Online Safety: An essential 21st century skill

It starts with us. As educators, as parents, as 21st century travelers on the information super-highway. Have you ever taken the time to assess your online safety? Many people don’t. Most people don’t think about whether their PC might be infected with spyware or if they’ve just allowed someone access to their personal information as they surf the web. Do we always take the time to determine if a web site is credible enough to willingly give them our information? Do we take the time to teach our students how to determine if a web site is credible before they cite it as a source for a school project?

These are things that everyone needs to be more aware of as we use the internet. This applies to education and to the everyday consumer. Look at how the web is driving nearly everything we do on a daily basis. Who doesn’t use email every day? Who doesn’t use the web to acquire new information? Or what about placing an order? How about for professional collaboration? As we use and rely on the internet more and more, it’s essential we have strong web safety and make it more and more a routine part of our online behavior. I believe it’s a major component of being a good digital citizen.

Let’s first review some basics of keeping your PC secure and then I want to discuss safety issues with two of the most popular social networking tools: Twitter and Facebook. Lastly I want to finish by discussing the importance of internet safety for students.

Basic PC safety tips to keep you running as trouble free as possible

1. Learn basics of PC maintenance; installing/uninstalling software, setting up regular checks for system updates (Mac or PC), backing up critical files on a regular basis on a portable hard drive or burn to CD/DVD.
2. Invest the money in good virus protection software. There are numerous brands that usually involve a yearly subscription, however there are also free options available. If you go with a free option, please do your research to see if the piece of software is credible. Read reviews, see how long it’s been around, and make sure it is truly free.
3. Once you have the virus protection software up and running, make sure you know how to use it! Look for user guides, tutorial videos, and support discussions (from the company) that can help you to best use the software to keep your computer and your information safe on the web. Also make sure you know how to turn on “automatic updates” to have the software regularly connect to the web and download the newest virus definitions (so the software always knows the most recent threats to keep your computer protected from).
4. Be careful where you get online. Laptops and wi-fi hotspots are definitely the norm. Just because a public place offers free wi-fi doesn’t mean the establishment providing it knows how to keep it secure for their customers. Before you connect at your local coffee shop or airport, ask if there are safeguards in place to protect your computer and your personal information. If they don’t or if they just aren’t sure, don’t connect your laptop to their network! The same goes for hotels.

Here are some common causes of viruses:

  • Surfing on an unknown website that says you need to download a plug-in in order for it to work properly
  • Clicking a link in an email that appears to be from a friend claiming to be a funny video or an e-card. This can commonly happen through Facebook and Twitter as well.
  • Downloading a seemingly harmless file from an unknown website claiming to offer free music, movies, etc.

How do I know if I have a virus on my PC? What should I do first?

  • Very slow computer performance
  • Unusual behaviors such as programs crashing unexpectedly or the computer shutting down altogether
  • Frequent error messages when performing simple tasks


  • Run a virus scan on your computer to scan for infected files, if any are found have the virus protection software remove them
  • If the problem is still not fixed, a third party spyware removal tool might be needed
  • In an extreme situation, a technician may be required which usually has cost involved

Safety Tips for Twitter & Facebook

Twitter and Facebook are two of the most popular social networking sites around today. They have changed the way we network and the way we communicate. I use Twitter as my PLN, or Professional Learning Network. My previous posting from September 24th titled “There’s Power in the PLN” gives more detailed information on how a PLN is an amazing tool.

There is one main security feature in Twitter and that is allowing your updates to be protected. Which means you have to approve anyone that wants to follow you before they are allowed to read your Twitter updates. I don’t like turning this feature on because I don’t want to have to “approve” each person that wants to follow me. I feel like my PLN is to a point now where pretty much the only people who are going to follow me are those professionals in the field of Educational Technology such as  myself. Now since I don’t have update protection enabled, this means I have to be more diligent about knowing when someone new is following me and then checking their profile to see if I’d like to follow them back if I’m not already.

I receive an email notification every time someone new is following me. If it’s a person I recognize because I know them or am already following that person, then I don’t need to do anything further. However, if I don’t recognize the person then I immediately go to Twitter, look at my list of followers (the most recent are at the top), and check out their profile. If you have no profile or if based on your profile I can’t figure out why you decided to follow me other than spam me about making money or posting inappropriate content, then I’m very likely going to block you. Twitter has also recently started allowing its users to report other users specifically as a spammer which is nice. Other things to look at when determining whether or not to follow or let them follow you is the number of their followers and the number of tweets they have posted. It can tell you a lot about a person by checking their profile (whether they share very much or not).

If you are familiar with Facebook then you know it’s a bit more complicated and requires a significantly larger time commitment to keep it secure.

Just a couple of weeks ago my school district hosted an Internet Safety Night at one of our middle schools. Parents were able to sign up to hear speakers and receive information on internet safety. I presented a session called Facebook II. It was for those already familiar with the Facebook environment and wanted to learn more specifically about security settings. It was great to see so many parents wanting to learn more about Facebook! They had lots of questions about how their student can keep safe using Facebook.

