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     March 2004

Education Up Close

Internet Safety and Security
What Teachers Need to Know

Every day, schools across the country face the challenges and legalities of Internet use in the classroom. Issues such as illegal copying and file-sharing, freedom of speech and privacy concerns, Web site usefulness and appropriateness, as well as network security and virus contamination all require policies that can be implemented in the school. These concerns all must be addressed while looking out for the educational interests of students. How can we keep our students safe and our networks secure as entire school communities venture into cyberspace?

A Safe and Secure Environment?
Due to its very nature, the Internet is NOT a safe or secure environment. It is an ever-changing medium where anyone and everyone can voice their opinions, share their ideas, demonstrate new technologies, publish software applications, and connect with others. To this end, it represents great potential in education as a means to the free exchange of ideas and learning tools. However, there is also plenty of room for mischief, obscenity, vulgarity, and even danger. School administrators and technology managers know that to balance the opportunities the Internet provides with the risks its poses requires a formal and decisive plan for technology use in the school. The following methods describe the various ways administrators attempt to keep a handle on the risks of Internet usage.

Acceptable Use Policies
One starting point is the now common practice of signed statements called Acceptable Use Policies, or AUPs. Typically, the AUP describes the privilege (not the right) of computer use and/or Internet access for students and teachers in the school, as well as some guidelines and penalties for violations of the agreement. Most AUPs also include both a definition of what is and is not acceptable use and a disclaimer releasing the school from certain liabilities.

An AUP will often begin with a statement about the district's philosophy regarding technology in education and perhaps the value of using the Internet in a school setting. There may be a statement addressing how and when students will have access to the Internet.

Outlined next are specific provisions of what is not allowable (copyright violations, commercial uses, violating other's rights, abusing resources, etc.) as well as behavioral expectations (treating the equipment with care, using good "netiquette").

Most schools include a provision in their AUPs that allows them to monitor network transmissions, such as e-mail. This helps ensure that equipment will not fall prey to viruses or other destructive situations. It also means that certain privacy rights are superseded in the interest of maintenance and safety. This is something for all users to keep in mind.

Finally, the AUP will have a signature section. It is to be reviewed and completed by the student, parent/guardian, and a district representative. By signing, all parties are showing that they understand their obligations and that usage rights can be revoked upon misuse.

Firewalls and Network Security
Network security administrators in schools install software programs that monitor the information that is transmitted to and from the school servers (computers that act as the central "gateway" to the Internet and often the connector of computers on the local area network or LAN). This is commonly known as a firewall, as it prevents certain types of information, files, and programs from crossing into or out of the school's computer environment. This is a preventive form of network security.

Firewalls are often used to prohibit teachers or students from downloading free software, submitting certain information online, or opening e-mail attachments. Downloads and e-mail attachments can deliver viruses that can debilitate computer systems. They can also compromise the security of a school network, leaving students' and teachers' personal information like grades, names, addresses, and other private information open to hackers and other illegal entities. So, the next time you get blocked from saving or viewing an attachment, remember that it is for safety's sake.

Filtering Software
A next step that many schools employ to keep students safe from inappropriate information is the use of filtering software. This restricts access to certain sites, based on keywords or phrases that are deemed unacceptable. This offers protection from some sites. However, the owners of these sites are now wise to blocking efforts and sometimes create innocuous sounding URLs that in fact promote material that is not appropriate for the school setting.

There are other limitations to the effectiveness of filters. They may keep students from visiting legitimate sites that contain sensitive keywords. If students in a health class are researching cancer, they may be unable to view pages relating to breast cancer because of the filtering of the word "breast." Some filters prohibit the use of chat or even message boards due to inappropriate content and safety risks for students. Unfortunately, this also makes class participation in legitimate educational interactive sites (Keypals or Telementoring) virtually impossible.

Web Publishing Restrictions
Internet safety goes beyond the scope of what you can access online. It also concerns what you can post or publish on a Web site. For example, school Web pages are certainly affected by security concerns. Some schools restrict the use of student photos on their pages. Others use photos, but no names. Still others may allow photos with first names only, but require parental permission. If you have questions about what you can publish on your class Web page, be sure to ask your school technology coordinator what the policy is in your district.

Getting Parents Involved
Another way that some schools are addressing the issues surrounding Internet access is to sponsor a Family Technology Night. Here, parents get a hands-on look at the computer facilities and programs that their children are using. This is a great time to review the contents of an AUP and request parents to sign them on site. It can also be a time for learning, as many adults take advantage of "Internet Basics" or "E-mail Basics" mini-courses taught by the faculty or technology staff.

Teachers as Technology Role Models
The most important rule to remember is that teachers are role models for students. When we demonstrate safe surfing, evaluate Web sites for usefulness and validity, and open e-mail only from trusted sources, we are paving the way for our students. It is our job, along with parents, to teach them about responsible Internet use. Modeling and class discussions about these issues are worth the time. A little work today will reap great rewards in the future as our students continue to become more technology literate and the curriculum changes to reflect that fact.

Read More About Internet Safety and Security

The Commission on Online Child Protection http://www.copacommission.org/commission/
This Web site describes the work being done to implement the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, the federal law concerning privacy with regards to children's information.

Teenagers, teachers, and parents can visit this site to read articles regarding teen safety on the Internet.

The Computer Ethics Institute
This site, hosted by the Brookings Institution, contains a wide variety of resources regarding ethics and the use of computers. Especially interesting is their "Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics," which may serve as a valuable springboard for stimulating discussion in the classroom.



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