Keeping kids safe in the era of online education
Former US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, likened the pandemic to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. As we all know, his assassination was the catalyst which kickstarted World War 1, ended three empires, brought the world to its knees, saw millions of deaths and changed the world people knew completely.
It may be somewhat fallacious to draw comparisons between eras which cannot be compared, but Summers certainly has a point.
And one aspect of life as we knew it which has undoubtedly seen some of the most profound change is education. We take a look at some of these changes and provide some tips and tools for keeping your children safe.
Zero-rated and free online resources
There are a myriad of free resources and zero-rated platforms available to South African and international students at this time.
But first it’s important to understand the difference between zero-rated and free. Zero-rated means that you will not be charged for the platform or cumulative usage fees necessary to access information or services – such as data costs. Free generally refers to the content or services you are accessing. So a platform may offer free material, but the user will need to carry the cost of data, airtime, cloud storage and so forth to access the material.
Since the pandemic hit, many private and public institutions are offering free or zero-rated services and products for students and schools. In South Africa and many other countries, governments have placed temporary measures in place to ensure accessibility, such as instructing internet services providers to zero-rate access to certain websites and applications as well as increasing line speeds and reducing cost of data.
Though ISPs and ICT companies have been advised to offer access to educational platforms without charging the client for data or airtime, it should be noted that not all platforms have been ‘flagged’ for this initiative and it can be quite hard to discern whether sites are zero-rated. We would therefore advise educators and parents to first determine with your ISP or network provider which platforms are available for free on the respective networks.
The DG Murray Trust has allocated R10-million to build a Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) vetting, verification and content listing mechanism, but this mechanism is not foolproof and some platforms or content may therefore fall through the cracks. There are a few platforms which providers have already indicated to be free.
SOUTH AFRICAN EDUCATORS
Access and content on for all universities and colleges should be free-of-charge for South African students, but there are limitations.
Note that the free service will be limited to specific learning content and not general content on these platforms.
The zero-rating will also not necessarily extend to downloading of content. Users may therefore find that they can view content and educational videos online but that they may be charged for downloading such content.
The Department of Education offers free educational resources on their website and access to the website is also zero-rated.
Vodacom offers free educational resources in partnership with the Department of Education, Top Dog and Mindset Learn for all users on the Vodacom network.
Solidariteit offers free online learning to learners who wish to access material in Afrikaans during the lockdown period. It is not yet clear which providers have zero-rated this platform so enquire with your provider.
News24 offers free educational resources on their website for the lockdown period. It is not yet clear which service provided have zero-rated access to the material so confirm with your provider.
Khan Academy offers free resources to parents, teachers and learners from age 2 to 18 during lockdown and has been zero-rated by most providers during lockdown.
Siyavula offers maths and science education for South African learners and all content has been zero-rated for users accessing the content via their Vodacom or MTN sims.
The University of Cape Town has negotiated with various networks to offer zero-rated access as well as additional data for students on different networks, including:
- zero-rated access on all networks for all uct.ac.za domain extensions for student sites
- zero-rated access to Open UCT on Telkom and Cell C
- zero-rated access to UCT news and UCT journals on Vodacom
- Free 10GB peak and 20GB off-peak data on MTN, Vodacom and Cell C
- Free 20GB daytime data and 20GB between 0:00 and 07:00 on Telkom (one month from activation)
The University of the Witwatersrand has followed suit, offering students:
- Free 10GB peak and 20GB off-peak data on all networks (one month from activation)
- Zero-rated access to student platforms and material via the wits.ac.za URL
- Free document transmission via Moodle/Sakai for zipped documents
- Laptops and internet-ready devices to qualifying students
The University of Pretoria has simplified zero-rated services to their students by funneling all these services via a central URL at:
The University of Johannesburg is offering students 10GB peak and 20GB off-peak data on Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom for 1 month from activation.
The University of the North West has made the following allowances for students:
- Zero-rated access to material on eFundi on Telkom, Cell C, MTN and Vodacom
- 10GB allocation to students who qualify for NSFAS loans
- Loan laptops and internet-ready devices to qualifying students at zero interest
The University Stellenbosch has the following benefits in place:
- Loan laptops and internet-ready devices to qualifying students at zero-interest
- Loan-to-buy option for above-mentioned devices if funded by bursary sponsors
Microsoft has addressed the COVID-19 crisis by offering free access to Microsoft Teams for qualifying educational institutions on their Learning Management Systems (LMS) using Canvas, Schoology, Brightspace, itsLearning or Blackboard. The new Teams offering should be available as a new tab on these platforms. It is unclear whether traffic is zero-rated.
