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Security in a Web 2.0-Based Educational Environment: Issues and Answers—Part 1

By Nancy Willard - Posted May 1, 2010
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Trying to prepare students for their future and teach them about internet safety without Web 2.0 in schools is like trying to teach a child to swim without a swimming pool!

A combination of factors is currently leading schools to reassess how they are managing student internet use, addressing internet safety education, and responding to the concerns of youth risk when using technologies.

It is becoming clear that concerns about internet risk and the ineffective way in which schools are now trying to manage internet use are a major barrier to moving schools forward to embrace 21st-century learning environments. The new Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) will require that schools teach internet safety. Increasingly, schools are recognizing that the online behavior of some students is having a damaging impact at schools and on the ability of students to feel safe and be successful.

Recognition of the relatedness of these factors provides the opportunity for schools to address these issues in a more comprehensive manner. In this two-part article (Part 2 will appear in the next issue), I will outline how these issues interact and how cyber-savvy schools can embrace the future.

Let’s start with an enunciation of a vision:

21st-century learning environments: Schools are safely and effectively using Web 2.0 technologies to prepare students for their future education and careers, civic responsibilities, and personal life in the 21st century.

Schools will shift from the primary reliance currently placed on filtering technologies to more effective supervision and technical monitoring. All instructional staff will be able to override the filter to access and allow students to access instructional material online. Districts will establish safe, well-managed Web 2.0 environments to support a professional development community, as well as student learning. This Web 2.0 environment will showcase student work and support interactive instructional communities that can bring students together to create, communicate, and collaborate. Students will be able to access their individual class work and the interactive community from any internet location—which will support anytime, anywhere learning.

Universal digital media safety, citizenship, and literacy competencies: All young people understand digital media safety, citizenship, and literacy issues and demonstrate competence in keeping themselves safe, engaging in responsible behavior that respects the rights of others, and taking responsibility for the well-being of others.

Younger children use the internet in safe places. As young people grow, they are empowered with the knowledge, skills, and values to independently make safe and responsible decisions online. These lessons are infused into Web 2.0 learning activities. All teachers are prepared to address these issues, under the leadership of school librarians, educational technology and health teachers, and counselors.

Targeted youth risk online prevention and intervention: Effective risk prevention and intervention programs have been established through a multidisciplinary collaboration of education, law enforcement, and mental health to respond to the concerns of the minority of young people who are at greater risk of engaging in unsafe or irresponsible online behavior or being victimized by others.

Comprehensive whole-school and community approaches enhance all students’ ability to further healthy personal interrelationships and avoid risky online situations. Targeted multidisciplinary approaches effectively investigate situations where students are at risk, are being harmed, or are harming others using digital technologies. Interventions are grounded in restorative justice.

Moving Past ‘Technopanic’

In proceeding, schools must understand that the past decade has been characterized by “technopanic”—a heightened concern about the use of the internet by young people that is not grounded in the actual research evidence. A recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, “Broadband Adoption and Use in America,” revealed that among broadband users, 24% strongly agree that the internet is too dangerous for children. Among those who do not have broadband, 46% strongly agree that the internet is too dangerous for children. Clearly, this significant degree of fear will slow down—if not prevent—adoption of the kinds of technologies that are essential for 21st-century learning.

It is exceptionally important for educators to focus on the actual research. We have come through a decade of dissemination of disinformation about the real risks of online sexual predators. A full report on this disinformation is on my Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use website (

Many state attorneys general websites have statements that are not grounded in the research data. The Pennsylvania attorney general internet crimes website states: “The growth of the Internet has been astronomical, and regrettably, predators are using the Internet as their primary means of contacting and communicating with their young victims.” The Florida attorney general’s website states: “Nationally, one in seven children between the ages of ten and 17 have been solicited online by a sexual predator.”

The Crimes Against Children Research Center (CACRC;, the leading research institute studying these issues (whose research findings have unfortunately been misinterpreted publicly), provides accurate information on this subject:

The publicity about online “predators” who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate. Internet sex crimes involving adults and juveniles more often fit a model of statutory rape—adult offenders who meet, develop relationships with, and openly seduce underage teenagers—than a model of forcible sexual assault or pedophilic child molesting. This is a serious problem, but one that requires different approaches from current prevention messages emphasizing parental control and the dangers of divulging personal information.


CACRC’s studies demonstrated that in 2006, arrests for online sexual predation involving actual victims, not the Dateline-like stings, accounted for only 1% of all arrests for the sexual abuse of minors—a little more than 600 arrests. For perspective, compare this figure to the concern that an estimated 100,000 teens a year are being sexually trafficked. The CACRC study that provided the basis for the inflammatory half-truth on the Florida attorney general’s website asked teens whether they had received “unwanted communications of a sexual nature.” One in seven had, as the website notes, but only 8% came from older adults. Further, the study indicated that the teens demonstrated effective responses and that less than a third were even distressed.

