Sunday, April 3, 2011

World’s simplest online safety policy

Editor's note: Tom Whitby and I co-wrote and cross posted this piece.  Check the comments on his blog and in Diigo here. If you like this post, you might also be interested in The World's Simplest Social Media Policy

When it comes to upgrading education to the 21st Century, those who are less supportive of change, often hide behind, or are frightened of acronyms like FERPA, CIPA, COPPA. This is sometimes done intentionally for convenience, or unwittingly out of ignorance. Of course in a litigious society such as ours has become, law suits are foremost in the minds of administrators. It is for that reason that a clear understanding is needed by all constituents. Our students need adults to stop being afraid, and stop hiding, so education can get out of the shadows and into the light of the world in which our children live.  

These acts were created to protect children. They were not created to keep students stuck in the past, educated in a disconnected school environment that shares little resemblance to the real world for which we should be preparing our children.  These acts do not say we can’t publish online student’s names, videos, work, pictures, etc. They do not prevent us from using social media, YouTube, email, or any of those things that may be blocked in many school districts. An important goal of education is to strive for creation and publication of content by students. In today’s world technology and the Internet are an essential components of that process.

By blocking students from the digital world, the jobs of administrators and educators are made easier, but if people became teachers, education leaders or parents because it was easy, they’ve selected the wrong profession.While it is true that banninig is an easy way out, doing so is short sighted and not visionary. It does not approach the innovative status that we hear so much about.  If you’re wondering how to navigate these waters and what is really allowed, read on to find a simple policy that addresses the three main acts: FERPA, CIPA, and COPPA explaining:

  • a simple policy
  • how to do it
  • why to do it
  • safety
  • a link to each act
  • a brief overview of each act
  • what it means to educators
  • a real life example of each

World’s simplest online safety policy
Students can access websites that do not contain or that filter mature content. They can use their real names, pictures, and work (as long it doesn’t have a grade/score from a school) with the notification and/or permission of the student and their parent or guardian.

Notify parents/guardians that their child’s work, likeness, name will be shared across the year, and let them know the procedure for opting out.  Have the permission release provided and signed as part of the student registration packet that includes things like emergency notification contact.  

As specific projects come up, notify parents/guardians in traditional ways i.e. a note home and/or using methods like a voice or texting notification system to parents, or an email.  You may also want to have updates on a parent page of your school website, or on a class website or class blog.

Why Not Ban?
Establishing a purposeful online identity of which one can be proud is an important skill to teach students. Equally important is conveying the idea that being safe and responsible online does not mean hiding your identity, but rather defining it and owning it.  After all, If your child is not developing his/her digital footprint, who is?  In elementary school students like Armond McFadden  are publicly publishing work and engaging in real learning communities about his area of passion, both online and in life.  Anyone can begin making a difference and contributing real work at any age.

Never before in history have kids had the ability to create and publish so much content, so easily. Never ever  have people had the ability to access so much information without leaving a seat. These are awesome abilities that come with awesome responsibilities. These abilities and responsibilities require skills that are taught and not inherited. Educators need to have the authority to teach these skills. Educators need to be trusted to teach these skills. The world, in which our kids will live, will require their knowledge and skills in this area in order for them to be competitive and relevant.Banning Internet access for misguided reasoning will prevent educators from accomplishing this much needed goal.

These articles provide additional insight and information for parents and educators interested in supporting their children in developing and managing a purposeful and powerful digital footprint.  

What about Safety?
Shows like To Catch a Predator  sensationalize and feed the fear of parents having their child exposed to a child predator. It is a real fear and certainly a serious consideration.The facts however support evidence that over 90% of child predators are family members, close family friends, or clergy. We do not ban family picnics, playgrounds, family reunions, or church functions. There are no laws addressing these issues.The best way to defend our children against these threats is to educate them. Warn or rather teach them of the dangers,make them aware of the possibilities.Or, we can lock them away, effectively banning them from the outside world in which they will eventually have to live, leaving them to use whatever they picked up on their own about responsible digital citizenship, a topic probably not stressed outside of education.