The company has also partnered with NASA to provide free lessons to users worldwide via
BBC Bitesize offers free classes and education to learners worldwide including online classes via Daily Lessons. The platform has roped in a complement of 200 celebrities and specialists for this initiative including:
- Sir David Attenborough (environmentalist) – Geography and Natural Science
- Danny Dyer (actor ) – History
- Sergio Aguero (footballer) – Spanish
- Sir Brian Cox (physicist) – Science
- Mabel (singer) – Music
- Liam Payne (singer) – weekly Book Club
There are some hazards to using Facebook as a teaching or learning resource, but it is beneficial when it comes to data usage. Facebook has agreements in place with various international service providers which allows access to a version of their application which is free of media.
Various Ivy league and other online universities have opened op free courses and libraries to international students and made these available online, including:
- Institut Mines-Télécom
- University of Pennsylvania
- Columbia University
- Wharton School
You can find a list of ivy league institutions who offer free courses and libraries during the pandemic here.
Best practice for teachers and tutors
When it comes to preparing, uploading and sharing information online, many teachers, parents and children are making basic mistakes which could not only hike up data costs, but lead to the inadvertent downloading of malware, offer third parties access to their devices or share their personal information with others.
Children also risk exposure to inappropriate material and individuals with nefarious intentions. It’s therefore imperative that educators and parents remain extra vigilant during these times.
We therefore have the following guidelines and tips to consider for those who need to share information and educational material for learners online.
Document format, presentation and size
Ensure that you follow the following protocols when you prepare documents for upload and distribution:
- You brand and label your documents so your students or teachers know how to identify the branding of the institution and compare this to the information source. Such branding can of course be falsified, but it offers some level of institutional identification.
- Add contact information and version information in the document.
- When saving documents in design, word processing or video rendering software, version and ownership information can also be embedded in the file and editing of the documentation can be prohibited or limited through password protection.
- Save documents in a format which is readily distributable and accessible by all – a pdf of a document is easier to distribute than individual images such as jpeg or png files, but if there is only one image in question, users accessing information via phones may view such images easier than pdf’s.
- Minimise your documents’ size through compression , encoding or other means. If you use MS Word to create documents, ensure that you have compressed and removed all cropped areas from all images or rich media.
- Where possible, embed and/or lock images or graphic elements in place so documents don’t warp and elements don’t move around once accessed.
- If you have a website or application, ensure that all content, images or rich media are optimised for the device being used and scalable – this can be achieved by asking your developer or designer to amend the coding and appearance for individual files OR by installing a suitable plugin or code snippet to compress files and provide different file versions per device.
- Some files can also be hosted in cloud storage which may improve loading time on the site or application.
- If you have monetised your site, consider temporarily removing advertising in order to improve usability and load times and to limit exposure to information which may be inappropriate or distracting.
- If rich media can be downloaded, try to offer low-resolution alternatives.
- If time and resources are available, offer transcriptions for rich media which will give users the scope of the content where they are not able to view such media on their device.
Document sharing, accessing & downloading
- Where possible, upload and share all your content to/via a central platform or cloud folder. This will ensure proper version control and allow you to monitor traffic or usage.
- Try not to share shortened URLs which prohibit users from seeing the domain during link-sharing.
- Don’t share hyperlinks on content without instructing the user on the correct format and domain extensions of URLs and including a description of the content they will access.
- If your platform or website does not have a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate yet, try to acquire one via your host or through a legitimate plugin. This will provide at least slightly more security via encryption, though it is hardly a failsafe.
- If you require users to access material via external providers like YouTube, see if there is code available to embed the resources on your site instead of sending your learners to YouTube or the third party itself. Embedding such content will not lower data costs (as users will need to view the content irrespective of the platform), but this measure is merely aimed at limiting exposure to other content on social media platforms and therefore an additional security measure for youths.
- Check and adjust chat and security settings for the platform where documents and communication is distributed, whether WhatsApp, GDrive, DropBox, iCloud, MS Teams, Skype, Telegram, Zoom or other platforms.
- Make sure that users are aware of their rights and responsibilities in accessing, downloading, viewing or sharing content.
- Ensure that security and chat functionality is not open for editing by other users or third parties.
- Don’t hyperlink to third-parties or share information unless you have verified ownership, security and authenticity of such links and documents.
