe learning environment with a high level of security. One participant shared a powerful line around the topic of better supports: “Move from No to Know.” One way to ensure better supports is to review filtering options to prevent students from accessing inappropriate content—either deliberately or accidentally. Better supports can be put in place by filtering, limiting, and blocking software or websites that are not appropriate or linked to learning.
Participants shared that this step should not be done in isolation. Teachers and staff can help determine which sites should be blocked. Regular audits should also be conducted to ensure that appropriate online educational material can still be accessed and to determine if blocked sites should remain blocked. The second part of better supports is not behind the scenes but in the classrooms.
Digital citizenship lessons, teaching students what it means to be responsible digital citizens and promoting a positive school climate, are important. Schools were encouraged to design and implement a digital citizenship curriculum. Topics for this curriculum include: privacy and security, relationships and communication, cyberbullying and digital drama, digital footprints and reputation, self-image and identity, information literacy, and creative credit and copyright. Additionally, having a district acceptable use policy will empower and create responsibility and expectations for students.
3. BUILD STRONGER PROTECTIONS
Stronger protections emphasizes the importance of better supports (like filters and curriculum) and adding more depth. One recommendation was to create a single online access point for a district and an umbrella of protection for all information and resources. Full control of the data that comes, stays, and leaves the district increases safety exponentially.
Implementing a tool that designs a one-way street, or safety umbrella of protection, for data and information doesn’t solve everything, but commonly attackers only want to be successful once or twice a day. Then they’ll move on to the next district, so having something in place for that one time will give districts equipment protection and additional assurances over filtering.
Stronger protection also has a human capital component. Developing terms of service statements for all vendors or resources to follow before a district purchases anything will help develop an understanding of best practices for data security and privacy. Terms of service may change with software updates, so it’s important to ensure that updated terms of service are implemented with every software update or new release of a purchased tool.
4. INFLUENCE POLICY
School systems operate with policies and procedures voted by school boards or committees. The next step in the digital safety playbook is educating school boards and influencing policies related to digital safety.
Districts and states are different, but what can be universally agreed on is the need to review digital safety procedures annually. Technology is advancing and digital threats are increasing at a rapid pace. Are school boards reviewing policies at this same rate? School boards know districts need safety policies and equipment, but these can be hard to present/sell to the community and justify the fees associated with purchasing software or hardware. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a crisis to get the action required. It’s important to be proactive and educate school boards so they know and understand safety needs. Once they understand what’s already in place and what it takes to keep the data and students safe, they will have the information needed to justify additional tools to help protect privacy.
5. COMMUNICATE POLICIES WITH PARENTS AND THE COMMUNITY
Having an understanding, safeguards, and updated policies are all critical, but communicating policies with parents and the community turns ideas into action.
It was universally suggested at the symposium that districts empower families with the information through updates, meetings, community notices, and any other ways to get information out. When they know the risks and what’s in place, communities are much more likely to be supportive. Students in school need to be safe physically, emotionally, and digitally. Communicating the policies to families and the community will create a culture of safety.
District administrators realize the benefits of monitoring systems and students to keep everything safe. Using data to make informed decisions will enable districts to balance technical advances with the need to protect data privacy. Using the five steps from the digital playbooks is a start; it’s now up to us as educators to take the playbook and create a safe environment for learning.
Dr. Matthew X. Joseph is the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in Leicester Public Schools. He has been a school and district leader in many capacities in public education over his 25 years in the field. Experiences such as the Director of Digital Learning and Innovation, elementary school principal, classroom teacher, and district professional development specialist. His work and experience focus on supporting teaching and learning. Follow Dr. Joseph on twitter at @MatthewXJoseph or read his blog techinnovation.live.