Additional research by CACRC and others has revealed that many of the young people who are engaging in risky or harmful behavior online are those who are also at greater risk in the real world. These are “at risk” youth, whose risk behavior is now manifesting in the context of using these new technologies. These more significant risks most often involve known peers and, thus, could lead to a disruptive impact at school or create a hostile environment that prevents a student from being successful. These are real risks. It is essential that we implement effective risk prevention and interventions to address these risks. These interventions must be grounded in an accurate understanding of the risks and risk factors. It is well-known that the “scare tactics” approach to risk prevention is entirely ineffective. I’ll discuss this in the second article.

Repeated research studies have demonstrated that the majority of young people are generally making good choices online and effectively handling the negative incidents that do occur. However, they are young, they do not fully understand the ramifications of some actions, they will engage in risk taking, they will make mistakes, and others may seek to harm them. The technology environment can have a negative influence on behavior due to the misperception of invisibility and the lack of tangible feedback of the consequences of behavior. Through effective social norms/peer leadership-based education, we can reduce their mistakes, increase their abilities to respond to negative incidents, and encourage them to assist others or report serious concerns to a responsible adult.

Creating True 21st-Century Schools

Schools must establish 21st-century learning environments infused with Web 2.0 technologies to prepare students for their future education, career, civic responsibilities, and personal life. This environment is also necessary to teach digital media safety, citizenship, and literacy competencies.

The Issue of Filtering

One major barrier to the establishment of such environments is also grounded in fear of the internet. Reliance on filtering is interfering with effective instruction. When teachers and students are frequently blocked from accessing relevant instructional material, reliance on internet resources significantly decreases. Many districts have not provided teachers with the ability to bypass the filter to access relevant instructional material or to address safety concerns. A report by Project Tomorrow from its “Speak Up” survey indicated that 43% of students (6–12 grade) report their technology use is impeded by the ever-present school filters or firewalls that block access to websites they need.

Older students can easily bypass filters. Try Googling “bypass internet filter” and you’ll see! The bypass technologies have been developed for use by the dissidents in the Middle East and Asia. These bypass technologies will continue to be improved. The strategies that filtering companies are trying to use to prevent such bypassing can cause even more overblocking.

Most significantly, filtering only works in a Web 1.0 environment, where the objective is to block students from accessing “objectionable material.” Filtering is not an effective management tool for the interactive activities that occur in Web 2.0 environments. The primary reliance that has been placed on filtering, which was influenced by CIPA, has led to false security and the expectation that technical services departments are responsible for preventing misuse. Universal staff responsibility is necessary!

Alternate Approaches

A more-effective approach to managing student internet use is grounded in a statement from a popular children’s book, The Secret Garden: “Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.” If students are fully engaged in exciting relevant instructional activities, they have little time, opportunity, or incentive for misuse. Creative Web 2.0 instructional activities will engage students.

Of course, caution is still called for. An environment that offers significant amounts of “internet recess” presents concerns, as when 1-1 laptop programs are implemented outside of radical school reform.

Schools must proactively embrace 21st-century learning and lay out plans to shift to the use of Web 2.0 technologies in a manner that can ensure appropriate use. Strategies include the following:

• Fully integrating the district’s educational technology program into curriculum and instruction and ensuring that learning objectives focus on the use of digital media resources and technologies as tools to facilitate learning where appropriate in the curriculum.

• Establishing a safe and manageable Web 2.0 environment that allows for the creation of online communities with various groupings, blogs, and wikis. This Web 2.0 environment should be strongly promoted as a professional community for teachers to support ongoing dialogue, sharing of lesson plans, and mentoring.

• Revising the approach for technology-use management. Reinforce the notion that the internet must be used for learning activities, not entertainment. Periodically analyze technology use to ensure instructional focus. Shift from primary reliance on “blocking” to more-effective “watching”—through the use of remote access or content analysis technical monitoring and staff supervision.

• Establishing two levels of blocking and overriding authority: “harmful categories” that require approval to override and “management categories” that can be overridden by any teacher for instructional purposes or to address safe-schools concerns. Establish clear standards that address purpose, content, and bandwidth concerns. Record all instances of overriding to ensure accountability.

• Establishing student “tech teams” to provide computer troubleshooting and support in the use of technologies.

Strategies such as these can go a long way toward establishing a true, safe 21st-century learning environment. In the next issue of Multimedia & Internet@Schools, I’ll present Part 2 of this article, covering approaches to universal digital media safety and literacy education plus targeted youth risk online prevention and intervention—the two other components of the vision we enunciated at the start of this feature. See you then!

Nancy Willard , M.S., J.D., is the director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. She has degrees in special education and law. She taught “at risk” children, practiced computer law, and was an educational technology consultant before focusing her professional attention on issues of youth risk online and effective management of student internet use in 1995. Nancy is author of two books: Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress (Research Press) and Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens, Helping Young People Use the Internet Safety and Responsibly (Jossey Bass). Nancy’s focus is on applying research insight into youth risk and effective research-based risk prevention approaches to these new concerns. To better address the professional development needs of educators in this area, she is developing video presentations and online classes. Her email address is

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