NetSafe: changing times, shifting perceptions

Issue: Volume 94, Number 10

Posted: 15 June 2015
Reference #: 1H9crL

The fact that the online world changes so rapidly means that perception gaps can develop very quickly: around things like priorities for keeping students safe online; best practice strategy; and of course, what exactly the dangers are that young people could run into. Education Gazette will be running a three-part series looking into these perception gaps over coming months. In part one, NetSafe’s Sean Lyon talks about the perception gap he’d most like to address: the fact that as times have changed, so has NetSafe’s approach, and so has the assistance that NetSafe can offer schools.

NetSafe is an independent non-profit organisation promoting confident, safe and responsible use of online technologies. The Ministry of Education has a key partnership with NetSafe, recognising that when dealing with a medium that seems to change on a daily basis, the experts need to be closely involved.

While many teachers and schools will be aware of NetSafe’s ability to help set up for success in using digital technology to enrich learning, NetSafe’s education sector lead Sean Lyons wants educators to know that as the internet itself has become a completely different beast to that which emerged in the nineties, so has NetSafe’s approach – and advice. Sean talks to Education Gazette about the online environment then and now, and how the changing playing field now requires a different way of thinking.

Blocking, defending, screening, protecting

“What we try to do is ensure that all New Zealanders have the ability to utilise the benefits that online technology brings, without them experiencing harmful or negative effects. We’re about promoting confident and capable use of online technology.”

This is how Sean Lyons sums up NetSafe’s reason for being, and it’s easy to see why the education sector is a big part of that work: without wishing to add to the potential for hysteria that sometimes rears its ugly head where young people and the internet intersect, it’s obvious that young people are vulnerable to online challenges, says Sean, particularly because parents and teachers can be unsure how those challenges are changing in nature.

The issues around online safety have become far more nuanced in the 20-odd years since the internet became more than an academic curiosity, but that shouldn’t be cause for concern. It’s helpful to put history into perspective, in order to inform the future, says Sean.

“When the internet first turned up, people’s original concerns were something like: ‘Here is this new medium. What are the challenges that people could experience? They must be similar to other broadcast media challenges, therefore if we just educate people on what to watch out for, they’ll be able to keep themselves safe.’

“That was a large part of what NetSafe did in the early years. NetSafe started in ‘98, born of those far-sighted people among law enforcement and in schools who could see the benefits of the emerging technology, but had some concerns about the risks.”

In the early days of the commercial internet, one required quite a lot of specialist skill just to browse the internet – though ‘browse’ might have been the wrong word in 1995, as there weren’t many pages to view – far less contribute to it. Back then, to publish to the internet meant finding someone who had coding knowledge, as well as somewhere to host the site, in the days before server space became commercialised. This meant that the early internet was largely the domain of corporations wanting to demonstrate that they were ahead of the curve, as well as organisations like university libraries and museums. In other words, says Sean, the internet was populated largely by organisations we already deemed ‘trustworthy’.

“If you go back to the nuts and bolts of what the internet is, the origins of it were a group of academics wanting to share information. These people already had a trust relationship among themselves. It was the University of Utah sharing with the University of Berkeley, for example. They didn’t need to build that trust layer.

“Even when the web opened up beyond academia into the commercial world, and the Telecoms of the world had a presence, or TVNZ, or the police, for example, you knew who all of these organisations were: in some cases you already had an account with them! The point is that they were trusted, and anything they published was trusted.

“Therefore, the concerns at the time were that some of these organisations might post stuff that may not be appropriate for a 12-year-old child for example. Responses of the time were characterised by defending the vulnerable from seeing inappropriate content. Defences included blocking software.

“So our advice at the time [to young people] might have been: find a trusted adult to browse with you, make sure screens are visible to an adult at all times, actively supervise young people. These were all valid responses to the internet as it was then. It was all about blocking, defending, screening, protecting. It really was an entirely protectionist strategy.”

Web 2.0

Looking back on the proto-internet, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a simpler time of innocence, when compared to the largely ungovernable maelstrom of content that swirls around our browsers today.