Here are the main points I covered during the session that I believed were the key issues to remaining safe on Facebook (all of which are under the Settings menu at the top of the screen):

  • General account settings
    • Email address
    • Changing password
    • Notifications (actions taken on Facebook that involve you and how you are notified of them)
    • Deactivating your account
  • Privacy Settings
    • Control who can see information on your profile page (birthdate, interests, email, etc.)
    • Who can search for you, what they can see, and how they can contact you
    • Determine what recent activity (new friends, comments, tags, etc.) is visible on your profile
    • Control what applications within Facebook you allow to access your account information (Farm Town, Mafia Wars, etc.)
    • You can also block a certain Facebook user or block a specific email address if you don’t want them to be able to contact you in any way via Facebook or even send you a friend request.

I had lots of questions from many concerned parents as I made my Facebook presentation. Parents are worried about what personal information their student(s) are making available and to whom. Parents were also startled to find out that a Facebook friend can post a picture of you without you knowing it. However, if you know how to protect yourself online, you can prevent others from doing this.

Compared to the total number of parents in the school district I work for, there wasn’t nearly enough parents in attendance for this internet safety night event. We had presentations on Facebook, Cyberbulling, and from local law enforcement officials. We received excellent feedback from the parents that attended. In my Facebook session I had numerous parents stay afterward to continue to ask questions! It was exciting to see so many adults eager to learn.

I also posted the following to Twitter on October 12th to get thoughts from my PLN:

“What do you think are the most common assumptions teachers and students make about internet safety that might later come back to haunt them?”

Thanks go to @nnorris, @EdTechSandyK, @fisher1000, @stacybodin, @edueyeview, @lasic, and @kfasimpaur for their contributions to this post. Here are some of their thoughts:

“That they can do anything online that is anonymous. Privacy doesn’t exist the way they think it does anymore.”

“I ticked off some teachers last year when I found out stuff about them from FB even though I wasn’t their “friend”.”

“That others will be forgiving later, as it’s a learning curve for us all. Or the needle in a haystack, hard to find = invisible.”

“That if they post something on a social network page, only their friends will see it. Even privacy settings aren’t foolproof.”

As teachers of 21st century students, we want them to embrace all of the wonderful tools that the web has to offer. We don’t want them to see only one means to an end to demonstrate mastery. Nor should we allow that as a true 21st century educator.

We must bring this awareness to the classroom. And it’s not just making sure you are staying away from inappropriate content. There is a big umbrella called Digital Ethics that has many topics underneath it. Internet safety is just one of those topics.

If your district has never hosted an internet safety night, I strongly encourage you to gather key members of your community and begin necessary collaboration to make it happen.

We have to remain lifelong learners and gain the knowledge to stay safe online. Then this crucial knowledge must be transferred to our students.

9 thoughts on “Online Safety: An essential 21st century skill”

  1. This is a great post, very informative and a great conversation starter. Your approach to “Online Safety” is very technical. Would love to hear your comments on what a school’s responsibility is to teach students about cyberbullying, sexting, online predators, legality of peer-to-peer networking, etc. Are you familiar with the new requirements for e-Rate schools regarding online safety education?

    1. Thank you for the feedback Lisa. As educators we have a huge responsibility to instill good “digital citizenship” which includes safe online behavior. At the internet safety night we recently hosted for parents, there were sessions on Facebook, Cyberbullying, and sexting. It would have been great had teachers been required to attend this. One of our local police officers dealing specifically with cybercrimes shared many startling accounts of how online predators select their victims. The issue of digital ethics comes into play even more as more and more teachers use blogs, wikis, and discussion boards to facilitate learning outside of the 4 walls of their classroom.

      My technical thoughts about keeping the computer safe were more geared towards parents/consumers wanting to know how to best keep their home computer safe while surfing the web. I was trying to not get too technical.

      The parent should be the number one teacher. Should we as teachers extend this into our classrooms? Absolutely. I think districts should adopt specific internet safety curriculum to be infused across all disciplines.

  2. You mention in your posting that, “If you have no profile or if based on your profile I can’t figure out why you decided to follow me other than spam me about making money or posting inappropriate content, then I’m very likely going to block you.”

    I’m unclear as to why you feel that you need to block people to avoid “spam” or “inappropriate postings”. My understanding of how twitter works is that the only postings that I will see are those from people that I follow. Simply following me doesn’t make me vulnerable to others’ postings unless I choose to follow them.

    Is this not correct?

    I have been using Twitter for over a year now and my school system is beginning to look at the efficacy of using Twitter in the school setting. I’m finding our efforts to harness this tool hampered, though, by misconceptions about the risks involved in having people ‘following’ you.

