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23, September 2019 Learning skills

Web extensions and filters to keep students safe online

Internet security is a concern for all users, but even more so if they are minors: using the Web to do research and enhance the students’ experience is rife with opportunities, but with the opportunities come just as many risks.

Educating students about Internet safety is the first step for secure browsing both at school and at home: even the most protected device is subject to attacks if the user’s own behaviour is inappropriate.

However, emphasizing the importance of cybersecurity is only one of the ways you can make your students’ use of the Internet safer: most browsers have a wide array of extensions designed to do some of your security work for you.

Online safety: the question of data

Some of the most useful browser extensions concern the matter of privacy and data collection, which becomes even more urgent when the people generating said data are not legal adults. We create data whatever we do: that is unavoidable in the age of information.

With the right extensions, however, you can block the trackers that covertly collect your data as you browse, erase the traces of your passage with one click, add a layer of encryption to unsafe sites, and be warned of weaknesses in a website’s security or given an estimate of its reputation.

The downside to some of these helpful additions is that some sites will stop working if the extensions deem them a security risk and you will need to turn them off in order to view them, but that is a necessary evil that the positive aspects more than make up for.

Using safety extensions on school computers may have some interesting side effects: for one, students who discover their effectiveness may want to download them on their personal or family devices as well, thus carrying some of the protection home with them and even extending it to parents and siblings. Secondly, safety extensions will often show information on how many potential problems they have stopped and can therefore be used as educational tools as well as for their intended purpose. It is one thing to inform the class in abstract that any site they view will attempt to collect their data, and another to show them some shocking numbers concerning how many times their activity has been tracked. Using browser extensions can drive the point home more effectively than any lecture that data protection is not a minor concern and you should take extra safety measures even if you feel you have nothing to hide.

 

Keeping an eye on your students

Another way you can provide safety for your students is enforcing limitations to their Internet activity. Some may feel that this is a breach of privacy that borders on spying, but as a teacher, you are responsible for monitoring what the students do and the Internet is no exception. There is software to block sites containing inappropriate material, which is particularly important when you are dealing with children rather than young people on the cusp of adulthood; to manage all student devices from one place and even lock them if you feel they are being a distraction; even to keep an eye on emails and Web searches with concerning content or any other sign that might indicate a threat to the student’s own wellbeing or even an involvement in criminal activity, from piracy to drug abuse and planning violent crimes.

There are negative sides to this as well: as these filters rely largely on identifying concerning keywords, the algorithm may be overzealous and block sites that are actually reputable and useful to schoolwork because of the words they contain—typically, harmless pages discussing science share some words with pornography. The abundance of false positives can also increase teachers’ workload: potentially threatening words can be found in perfectly innocent conversations, but the teacher in charge is duty-bound to check them all out and distinguish real crisis situations from simple misunderstandings.

However, if the result of using Web extensions and filters is an overall increase of Internet security, we can say without fear of exaggerating that the gains outweigh the losses: privacy and safety are worth more than the minor annoyances that using these tools may cause.

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