When it comes to sharing student information and student work, there is a lot of misinformation.  The reality is there is no evidence that doing so, responsibly and appropriately, compromises student safety.  Instead, representatives from the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee explain that what puts kids at risk are things like:

  • having a lot of conflict with your parents
  • being depressed and socially isolated
  • being hyper
  • communicating with a lot of people who you don't know
  • being willing to talk about sex with people that you don't know
  • having a pattern of multiple risky activities
  • going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, and behaving like an Internet daredevil.
Sure banning is easy, but it is educational neglect to keep our heads in the sand or look the other way. How better to support and empower kids in being safe and appropriate then to be their guides?  We certainly can’t help kids with proper and appropriate use, if the very tools they want to use are blocked.  The best way to ensure students are behaving safe online and in life is to be their partners, guiding and supporting them as necessary. We must also keep in mind that Being Safe Online Is Being Safe In Life. Rules for tools don’t make sense. Rules for behaviors do.

To follow are brief overviews of each of the acts that address online safety along with a link to the original act, what this means for educators and examples of each.  

The Educator’s Guide to CIPA, COPPA, and FERPA

Children’s Internet Protection Act
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is a federal law enacted by Congress to address concerns about access to offensive content over the Internet on school and library computers. It applies only to minors in places that apply for erate funds.  The law requires an Internet safety policy that addresses:
  • blocking or filtering Internet access to pictures that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors).
  • a method for monitoring (not tracking) activities.
  • access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet; the safety and security of minors when communicating electronically, unauthorized access to hacking, unauthorized use of  personal information, restricting minors’ access to materials harmful to them.
What educators should know:
First, you can and should request that the teacher computer is unfiltered.  There is nothing worse then frustration in not being able to do work because you get blocked at every turn.  I’ve been in teacher training centers where they’ve falsely claimed they could not unblock because of CIPA requirements. Not true.  Educators need to be empowered not only with access, but also with a way to preview sites to choose for use and have unblocked for students.  

When working with students, we want to empower them to independently use online tools not only at school, but in life.  Ensure you have conversations with students about appropriate use and consequences. Additionally, when planning lessons and units, you should have the sites students will use vetted in advance with proper safety settings selected i.e. “safe search” in Google.  You should also consider creating a learning outline or guide for students with directions and direct links to sites.  This helps keep the lesson on track and the students focused.  

There are services like Renzulli Learning that provide educators and students access to thousands of vetted sites that are aligned to students passions, talents, interests, abilities, and learning styles.  This might be a service to investigate.  When doing searches, there are safe search sites such as KidsClick which is great for elementary students and also sorts by reading level.  For secondary students Google is a terrific site where not only can you do a Safe Search, but you can also search by reading level, language, and you can choose to translate the results.

I served as a library media specialist in Central Harlem in a Pre-K to 8 school where I complied with CIPA rules by using myself as the method for monitoring and teaching students to use their brain as a powerful filtering tool. I empowered my students to be able to be safe and appropriate online not only in school, but in life.  Sure, there were times when a site was accidentally accessed.  The students knew to hit “ctrl w” to close the window and continue.  We also set “safe” settings on the sites we were using.  Perhaps most important, when working with students, I vetted our list of sites in advance, knowing exactly where students would be accessing information.  I, as their teacher, was their filter and monitor. I had an unfiltered environment at a tough school in Harlem.  Students appreciated the privilege to use the computers and the respect afforded to them.  They didn’t want to lose that opportunity, which they would, had they purposely abused their right to use them appropriately.  

Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) applies to the online collection of personal information by persons or entities under U.S. jurisdiction from children under 13 years of age. It details what a website operator must include in a privacy policy, when and how to seek verifiable consent from a parent or guardian, and what responsibilities an operator has to protect children's privacy and safety online including restrictions on the marketing to those under 13.

What educators should know:
This law makes the job of today’s educators easier putting responsibility on website providers to keep children under 13 years of age safe.  While children under 13 can legally give out personal information with their parents' permission, many websites disallow underage children from using their services because they don’t want to bother setting up such accommodations.  If there is a site which you are interested in using for learning purposes that restricts use of those under 13, consider contacting the site to see if they would be interested in supporting you in using the site with children under the supervision of a teacher, parent or guardian with proper consent.  Many organizations (Google, Wikispaces, Voki, Voicethread, Facebook) are interested in supporting learning and appreciate having educators and parents as partners.

