Guide to Online Privacy and Security for Teachers

Technology in schools has become ubiquitous. Questions about keeping students data safe and teaching them online privacy while harnessing the benefits of e-learning are on a lot of educators’ minds.

Although teachers are increasingly aware of the need for cybersecurity in classrooms, they don’t necessarily have the actionable know-how. This concise guide aims to provide teachers with first-level defense strategies to:

  • Ensure a cyber-safe classroom and protect students’ private data
  • Teach students the basics of online privacy and security
  • Ensure technology in class is a benefit, not a distraction

Cyber-Safe Classrooms in Preschool and Elementary School

Why student data privacy matters

Student data is any information collected and stored by teachers, schools, and relevant agencies. Add in any third-party data manager, or companies providing digital tools and platforms.

Student data is a massive wealth of sensitive information – students’ names, dates of birth, addresses, SSN, grades, gender, attendance, information about parents, biometric data, and whatnot.

Often, this data is generously shared with third parties. Software development companies like Facebook’s Summit Basecamp increasingly tap into the pool of students data, creating ethical and legal controversies. As an educator, you should be aware of the legal procedures and ethical safeguards that protect your students’ privacy.

Student privacy matters because various legal and ethical restrictions impact teachers. Educators should be aware of the applicable federal and state laws and district policies. Teachers are also ethically obliged to model and follow good digital citizenship practices.

Tools you can use to protect student data

  • Only use educational apps and platforms in the classroom if the Department of Education has vetted them. If a tool isn’t approved, get your school’s approval before integrating it into your lessons.
  • Be careful when using non-educational tools, such as writing software, since they may not have the necessary privacy settings to protect student data.
  • Always use strong passwords for educational apps and platforms. Keep your passwords in an encrypted vault or use a password manager.
  • Don’t use personal email to transfer student data. When adding students to a virtual classroom, always confirm identities.

Establish transparent policies and use parental consent for data sharing

Engage parents from the get-go. Explain the privacy settings and policies of your digital classroom, and tools, as well as how – or if – third parties access student data.

Be transparent about data collection and sharing policies and have parents sign a consent form. Should any new app or platform get approved by your school mid-year, explain the underlying privacy effects of the new tool and back it up with a parental consent form.

How to teach online safety to elementary students

Children begin using technology at a young age, and it’s vital that educators teach them about online safety rules.

Most young children get their “stranger danger” talk at school. But it dwells on face-to-face situations, and kids don’t automatically apply that knowledge to their online interactions.

Moreover, stranger danger programs teach that strangers are mean and scary, which contradicts the very principle of online collaboration between strangers. So kids need to learn red flags and tell dangerous strangers from everyone else.

Finally, in real life students can run away from a threat. Online, the danger is in their smartphone, computer, or tablet – they can’t run away from it unless they have the skills to protect themselves.

Introduce your kindergarten students and first-graders to the notion of strangers on the Internet and how to interact with them:

  • A stranger online is someone they don’t know personally. Some strangers are dangerous, but not all strangers online are bad. This BrainPop Jr. video does an excellent job of explaining the concept.
  • Things kids should never tell strangers online include their full name, address, phone number, or where their parents work and their names.
  • Strangers should never ask children to send them their pictures.
  • Discuss where kids usually interact with strangers online – for young children it’s mostly multiplayer and open-world games. Explain they should always tell a trusted adult if something unpleasant happens online.
  • Complete the topic with Internet safety quiz.

Cyber-Safe Classrooms in Middle School

Dealing with Digital Distractions

Are your students digital natives or the distracted generation? Both terms are more than labels – they capture the conflict many educators deal with on a daily basis – the use of technology in the classroom.

Cut down on multitasking

Let’s face it – multitasking is a myth. While you can text while whipping up dinner, doing two things simultaneously at work or in class rarely translates into quality. Most humans have one main attention channel, so adding another task clogs it up. You eventually finish both tasks, but do you complete them well?

Students may “hear” what you say while they’re texting, but the information heard isn’t always information embedded. Some students are quick at switching between two tasks, which is fine, but they may be missing out on important details.