- Distribute an instructional document or communication to parents and learners to indicate all locations, access methods and security protocols relevant to your company, educational or personal content.
- Check the terms and conditions for all sites and platforms you wish to use before asking users to sign up or utilise their services and establish what their information and privacy policies are. Where possible, steer clear of platforms which distribute your information or students’/parents’ information to third parties and inform your users of these policies.
- Update your web SEO so your platform is not obscured by other sites or platforms with similar names and that search engines can accurately label and present your site to users.
- Do not make lists with parent and learner details available to other parents, learners or third parties without the explicit consent of the individuals and be clear what the purpose of distributing personal information would be, how it will be stored and how it will be secured.
- When sending bulk communication to parents or learners via email, make sure to use the blind carbon copy (bcc) function to add email addresses which will ensure that email addresses remain hidden and users cannot reply to all addressees.
Choosing a platform for content sharing and chat
There are a myriad of platforms available to teachers and students alike where content can be shared and where students and teachers can interact. But as was demonstrated by South Africa’s own government who accidentally shared their Zoom meeting passwords on social media, and the meeting subsequently bombarded with pornographic images – rules for usage should be clearly defined, and drawbacks of platforms understood.
We take a look at some of the most popular applications or platforms and list their pros and cons.
The limited functionality allows group administrators to keep some control over chats but also hampers information sharing.
Secret chats are beneficial for confidential messaging but could prove hazardous in an educational environment where parental and educator access and monitoring is required
Easy integration with other apps and social media platforms provides for seamless sharing, but could expose children to unwarranted content.
Open Source applications have tremendous benefits with regards to customisation, but this can be a drawback when there is swift uptake as regulation and safety control may be hampered
The platform and its affiliate apps have a wide array of tools and resources available to users, but the sheer volume of the features can confuse users and be hard to access
Users can interact or allow access to those on different payment plans, but this can be confusing and frustrating since free users will not have the same features and rights as those on premium.
Tips for parents and students
Unfortunately the pandemic has forced schools and students to adapt at lightning speed, and this expedited uptake of online learning technologies is offering little margin for catchup and learning. Educators, parents and learners are forced to take up new ways of learning and interacting with each other and undertaking proper vetting, setting up security protocols and developing codes of conduct aren’t practicable in such a short time.
Whether your children have just entered the online sphere for learning purposes or are doing so for social reasons, the following steps are advised to keep them safe online:
- Ensure that you as parent or caregiver has access to the email address and/or cell phone number on which your children are registering for online services.
- Ensure that you ‘uncheck’ marketing or push notifications for applications and websites your child will access.
- Set the security settings for your child’s devices and browsers to ‘safe search’ and whitelist or blacklist sites which are suitable or unsuitable accordingly.
- Research and block known harmful sites and applications from your child’s search results.
- Install a safe search engine or browser for your child and bookmark safe websites for them to access material, some of these include:
- KidzSearch: Wikipedia’s child-friendly website
- Safe Search Kids
- K9 Web Protection Browser
- MaxTon Kid-Safe Browser
- Safe Internet Browser for Kids Android
- Sandbox Web Browser for iOS
- Install legitimate antivirus software on all your devices and keep this software updated
- Check URLs and domains for all sites and email addresses and verify these against legitimate sources online. The URL is the snipped of text, special characters and numbers which appears at the top of the browser and also in the links sent to others.
- Check whether the website shows http or https (it should show a lock icon if it is https). Not all sites need to be https, but it is one indicator of secure communication especially where online transacting or login is required.
- Check that the site name and domain correlate to the legitimate site and domain you were expecting.
- Instruct your children on strong passwords and login information. One trick is to recite a rhyme or phrase which is familiar to them and then let them type the rhyme in uppercase, lowercase, special characters and numerals. This is especially effective if not used in English – so if your children speak Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, French, German or some other language, let them create a password using those languages.
- Do not allow children to chat or connect with strangers online unless you have authorised them to do so or such site is monitored and maintained by a legitimate educational institution.
- Instruct children not to click on links or view content unless this content has been vetted by you and from a legitimate platform.
- Teach children not to complete survey information or other forms online, including social media copy-and-paste games which makes them state information used for password hacking such as colours, names, activities, addresses or other personal information.
- When installing free versions of apps or online services which have not been vetted, provide dummy contact and financial information. If an email address is required for such sites, create a free dummy email via Gmail or another mail client and use this email address exclusively for such occasions or communication. If a platform bars you from accessing ‘free’ information by using such dummy info, it means they are already trying to check and verify your info which is a red flag.
