Students are exposed to online content every day and the article focuses on developing strategies and school policy which will promote online safety and critical thinking.
The article is about steps that our school took when we started approaching the topic of social media and online safety. First we found out what the situation was among our students, next we planned technical days whose purpose was to educate students and help them develop a critical attitude towards social media. After the evaluation we decided to change one event into a long term strategy for entire school.
For a strategy to work, there are some basic steps that should be taken: recognising the problem, planning the activities, evaluation and long-term planning.
Key words: social media, critical thinking, school policy, online safety
Children today are born into this world where modern technology prevails in all aspects of our lives. The age of being introduced to internet content is dropping. The question is whether they are able to tell the difference between real and unreal information. Who will teach them critically weighing on the information the internet provides them with? This is a very important skill which I will be focusing on in this article.
When talking to students’ parents, I see that they are very often helpless when it comes to handling the situation. Nowadays students search for information on the internet which is set up by either experts or complete amateurs. The fact is that most of the online content is created by ordinary people whose expertise is not always possible to confirm. This is where educators are very important because they can teach students to be more critical and treat online content with some level of doubt. This, however, is a very demanding task and it should not be taken lightly. It is an enormous responsibility and it requires a strategic approach.
So, how did I start? I attended several courses about online safety and afterwards I decided that something should be done at my school as well. I carried out a survey which showed that an average student at my school was using several social media on daily basis. The average amount of time spent online exceeded 10 hours per week and 30% of the students were already exposed to some form of hate speech. As a teacher of English I first started implementing the topics of online safety into English lessons. I prepared lessons where the obvious plan was to teach them English skills but the activities were strongly connected to my desire to teach them thinking critically. Students mostly worked in groups and they debated about what photos are appropriate or inappropriate to be posted online, which online challenges are safe and which are not, etc. They were asked to form new passwords which would be safe or they had to create an online challenge that would be safe for all the participants. Students responded to such activities so strongly that I was surprised how much they needed to talk to someone about it. I realised that students themselves were aware of the problem but weren’t able to help themselves.
After debating with other teachers, we decided to form a group of teachers which would improve the school policy regarding the matter. This group was in charge of forming the guidelines and planning the strategies on the level of the whole school. What we have started doing annually was to organise a technical day which would entirely be related to developing various IT skills. Every year we organise different workshops whose aim is better understanding of the problem and students being empowered with knowledge which enables them to observe online content with a higher degree of objectivity.
Some of the matters that we have addressed are:
a) Digital literacy – teaching them how to send e-mails, attach documents, change a document from one format to another.
b) Hate speech – teaching them what hate speech and cyberbullying is, how to fight it and what should be done that everyone feels safe online.
c) Critical thinking – watching videos and debating about fake news, deepfakes, dangers of online challenges, how every news should be double checked.
d) Online safety – creating and changing passwords, changing privacy settings to maximum, what sort of information should/should not be shared online.
e) Digital footprint – making students aware of the consequences that follow their behaviour online.
When we planned activities, we made sure that we used a lot of visual materials and we heavily relied on various guidebooks and manuals.
After finishing the workshops it was time for evaluation. Students responded very well and they showed a lot of interest in the workshops. They were amazed by certain facts and a lot of them decided to change certain things about their behaviour online (changing passwords, etc.). What we have realised was that students are willing to critically weigh in on the information but they need the help of educated adults to assist them.
3. Guidelines for teachers
It is important that you are aware that there are three key players in this process: teachers, parents and students. They all should be involved in your plans. Teachers should be educated about social media. Join online courses related to the topic. Explore social media and get acquainted with how they work.
Involve the parents and educate them so they become equipped with the right range of skills to help their children. If the level of trust is high, students will get the support they need. The best way of reaching out to parents is organising meetings or workshops. You can even invite guest speakers that are experts on the matter.
Reach out to your students. Make sure that younger students are involved too. Too often we underestimate the problem and we think that we should start teaching students only after they are introduced to social media. Start soon and teach them about basic netiquette, so once they start using the internet, they will already know how to behave online and how to provide a safe environment for others.
Based on my experience and the work that has been done at my school so far, I suggest the following steps that you as a teacher or a school can take:
1st step – Identify the problems by talking to students or, even better, carry out an anonymous questionnaire among the students. You can also enable students to ask questions or give suggestions – put up a mailbox where students can leave their ideas without exposing themselves.
2nd step – Analyse the results and decide where your focus as a school should be. Focus on two or three issues and make a plan. Set specific goals and ask yourselves what activities will help you achieve your goals.
3rd step – Carry out the planned activities. You don’t have to create your own material if the task seems too demanding for you. There are a lot of initiatives in all European countries, for example Council of Europe constantly provides teachers with useful ready-to-use materials and manuals with prepared activities for your students. Browse the internet and you will be amazed how many good videos are available for you to use in class. Study the materials and make sure that they are appropriate for your students. Be aware that some of the issues are demanding and provocative which might upset some students. That is why it is crucial that you know your students’ needs.
4th step – Evaluate the activities. Have they really helped you achieve what you set out to do? In this case it is difficult to measure the outcomes because the effects are going to be long-term but you can at least evaluate if the students feel empowered and better educated.
5th step – Make a plan how you want to continue with activities which will support students. A very important link in the chain are teachers and they should be educated about modern technology as well.
I am aware that tackling such a difficult and controversial topic is a daunting work but you should be aware that only this way we can start changing things and help the younger generations to grow into adults who will be able to approach matters critically. You have to realise that this way it may influence the creators of online content and perhaps even policy makers. In a way the internet works the same as the world of trading does – demands dictate the offer.
Based on my experience, you have to realise that you won’t be changing the world over night, but I am certain that with your help and guidance students will be safer online and they will enable others to feel safe too.