If digital distractions interfere with your classes, dedicate a lesson to attention spans and focus.

Consider including this excellent mindfulness test or this Monkey Business Illusion video to make it as interactive and firsthand as possible.

Proper technology use in classroom – full ban VS partial ban

A total smartphone ban in class is understandable, but its effectiveness is debatable. By banning gadget use in class you can cut down on texting and Instagramming. But you also end up inhibiting your students’ ability to look up an unfamiliar term or google an image to visualize a new concept.

Smartphone use in class helps students customize their learning experience, especially for the visual-type digital natives.

This isn’t to say teachers should step back and allow texting, but allowing the use of technology in the classroom to a reasonable extent can be a valuable asset to both students and educators.

Consider dedicating a class to discussing proper use of technology in the classroom.

Another tactic is to set aside one day per week, where learning is entirely old-school, without smartphones.

For digital content – use short paragraphs, scannable text, bullets, and images

When you use digital text in the classroom, remember that people read differently online than on a printed page. The “lazy eyes” effect makes long, dense paragraphs hard to process.

Internet readers mostly scan, only digging deeper when something catches their attention. You most probably skip to another website if you open up a page that’s a bland wall of text, right?

Use that peculiarity to your advantage when creating worksheets and other digital material:

  • When introducing complex knowledge, break it up with bolded, self-explanatory headers.
  • Use bullet lists.
  • Add in images or videos to help students visualize.
  • Spice it up with interactive content where possible.
  • Verdana, Georgia, or Trebuchet fonts tend to be the best fit for screen reading, according to experts.
  • Stick to the 30-10 rule – every 30 minutes let them take a rest from reading for 10 minutes.
  • Cut down on the word count.
  • Introduce one idea per paragraph.

Having detailed lecture notes removes the incentive to pay attention in class

Resist the urge to make full lecture notes available online. Provide your students with an outline instead. Otherwise, they won’t have an incentive to pay attention in class.

Student Privacy in Digital Classrooms

Verify student identities and teach them the basics of cyber hygiene

  • Ensure all users in your digital classroom apps and platforms are verified.
  • Show your students how to use password management apps and two-step verification for their email accounts.
  • Explain the importance of always logging out of their accounts instead of leaving the sessions open.

Browser safety tips

If you follow the solid cybersecurity practices, it’s easier to teach good online privacy habits to your students. And online privacy starts with your use of browsers:

  • Always look for an HTTPS version of sites.
  • Use ad-blockers and tracker-blocking extensions.
  • Use lightweight, alternative browsers that come without user tracking features (i.e., Brave, Waterfox).
  • Use alternative search engines that don’t track your searches (i.e., DuckDuckGo).
  • Mind your search history when you do research while being logged in to your Google account.
  • Evaluate your browser security settings, especially the ones that block third-party cookies and pop-up windows.
  • Set your browser to always ask before redirecting.

Engage parents

At an open house or curriculum night, show parents the online tools students are using to collaborate and research. Fill them in on the dangers of inappropriate use of these tools.

Explain that comments students post online can be viewed by anyone and that students shouldn’t share sensitive information via these tools.

Explain digital footprints

Students can be familiar with anonymizing tools, which tend to give a false sense of security.

Explain that there’s always a chance their online activities can become public. Everything they post online is backed up, archived, and can be retrieved, so it’s difficult to delete it completely.

Get your students to think about their digital footprints by asking them:

  • If we look you up online, what will we find?
  • Are there some posts and comments you wouldn’t want your parents, teachers, prospective employers to see?

Cyberbullying

As a teacher, you’re in a unique position to teach kids about the Internet safety, responsibility, accountability, and respect.

Have a cyberbullying reporting system

Cyberbullying is a common problem for schools. You must be able to support your students when it happens. An efficient reporting system for both students and parents will help you to follow through and cut the problem at early stages.

Cyberbullying laws

There’s no federal law against cyberbullying, but state laws may cover:

  • Criminal sanctions
  • School sanctions
  • Formal school policies on cyberbullying on and off campus

This interactive map displays cyberbullying laws across states.

