Disruptors and criminals always take advantage of world disasters and the COVID-19 outbreak is no exception.
As the education sector has swiftly shifted to work and study online, we’ve reported virus-related phishing scams and the media has highlighted incidents where students have publicly posted offensive material and abused their peers in group chats.
Now that relationships between staff and students, and learners and their peers are almost exclusively online, encouraging decent online behaviour is more important than ever, so the need to ensure online safety – and prevent abuse – is in sharp focus.
So, what policies and procedures can colleges and universities put in place to get it right?
The good news is that most of the risk assessments and support measures that institutions already have in place before the COVID-19 lockdown are still appropriate. These include policies on anti-bullying and harassment, equality and diversity and safeguarding.
But there are a few aspects of online safety that may need review:
Code of conduct and acceptable use policies for students and staff
Documents setting out acceptable use may refer to campus networks or the Jisc-run national research and education network, Janet.
However, now users are logging in from home – and particularly where an institution makes significant use of cloud services – neither of these networks may be involved.
Policies and guidance may need amending to refer specifically to any use of institutional systems or for institutional purposes, such as accessing the virtual learning environment, email, the library’s digital resources or the use of collaboration tools like Teams and Zoom.
Web filtering and monitoring
Colleges and universities can prevent access to illegal, harmful or inappropriate websites with filtering software, but this may not protect staff and students who access the internet from home or mobile networks – especially if using their own devices.
This is particularly concerning for institutions with a cohort under 18, for which web filtering is an Ofsted requirement under safeguarding guidelines.
Fortunately, filtering systems are available as cloud or end-device solutions that can be made available to off-campus users. Guidance could also be issued to staff and students on how to use filtering functions provided by their home internet service provider (ISP).
Student engagement in developing safeguarding policies and practice
Institutions should make sure that discussions can continue using online systems.
If staff or students experience a problem, such as harassment or bullying, or fall victim to a phishing scam, it's important that they are able to report the issues online or via telephone.
It’s worth publicising these reporting channels too. If institutions previously offered anonymous reporting, online systems need to provide for this too.
This advice is based on a 2019 project by the University of Suffolk, with support from the Office for Students, which developed a tool to help higher education institutions self-review their online safeguarding practice (pdf).
Read Andrew's quick guide on how your digital policies can support online safety.