So what happened? Sean says it wasn’t any revolutionary piece of kit that propelled the internet to become the ubiquitous presence that it is in 2015, it was just that our conceptualisation of its place in our lives was upgraded.

“It was a sea-change in how we viewed the internet. Suddenly some bright sparks realised that if they could democratise access and ease of publication, they could make fortunes, which many duly did.

“Bizarrely, it wasn’t really a technological change at all. It was simply that the idea caught on. All of that technology, all of that hardware, that previously was bespoke, suddenly became commoditised. Hosting became commoditised. ISPs [internet service providers] started to offer hosting space, and simple web creation tools, as well as a dial-up connection. It wasn’t a quantum leap in technology, so much as an economic critical mass that was reached.”

Shifting sands

It’s this democratisation of the internet that has necessitated a shift in NetSafe’s approach to best practice, in the advice it gives schools. Schools still need help and advice in setting up new technological initiatives like BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) for example, and in getting the best out of technology, but increasingly NetSafe’s role in schools is in helping teachers to understand modern challenges that can’t easily be simply screened or blocked away.

Recognising that their ability to keep schools informed as the internet continues to evolve hinges on staying current, and on understanding the issues as they make themselves apparent, NetSafe’s network of relationships around the world is crucial to its operation. NetSafe maintains extensive connections with sister organisations in various countries, non-governmental organisations, and some of the largest operators in the field of information technology like Google and Facebook. See the sidebar to this article for more information.

Because the theme of internet danger seems to stay on A-rotate in news media these days, a school’s desire to conscientiously pursue the safety of its community above all else can perversely work against it, says Sean. When asked ‘what advice do you really wish schools would act on more than they do?’, Sean says it’s around this issue.

“Often, trying to identify challenges without being clear about what schools are trying to achieve can become a barrier. ‘Kids could potentially do x’, a school might say to itself. The spectre of that risk, however small, might be enough to make schools cancel or significantly scale back their plans and ambitions.”

The fact that a ‘blocking, screening, defending’ approach is largely redundant these days has changed the relationship that NetSafe has with the education sector, says Sean.

“I think schools should come to us in the pre-planning phase. We can help with the steps schools should take before they begin, and also the iterative process that we encourage schools to undertake; year on year, to check in and make sure that the decisions they’re making aren’t just reactions to the latest media horror story they read, or the anecdotal evidence that they got from a teacher or parent, but from actual data in terms of what their learners’ needs are, what teachers’ needs are, and what the community needs to understand.

“We’re convinced that when schools make decisions around their digital citizenship approach based on actual data, from their own learners and teachers and community, they get the best result.

“For example, a school might hear of a bullying incident horror story, and go ‘right, we need to have a bullying awareness week, and have a massive crackdown on bullying.’ If we then talk to the teachers, who are 98 per cent competent in the way that they deal with bullying, and this particular school doesn’t actually have a bullying problem, and your kids identify that bullying is actually the last thing they’re concerned about – let’s say that hypothetically they’re way more concerned about aggressive sexual solicitation or how to maintain their privacy – then all of that good effort and resource that goes into your anti-bullying campaign is to some extent resources not best used.

“When you canvass teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, concerns and competencies, and, say, you identify that 70 per cent of staff are really concerned about a particular issue, and the other 30 percent are actually really competent and learned in that area, well, you haven’t just identified the most prominent area of concern, you’ve potentially identified a solution as well. You’ve got a huge body of knowledge within staff, in terms of professional learning, modelling and mentoring, to support teachers who have concerns or deficits in their knowledge.

“Working on the basis of acquired data is something that I dearly wish that more schools would do when they’re planning their approach to digital citizenship and online safety.

“A school might come to NetSafe in a panic, saying we’re panicking about this story that we saw on the news last night. We would say, this is the national data as we understand it, here are some tools for you to now get the actual data at your school. We’re not leaving you high and dry, we provide you with the tools to survey, with the data analysis guidance and tools, with the recommendations about what to do next. If you’re not sure, we’ll support you to work through the whole process. I would like to see schools concentrate on their own communities, as they do for everything else.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:34 am, 15 June 2015

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