- If possible, create different SSIDs for your home network and set different access details, limits and rules for each user which will limit their internet usage at home.
- Switch off Near Field Communication (NFC) and automatic Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity settings on your child’s devices.
- Right-click or inspect all files available for download to verify the file size and type before downloading.
- Instruct your child on safe words and other signals should they feel threatened and/or unsafe when communicating with others online.
- Show your children how to download content from sites for later offline viewing where available and always monitor their downloads.
- Password-protect cloud content and frequently check who has access to your shared content.
- Activate parental controls on digital devices. New Android, iOS and Windows models should include such features on the devices. You can also consult your cellular provider for additional security features and parental controls which can be managed via your account dashboard.
- Some sites or platforms may request credit card/payment information where a period of free access is provided or if you are purchasing premium content – be sure not to store your credit card details or permanent information and don’t link cards to your children’s app store.
- If content is shared by tutors or schools which you find questionable or inappropriate, immediately consult the individual or institution in question.
- Give your child clear instructions on which email addresses, phone numbers, and usernames they can use, and which profile pictures are allowed.
- Reiterate to your children the hazards of the online world, even where such discussions are uncomfortable, rather safe than sorry.
- Maintain frequent contact with teachers, tutors and educational institutions to understand what, how, why and when they will interact with children.
Something which many teachers, parents and learners seem to forget or struggle with is the vetting of information and resources.
In the times of COVID-19 the proliferation of false media has become a headache to all. Even legitimate news networks, politicians and journalists have fallen victim to this tyranny, so it is understandable that laymen will struggle even more with this task.
But follow the guidelines below to ensure the information you receive, believe and share is mostly true and accurate:
- Do not simply share sources from images, memes or text forwarded to you by others – use search engines to confirm what is said
- When using search engines, do not trust the first results you find: though Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, OneSearch, Search Encrypt, Yahoo! and others aim to provide accurate content, none of them have the reach to verify all search engine results and often display information which has the most clicks (information which is shared rapidly and widely) or information which has been paid for
- When conducting a search for information, always search for verification and negation of a particular fact. For instance: 1. hair dye is bad for your hair, 2. hair dye is good for your hair. You’ll be surprised at the different results you find when searching for opposing points of view and this minimises confirmation bias
- Use sites such as Media Bias Fact Check, Snopes, Politifact or Quote Check to ensure your aren’t accessing fake or biased news sites and if sites are proven to be mostly biased you may be able to blacklist them from your search engine or browser to block results from them
- People are particularly complacent in cases where scientific studies, statistics, academic papers, infographics, polls or prominent persons/credentials are mentioned, but it’s surprising how much of this information is fictitious or fabricated. Remember that scientific studies, statistics and academic papers aren’t proof of any fact, in fact, papers can be published without approval from any institution and when looking into the ‘cited’ material, one often finds that ‘studies’ are mere hypotheses taken out of context by journalists or other users. Other times, polls or paid surveys serve as sources for statistical data, which is fallacious unless information was obtained via legitimate research methodologies.
- For scientific studies there is limited funding or incentive for verifying the findings of empirical studies done by others, which means that most studies are never reproduced or verified. Find out if the studies have been reproduced. Some scientific studies even use qualitative investigation where quantitative research is required, which makes the whole study unscientific, so be sure to investigate how studies were conducted, on whom, and what the methodologies were.
- Be sure to follow the links, citations and resources in articles – these links are often broken, lead to irrelevant content or double-back to the very site where the original article was produced.
- In general, legitimate resources will not use emails or web domains which are contentious, convoluted or metaphysical – if you are sent information from an email address or with a hyperlink which has a string of nonsensical or abstract emotive words, those sources are to be questioned.
- Reverse image search is a nifty function on search engines which allows users to upload images and see where these images appear on the web. If you distrust sensationalist media or historical facts linked to images, upload the images to a reverse search engine and see what results you can find.
- It is good to remain sceptical of authorities and people in power, but do not automatically fall into a conspiracy theory hype. Do your own research, and don’t trust the opinion of any person posting their theories on YouTube.
Though the world has changed drastically and we’re compelled to take up new ways of working, learning, teaching and sharing information, not all is bad!
Technologies allow children to interact with the world around them in a way which is both beneficial and crucial to a way of life which their teachers and parents will never experience. Offer the tools and guidance to keep them safe, and then let them embrace the brave new world with enthusiasm.