Ban digital harassment in class chats

For some reason, some people – not just students – have a hard time being polite online. They can be perfectly courteous in face-to-face interactions, but their online messages can be downright hurtful.

Explain to your students that everything they post online is extremely hard to delete, especially when someone takes a screenshot of it.

If you’re using classroom-only social platforms or chat rooms, have a zero-tolerance policy to any forms of digital harassment. If you allow it in class, don’t be surprised when some kids take it to online social media against their peers.

Involve students in creating guidelines

When drafting new technology usage guidelines, introducing new apps or hardware, let your students have a say. When they’re allowed to contribute to the usage policies, they have some ownership of the process and are more likely to stick to the rules.

Create students’ bill of rights

Consider creating a students’ bill of rights that would outline their digital rights and responsibilities. Having students sign a pledge like this Internet Safety Pledge from Net Smartz and posting it in your classroom will serve as a reminder about Internet safety and your students’ commitment to be respectful online.

Use technology to teach about cyberbullying

Kids learn best when they’re having fun. Why not take the serious subject of cyberbullying and online safety and game it up? Check out these games that teach students of different ages about safe and respectful online behavior:

  • Webonauts for 8-10-year-olds
  • Cybersmart Detectives video for 10-year-olds teaches kids about the information they should never post online, where to seek help, and the risky online behavior
  • BrainPop Jr. has an extensive collection for kids of different ages
  • FBI SOS (Safe Online Surfing) is a game for older students
  • Common Sense Media K-12 curriculum with lessons for students in every grade (free for teachers)

Geofence messaging apps

Some claim that geofencing apps and sites at school doesn’t solve the cyberbullying problem. But if nothing else helps, blocking apps and platforms where you can’t prevent cyberbullying is the last resort. It’s no wonder that many schools block Instagram and Facebook by default.

Inappropriate Content

Set clear boundaries

Adolescents often have a hard time drawing a line according to their personal comfort levels and ethics. Peer pressure urges them to overstep their personal boundaries and consume inappropriate content.

Teachers should empower students and help them set their personal and classroom boundaries, as well as tolerance levels. Let them talk openly about their concerns before peer pressure tests them. Explain that true friends should respect their boundaries.

Consider offering your students a no-judgment commitment, which makes the classroom a zone where they can talk about things that make them uncomfortable without anyone laughing.

Also, instead of making it a conversation about inappropriate Internet use, make it about a broader issue – personal boundaries as a life skill and self-confidence.

Teach students what to do if they navigate to inappropriate content

No school firewall is 100% effective. If your students should navigate to inappropriate content by accident, teach them to close the window, and move on instead of sharing it with their peers.

However, a specific type of content needs to be reported (child or animal abuse, for instance), so consider talking about that, too.

If they access inappropriate content deliberately, explain that deleting their browser history doesn’t erase it on their telecoms company or Internet Service Provider’s servers. And if they use school WiFi, school IT admins can access that information, too.

Check if your school firewall blocks inappropriate websites

Blocking sites with inappropriate content is a good idea, but it won’t stop your students from accessing them anyway. Still, stay abreast of the content students consume, and add dangerous sources to your school’s firewall blacklist.

Be transparent. Talk to your students about why certain sites are blocked at school and suggest better ways of using the Internet.

Remember – knowledge is power. If they think streaming sites with pirated movies are blocked because you don’t want them distracted, they’re probably right. But are they aware of the malware these websites spread?

Keep up with student interests

Teens tend to think teachers and parents are far behind in technology use. So when they need advice or have concerns, they turn to their peers for help.

If you keep up with tech trends, apps and social networks popular among your students, chances are they may seek your advice about any safety or privacy concern that they have.

Cyber-Safe Classrooms in High School and College

Sexting

Gadget use combined with hormonal development creates a toxic mix that feeds the storm called sexting. It’s become a glaring problem when private photos and messages are shared publicly without the sender’s consent.