First grade teacher Erin Schoening knew Facebook would be a great tool to build 21st century literacy with her students and strengthen the home-school connection. She uses Facebook with her First grade students and their parents with the permission of parents, updated appropriate use policies in place with her district and blessing of Facebook in Education Division.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. It applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education. Most of the act addresses children’s education records providing parents and students the right to inspect, review, question, and have updated incorrect records.  It also states that schools must receive permission from a parent or guardian to release information from a student's education record. There are exceptions to needing consents such as the case of audits, evaluation, financial aid, judicial orders, etc.

Schools may disclose, without consent, information such as a student's name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance. However, schools must tell parents and eligible students and allow parents and students a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose information about them.

What educators should know:
FERPA does not prevent many of the things you hear people saying it does. As long as parents/guardians are informed, schools may disclose, or allow students to disclose, information about themselves as long as it is not a grade or score. Notice permission is not necessary under FERPA.  They only need to inform parents/guardians this is taking place. Parents can ask their child not be included and schools must comply, but schools can still engage in planned activities. Remember though when it comes to websites, under COPPA you must obtain parental permission for students under 13 to share information or work online.

Students and teachers are sharing successes through videos and pictures at There you will find examples of real projects students and their teachers are doing with technology. Schools have consent forms from parents/guardians and a link to the page featuring their child is sent to parents so they can get an insight into and share the success of their children with others.  

These laws were passed to keep children safe, not keep children out of the 21st century.  With a little common sense we can ensure schools are not committing educational neglect by keeping students stuck in the past.  

For more information:
Check out this interview with the Department of Education's Director of Educational Technology, Karen Cator.   
Check out what educators in Free Range Schools say about working in a no filter zone in this Facebook chat.

Lisa Nielsen, Creator of The Innovative Educator blog, Twitter: @InnovativeEdu   

Tom Whitby St. Joseph’s College, New York.Twitter: @tomwhitby  
My Blog: My Island View


  1. This is such a great contribution to the conversation about Internet censorship in education. Banned Books Month is going to be Banned Sites Month next September at New Canaan High School. It's time to recognize overzealous filtering for what it is - an obstacle to 21st century learning. Thank you, Lisa & Tom!

  2. @Michelle Luhtala,
    Banned sites month??? I love it! I do hope you'll cross post a piece on that in my blog next fall.

  3. Excellent article!
    I hope we can open people's eyes to the fact that social networking sites are NOT "evil". I am in the process of putting the Common Core State Standards on Facebook through the use of "Fan Pages"....just type "CCSS" in your Facebook search bar to see the Math standards I have completed so far!

  4. Oops! I forgot to tell you that I not only put the standards on there, but links to videos, free downloadable lesson plans, and other resources for teachers, parents, and students to learn about the standards....which have been adopted in 38 states! I will have the Language Arts standards posted in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, enjoy the math resources! The best one (in my opinion) is "CCSS 2nd Grade Math"

  5. "Let them know the procedure for opting out."

    How do you handle this as a teacher? I've been using Facebook in my Kindergarten class and struggle with what to do when you have 1 or 2 parents who do not wish to participate and do not want photos or videos posted of their child. How do you respect their wishes without alienating the parent and making the child feel left out?
    You can check out my blog for more info on my project. Innnovativeedu and Erin Schoening have both been such inspirations!

  6. @missralston, thank you for sharing your site and for posing a great question. It's one that @Michelle Luhtala and I spent a lot of time addressing at our last EdChat. Ultimately, parents can have their child opt out of any activity they choose. My advice is that part of the opt out policy include having a conversation with their teachers and coming to them with some alternative ways they and their child would like to achieve the goals outlined.

    I think it is important that we empower the parents and their child to own the learning. If they want their child to learn in a different way than the teacher has planned, I believe there needs to be a partnership with the parent, student, and teacher to determine alternatives.

