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Online safety and digital literacy: how do they feature in schools?

Rob Ellis

Online safety and digital literacy: how do they feature in schools?

Christina Preston and I are writing a report for the UK DfE on the teaching of digital literacy and, more widely, how to stay safe online in our schools. We think these topics might be slipping through cracks in the curriculum even as it becomes ever more important.

In this blog post the views expressed are my own, based on experience more than researched evidence, but Christina and I would welcome MirandaNet members’ thoughts on these issues. We invite you  to respond to this short, anonymous survey.

Your ideas and suggestions, for which we are grateful, will inform the content of the report and can have some effect on ensuring an effective curriculum policy on these issues. Drawing on the wide experience of MirandaNet readers will be absolutely invaluable. 

My work nowadays is almost exclusively e-safety work with teachers, parents and children. Interestingly my last three engagements, and for that matter the next one too, have all been in response to safety problems arising from children’s online use. In terms of their understanding of risk and a readiness to separate their behaviour online from that offline little seems to have changed since I did my masters dissertation more than 15 years ago.

This sort of ‘firefighting’ means the short term is devoted to specific environments rather than the generic behaviours that will still be present when the current apps or social networks are passé and the next big thing has arrived.

In school online safety seems to be divorced from safeguarding in general or perhaps it’s simply not registering. Parental engagement is lukewarm, even from parents who are very careful in the physical world, which I think throws up some interesting questions about how safe behaviours are passed on. This is the first generation of parents who cannot pass on what they were taught by their parents as the phenomenon did not exist when they were young. It would be unfair to single out parents as being the only group struggling to come to terms with online life. Teachers, too, are playing catch-up with limited time available and like parents have no cultural background to fall back on. The demands of the tested curriculum and schools’ published accountability might also be an issue.

I suspect that in schools there is still an emphasis on ‘events’ rather than curriculum integration with e-safety, when it is addressed, seen as the preserve of the computing teacher.

It is alarming that not only do few students or teachers know how to use a search engine effectively but that no one is learning how to be critical of the sites they visit. Just as with online ‘friends’ there are issues of trust here. There are no strategies taught to find out who or what is behind a site. Ask a group of teenagers if they know how to use Google. They’ll look at you as if you’re nuts but few have strategies for deciding on search terms or looking at results that are beyond the first page. Very few will be able to search to find alternative views because searches use the language of the culture the searcher lives in. Issues of copyright or using Creative Commons are rarely thought about. This sort of thing is the bottom line of digital literacy.

As an aside, the introduction of effective technology use including these subsets under discussion is akin to turning a large oil tanker. It takes a long time and is very slow. It is all very well government telling us how important any given thing is but it won’t happen unless time is given to teachers. The issues, such as digital literacy, will not happen easily; they need an investment of time and this is something schools do not have much of. Additionally, it is worth reminding ourselves of the pressures of being a ‘good’ school and noting that this places an emphasis on externally assessed English and mathematics, particularly in primary schools, and not being surprised if schools respond to this pressure.

Once again, to respond to the anonymous survey on these issues please click here.

Your input is much appreciated. Thank you.

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