When sexting involves children under 18, it’s illegal and violates most states’ sexual offender laws. When the offender is an adolescent, some states may downgrade the offense since these laws are reserved for serious criminals.

Sexting is widespread in middle and high schools

Be aware of the age groups most prone to sexting and keep an eye open on student discussions about inappropriate texts. Inquire about your school procedures when a sexting situation arises.

Warn students about the unintended audience

When interviewed about sexting, students often talk about the same scenario – a student is convinced to send a nude picture of him/herself to a girlfriend or boyfriend. When they break up, the image is shared with everyone in the school.

To a teen, the situation is devastating. Explain to your students that chances are the sensitive images they share with their friends are likely to be shared with the whole school at a later point.

Explain about image accessibility

Believe it or not, many people think texts – and images – fly through the air from smartphone to smartphone. Explain to your students how texts and image sharing works – from sender’s device to a server and then to the recipient’s device.

Demonstrate how servers back up and archive everything we send through chat apps, and how it’s possible to screenshot and retrieve deleted messages.

Explain that people manage backup archives at telecoms and software development companies. Even if they delete a message, it’s still backed up on several servers, and can be accessed by these people, or someone tech-savvy enough to breach the system.

An image sent to another student is most likely viewed by a database manager somewhere out there.

Involve parents

Parents tend to feel uncomfortable around this subject, but they are the first line of defense for their kids. True, some kids will ignore their parents’ concerns about sexting, but many might yearn for advice or help yet feel too shy to ask for it.

Have a reporting system and provide alternatives

Sexting reporting protocols should protect victims’ identities, as well as identities of those reporting it.

Also, discuss with your students how they can say “no” when asked to share an inappropriate picture.

A solid response such as, “I respect myself too much to do that, and you will never ask me again if you respect me,” can be useful in avoiding being cornered into a regretful situation.

Check school or district policy on sexting

Look up laws on sexting and explain the possible consequences to your students. Explain what they should do if they or someone they know become victims of sexting.

Talk openly to parents about sexting, and ask them to discuss its legal consequences with their kids. Teens are less likely to engage in regretful behavior if they know the consequences can be severe.

Check if your state has a sexting, cyberbullying, or revenge porn laws here.

Data Tampering and Hacking Risks

Even the most prominent schools can get infiltrated with malware and compromised. A list of hacked higher education institutions shows that malware doesn’t discriminate between flagship state universities, elite colleges, and small schools.

As schools offer more e-learning opportunities and digital classroom formats, they need reliable data protection against data tampering and hacking:

  • Use encrypted, secure email for communication.
  • Impose the use of strong passwords for student accounts.
  • Verify students’ identities.
  • Be aware of your school’s cybersecurity policy and explain it to students.
  • Raise cybersecurity awareness among your students.

As students bring their personal devices to class, your school network should accommodate the influx safely and securely. While your IT department might implement proactive testing and have an incident response plan, people will always be the weakest – or the strongest – link in your school’s digital security.

Implementing a cybersecurity awareness program among students will reduce the risk stemming from bad actors.

Bonus Tips for Teachers

Social media can be a great tool to help you model good digital citizenship examples. But use it with great caution.

Social Media Do’s:

  • Use parent consent and opt-out forms.
  • Explain how you’ll be using social media in the classroom.
  • Have a separate account for professional use.
  • Review privacy settings on any of your social media accounts.
  • Use photo editing tools to edit out sensitive data before sharing the images.
  • Look out for name tags.
  • Turn off location sharing services for your devices.
  • Make your personal account private.
  • Create private, classroom-only online communities to share safely and develop safe digital citizenship skills.

Social Media Don’ts:

  • Don’t use social media in your classroom without setting clear guidelines or checking your school’s policies.
  • Don’t display student or class information on public walls, whiteboards, etc.
  • Don’t share students’ names or faces without parental consent.
  • Don’t name files using students names.
  • Don’t forget handwriting is also personally identifiable data.

Relevant Laws

Finally, familiarize yourself with:

The FTC offers excellent advice for teachers about online privacy and safety of students.