    I’m only speaking of teachers using the tool professionally here. Students using twitter should protect their tweets, in my opinion, and be educated about the hazards.

    1. Bill,

      Let me give you an example. Let’s say I am posting inappropriate content on Twitter and I decide to start following you. My posts consist of foul language and I have a very inappropriate profile picture (I don’t need to go into detail here). Yes I am following you so I can see your updates but you are right you do not have to follow me.

      So you don’t block me or report me for spam and you just allow me to continue following you but you don’t follow me back. Some time passes and one day a parent or an administrator looks at your Twitter page and then clicks on your list of followers to see who is following you. If it were me I wouldn’t want for someone else to see that I allow someone like that to even follow me regardless if I follow them or never have any kind of dialogue with them.

      That’s why I keep close tabs on my list of followers. I receive an email every time I have a new follower. As soon as I can I go to my list of followers and check out the new ones. Quite often I can tell from their most recent post and certainly from their profile picture that it’s someone I don’t want to have any kind of access to my information.

      Teachers need to be educated about the hazards just as much as students do. If it’s something they are going to be using professionally (especially during school time) then they need to be willing to protect themselves as much as they can.

      This is something I feel very strongly about and I wanted to provide teachers information that would help keep themselves and their students safe online. I apologize if I was unclear. I appreciate your comment.

      1. I agree with watching who is following you and block inappropriate users. Just yesterday I had a new follower that liked to use the “F” word in describing his/her likes and dislikes. I highly doubt this user really cares anything about Instructional Technology.

        With that being said, to leave this person on my followers would be ridiculous. Let’s face it, many parents are new users to using technology. They don’t understand that I didn’t ask that person to follow me. Many parents don’t understand that process. And, I don’t need any complications from that misunderstanding. It only takes one vocal parent to see that, understand it or not, report it and …. Twitter will then be blocked for the entire district.

        Being proactive and knowing who is following you is just good Netiquette practice.

  3. I agree with the ideas here…. and a colleague and I had the same conversation yesterday. I understand the concerns, I’m just a little iffy on the practicality of it.

    Certainly I know that students and parents at some point will click on my followers and, yes, I don’t really want them to be presented with inappropriate content whether they know I have control over it or not.

    I think, though, that we are talking about taking on the task of monitoring our followers. Someone whose tweets are good and appropriate today might let loose a string of profanities next week or next month. Should I check them daily? weekly?

    I think our focus should be on Julie’s statement, “They don’t understand that I didn’t ask that person to follow me. Many parents don’t understand that process”. It seems to me that educating the students and the parents is the better way to go than to try to monitor my followers.

    I enjoy this discussion… I think it’s valuable and helps me think things through. Despite my words, it really does bother me about certain people following me, I’m just trying to come to terms with what to do about it! 🙂

    It’s not as simple as just looking at their timeline to assess whether they are acceptable or not. And, once you have, say, 100, 500, or 1000 followers, the task is even more daunting!

    1. Great response Bill. I don’t disagree with you that educating parents and students is a major factor. It reminds me of the saying “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

      Since I have established my identity on Twitter as purely professional, I greatly rely on everyone I follow and who follows me to keep the same decorum. You’re that anyone at any given time could start a rant of profanity. I know that if I did that I would expect my number of followers to dramatically decrease due my lack of tact and professionalism.

      We could turn on update protection and have to approve every person that wants to follow us before they actually are able to. I’m sure that would decrease the number of inappropriate followers. To me that’s more of a daunting task. I have gained almost 100 new followers in just the last week and I don’t really want to have to approve every single one because I know the majority should be professionals in the Ed. Tech world. I also feel like I have a pretty keen memory of who I’m following. So when one of the people I follow starts following me I get the email that tells me so and I delete it and think “Cool I’m glad they find my tweets as valuable as I find theirs.”

      But if it’s a name I don’t recognize that I follow or someone that I’ve Retweeted recently, then that sends off enough of a red flag to check their bio and profile.

      It seems like some people just let whoever follow them to get their number of followers higher than everyone else. I guess I’m just pretty strict about maintaining the “P” in PLN — Professional.

  4. I agree …. Great conversation.

    Luckily my followers list is short and sweet. Someday I may give up on the task of checking. I do a quick spot check every once in a while … not very often. I did a check this week because I requested that my UMKC students (one class of future teachers) explore and discover Twitter as a PLN. I wanted to remove X-rated followers.

    However, when we discuss Twitter in class, I know this topic will come up which will lead to an interesting conversation. It’s a “teachable” moment to make users aware of and decide how much monitoring you plan to do. The benefits totally outweigh a those followers.

  5. Thank you for providing this excellent information. I feel that it is incumbent upon teachers to educate our students on proper usage of the internet. Unfortunately with all the wonderful things online there are inherent dangers that they have to be shown. We also have to educate their parents and show them the many advantages of social media tools as well as provide them with tips on cyber safety with their children at home.

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