30 January 2014

Best protection is education

This is my article for the CoLRiC Newsletter, issue 59 (December 2013)

Last summer, a suicide of a 14-year old girl took place in Leicestershire; apparently, it was provoked by cyberbullying. Following the tragic event, tabloids demanded from the government to censor Ask.fm, a Latvia-based website extremely popular among teenagers. ‘Our children must be protected from irresponsible adults’, the message was. Among that storm, very few sober and reasonable voices were heard: the best protection is education.

By no means, this a controversial thought – to educate, not to ban. In 2010, Ofsted published a report, The Safe Use of New Technologies (Ofsted, 2010), based on research about schools’ engagement with the internet, emerging technologies and safeguarding. One of the key findings of that report sounds very much up to date now: Pupils in the schools that had ‘managed’ systems had better knowledge and understanding of how to stay safe than those in schools with ‘locked down’ systems. Pupils were more vulnerable overall when schools used locked down systems because they were not given enough opportunities to learn how to assess and manage risk for themselves.

An therefore, one of the Ofsted report’s recommendations was: [Schools should] manage the transition from locked down systems to more managed systems to help pupils understand how to manage risk; to provide them with richer learning experiences; and to bridge the gap between systems at school and the more open systems outside school.

In other words, instead of banning, we must engage with learners, teaching and non-teaching staff, parents and anyone else involved into our college communities – to educate about the dangers and reasonable behaviour which would allow all of us navigate safely in this ever-evolving world.

The enlightening Ofsted’s findings and recommendations are as up-to-date now as they were in 2010. In their spirit, a teachers’ and librarians’ answer to the calls for censure and ban of Ask.fm should, perhaps, be: Wait, let us see! – And then engaging with the offender website to find out what good can be out of it and how our learners can be safe there.

Looking specifically at Ask.fm, it can be successfully used for healthy communication with library users. The basic idea of this website is about questions and answers: anyone can ask a question anyone else; when the question is answered, it appears on the wall of the person who was asked and answered that question.  It all works very smoothly and the design is attractively minimalist. Ask.fm has the necessary basic functionality for a pretty robust online enquiry tool:
  • registration is optional: questions can be posted very quickly, without a prolonged registration and login
  • questions can be posted anonymously – it can be handy if learners are too shy to acknowledge their query
  • immediate notifications of the posted questions are sent by email and exported as a RSS feed
  • the query box can be embedded anywhere on the internet, e.g. on the library webpage.
For almost two months the Ask.fm query box was trailed on the North Warwickshire and Hinckley College library webpage. It was not limited to the questions from only the authenticated users: partly, to encourage shy learners to communicate to librarians, partly – to see what the experience of 95% users who never change their default settings (Arthur, 2013) is like. The initial uptake was slow, but then we started getting enquiries once a week or so. Few of them were heavily truncated (“adlut [sic] care”, “membership expired”) or poorly constructed – just like people speak/write online nowadays. Ask.fm turned out to be a low-maintenance and unobtrusive service; no other tools known to me could do that so effortlessly. Unfortunately, the experiment at my college had to be cut short for the reasons beyond the library’s competence. The message wall can be seen at http://ask.fm/nwhclibrary.

For us, librarians (who are also educators, of course), Ask.fm is a good example of how an interesting, though a potentially dangerous tool can be turned into a really useful one: the best protection is education. Ask.fm should feature in e-safety training to enable our learners to control who may message them, what messages become visible to the world, how they can report abuse and ban from correspondence those who hurt them – to empower our learners.
  • Arthur, C. (2013) ‘Why the default settings on your device should be right first time’. Guardian, 1 December 2013. Available at http://gu.com/p/3kyx7.
  • Ofsted (2010) The safe use of new technologies. Available at http://goo.gl/MVTJxS.

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