    Could that work?

  7. Absolutely! I think that is a great way to help the children and parents develop their own personal learning plan. I agree that putting children in charge of their own learning is extremely important. Is there an archive of that EdChat? I'd love to read more about it.

    There is a lot of fear of the unknown when it comes to delving into technology, especially in social media. I'm planning a parent technology night at my school to explain in more detail the technology we are using in Kindergarten and more importantly, why. I've found that just having conversations with parents and letting them know that you have thoughtfully planned the use and outcomes of the tool you are using really makes a difference. This is the first year I've used Facebook in my class, but next year I hope to have this meeting much earlier in the year to get as many parents on board as I can.

    Thanks for your response!

  8. "These are awesome abilities that come with awesome responsibilities. These abilities and responsibilities require skills that are taught and not inherited. Educators need to have the authority to teach these skills"

    The harsh reality here is the the VAST majority of teachers are not prepared to teach these skills because they themselves have not had any training. We show our kids a quick video once a year and now we're legal, but just as incompetent as when we began. As long as district leadership continues to give lip service to the needed professional development, this is a loaded gun waiting to hurt someone.

    Don't get me wrong, I'd love to be able to go down this road, but I don't see where teachers, principals, and supts are willing to dedicate the many HOURS of time REQUIRED (amd money) to become the educated pros they need to be.

    We talk a great game but our delivery stats are pretty poor. I'm sick and tired of sitting in meetings and watching everyone nod and agree on all of these things when we do little to nothing to make it happen. The real obstacle lies in the mirror.

  9. @Anonymous, you make great points and bring to light a sentiment many educators and ed leaders have. I know this is not how YOU feel and that you are sharing stumbling blocks.

    My response to those people is TOO BAD! You are teaching in the 21st century and it is professional and child neglect to perform as though we live in the past. Schools have quickly moved onto the path of irrelevance assessing outdated skills that are not important for the world in which we live.

    As far as professional development, NO! I disagree. It is every educators responsibility to take ownership of their learning and learn from their own FREE personal learning network. You don't go to professional development to learn how to be a 21st century citizen. You just have to start updating your practices and move out of the past in and into the present.

    Two posts come to mind. Think you’re a Digital Immigrant? Get Over It! and Want to be a great teacher? Don’t go to PD.

    The time for excuses are gone. We need to step up and educate 21st century kids in the way that is right for them rather than easiest for us.

    So tell those people all that.

  10. I think this conversation is exactly where we need to focus our attention. Good points all around.

  11. Great Article. It breaks down all the necessary facts and major points concerning children, safety, and the internet. It is also an important guide for all educators.

  12. Unfortunately it is never so simple. Many of the points are good, but it is also the school's responsibility to ensure that students are not exposed to adult content. Solid cyber safety lessons are a huge part of this, and training students what to do if they run across something they shouldn't see. Blocking of adult content is easy and is part of any responsible network design and implementation. The Internat is not perfect, not are students. A well rounded approach may take some time, but is worth the effort.

  13. Wonderful post. Many times the biggest problem surrounds the fact that parents are not trained and/or informed about the many positive uses of technology and social networking. This article is a great asset to bridging that immense gap. Thanks for your efforts and work on this topic.

  14. Awesome article! I wholeheartedly agree that we should embrace our technology and teach our students how to use it for constructive education rather than be scared of it.

  15. I am totally taking your policy and handing it out next year. Beats anything I have seen. Everything that I wrote up had a scary edge to it...this is so....simple.

  16. Just one addition...under an amendment(?) to CEPA last year districts have to provide online safety education to each a district that does not provide this, a teacher who uses online tools should document how they included online safety education within their lessons. I would assume that would clear the teacher even though the safety lessons are not mandated by the district.

    1. I want to attempt to develop a guerrilla marketing postcard campaign that essentially has people enter their zip code, their school district pops up, they select it and then pay $1-2 to send a pre-written post card demanding that our school districts open up the filters and move toward developing effective Digital Citizens. Anyone willing to help. Contact me @mannixlab on Twitter.