Online safety in schools today: a former administrator's perspective

July 26, 2022

The following article is written by EdTech expert and author Carl Hooker. Carl has 20+ years in education and K12 consulting. He speaks on a multitude of topics from digital wellness to technology integration and district leadership. 

When we started rolling out a one-to-one device program at Eanes Independent School District in 2011, it was amazing how much of what we did went unchecked. Students had open access to the Internet at home because we had no way of putting filters on the iPads at that time. 

I remember sitting in a parent meeting with over 100 angry parents right after we deployed the devices. Through their anger I was able to glean that we hadn’t done the best job when it came to communicating what was expected of parents at home. 

One parent of a 16-year old boy stood up and told me that his son locked himself in his room every night until 2am to stay online. When I asked him if he filtered his home Internet, he told me he never had. His son had a phone and a computer, both unfiltered, but when the school gave a device to him, that changed the playing field. 

As the meeting ended, I was swarmed with a dozen or so parents looking for answers. They were upset that we had introduced devices in their homes. They were uncomfortable and unfamiliar with how to manage technology and their children at the same time. These concerns were real and not uncommon with schools launching any type of school-issued device program. 

I would spend the first 2-3 years of that program giving parent talks at each campus and working with a group of teachers and leaders around revising our Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) so we covered the legal bases. We were ahead of our time when it came to a manageable one-to-one model, and while the initial years were a roller coaster, I wouldn’t trade it in for the world. 

The technology to support devices has greatly improved over the last decade. So has communication and expectations with parents. Gone are the days of just throwing a device into the hands of kids and seeing what works. 

We as schools have a legal obligation to protect our students from objectionable content on the web. We also have a responsibility to work with them on their own digital wellness and cyber well-being. The lines between home and school are forever blurred. The burden of protecting our kids online is a shared responsibility between the district and family. 

Here are the top five best practices I believe every school administrator should be aware of:

1.) Have a solid filter/monitoring tool in place

Just as you wouldn’t put a 16-year old in a car without someone else to coach them, the same could be said about handing a child a device without limits and guidance. 

In 2011, we had a filtering system on campus, but once the students got off our Wi-Fi it was the wild west. Today, there are content filtering tools like School Manager that give IT, district leaders, teachers, and parents insight into what students are doing online in and outside of the school. Teachers in the modern classroom can even use classroom management tools to monitor student activity in real time. 

2.) Share the good stories and the mistakes

The narrative around education on social media and mainstream media lately tends to be more negative than positive. Schools and leaders need to add positive stories about technology and device programs to balance the hyperbole. 

At the same time, we need to be open with our communication and share stories that show when something went wrong and how we addressed it. Being genuine and keeping open and honest pathways of communication are vital in making a device program a success.

3.) Hold regular meetings around digital wellness

I made it a point during my career to meet with every campus PTA organization regularly. Not only did this help me educate and provide strategies for the community, it gave them access to me in a relaxed forum. It’s through these parent workshops where I learned about many concerns and was able to address them before they reached crisis level. 

I also made an effort to speak at churches and other places of business throughout the community after hours in case parents couldn’t attend at school. This could also be done over Zoom or other platforms as well. 

4.) Create multiple avenues for communication

The in-person meetings and workshops were a great first step in engaging with the community about cyber safety, but as I mentioned before, it’s also very limiting. Creating newsletters, YouTube videos, and webinars allow parents with a busy schedule to learn best practices in an on-demand format. Creating ways for the community to provide feedback, either through online forms or voicemails, can help you address issues before they become a major concern.

5) Review programs yearly 

Cyber safety is about much more than just online filtering. It involves how you communicate with others online and where you are sharing your own data. Schools investing in online programs and applications need to be aware of what data privacy safeguards are in place before putting students online. They also need to effectively view usage data so they can decide whether to “sunset” certain programs or provide professional learning around those that are underutilized. 

Here are a few things we looked for when reviewing applications with our annual technology review committee:

General usage statistics and trends. When was the platform used? How often? What time of day? Was it used at home as well as school?

Campus to campus usage. Which campuses use the platform most? Which use it the least and why?

Impact of Professional Learning. How did usage trends change following professional learning? Where should we focus future professional learning based on usage data?

Impact on student learning. Did the use of programs affect student learning and behavior positively (especially useful on those programs that specialize in remediation and mastery)?

User experience and satisfaction. Qualitative data on overall end-user experience and interaction with the applications.  

There is no magic bullet when it comes to creating cyber-safety schools. An administrator managing all of this needs a reliable team to bounce ideas off of as well as share best practices. They need tools like Linewize that monitor, manage, and assess all that is happening on their platforms and networks. If information is power, then information with transparent communication is even more powerful. 

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Over a 30-day period, we'll assess your students’ online behavior. You'll learn which online safety categories are most prominent and we'll alert you to at-risk students who need timely intervention. 

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