Concern over school internet safety guidelines

30 Jun 2006

Parents will have to give permission for their children to use the internet in schools under draft guidelines for internet safety in the classroom drawn up by the Department of Education and Science. This proposal has been greeted with concern by internet groups.

“I would regard this as a retrograde step,” said Fergal O’Byrne, CEO of the Irish Internet Association. “The internet is an invaluable educational tool if managed properly. Forcing parents to give permission is unwieldy, impractical and not a measured response to what is an educational issue.”

The guidelines, as reported in yesterday’s Irish Independent, include tough penalties, up to expulsion, for pupils who misuse the internet. Pupils will only be allowed use the internet for educational purposes, they will be banned from using their own or other people’s personal details on the web — such as addresses, telephone numbers or pictures — and will be banned from arranging face-to-face meetings with someone they only know through emails or the internet. They will also be denied access to obscene, illegal, hateful or objectionable content.

The fact that parents could object to their child using the internet in school could pose problems in ensuring all pupils are PC literate when they leave school. A stated aim of the Government’s Schools IT 2000 initiative is that “pupils in every school should have opportunities to achieve computer literacy and to equip themselves for participation in the information society”.

“I believe access to the internet should be viewed like a utility, embedded as a right for all citizens,” O’Brien said. “Electricity, water and other utilities that people like Sean Lemass were perspicacious enough to see mattered to Ireland Inc are a basic right. Internet access needs to be viewed like a utility. Putting impediments and barriers to this access, whether in school, at home, in college or the workplace is lacking in foresight.”

“It seems quite extreme to do that,” said Damien Mulley, chairman of IrelandOffline, of the parental consent proviso. He believes the threat of litigation is a factor. “The schools are probably worried about litigation as they’re being litigated against for anything these days. You hear stories of kids not being brought out to play in the sun now because they haven’t got sun block and the schools aren’t allowed to supply sun block to the kids in case they’ve got an allergy to it.”

He believes schools and the department should ensure that parents are made fully aware of the benefits of the internet in their children’s education and are not just exposed to the potential dangers.

“I can understand why some parents would say no: it seems the main strategies coming out from the Government are about the dangers of the internet and there doesn’t seem to be anything about the positive effects of the internet. Anybody who doesn’t understand the technology is going to get the distinct impression the internet is a very dangerous place.”

He commented that if children are supervised on the internet, as they are normally, and content-filtering software is in place, there should be no problem regarding internet misuse. He posited that if some students were not allowed use the internet it would hold other students back. “If some pupils are given permission and some are not, it’s going to affect the education of the whole class,” he added.

Educational technologist Seaghan Moriarty noted that most schools already have acceptable usage policies in place for the internet and that these would normally incorporate parental permission for internet access.

“In schools’ acceptable usage policy they will cover things such as publishing of photographs and they will know not to publish names which can be associated with pictures. They will often have a parent’s permission slip to allow the child use the internet at school or have their work published on the school website and so on,” said Moriarty. “With broadband being rolled out and hopefully finished by next September, all schools will be expected to have that policy in place.”

He thinks the parental consent proviso is a preventive measure. “It’s probably just a cover-all just in case somewhere down the line some parent did object to a child’s picture, work or project appearing online,” he speculated.

However, he pointed out an interesting discrepancy whereby many schools and local newspapers publish photographs of under-age football teams and give their full names, yet there is uproar about publishing just the first name when a picture is on the internet.

Moriarty also said he believed any potential fallout from these issues is a long way off due to the fact that the use of technology in schools is so low because of lack of funding.

Mulley added: “It would be a failure of government policy if parents are adamant they don’t want their kids to go online because of the multitude of dangers they’re hearing about from other government departments.

“If schools and the Department of Education had an education policy for parents as well about the benefits of the internet that would be a good thing. If they were explained exactly what the kids would be doing that would go some way towards encourage internet use in school and even internet use in the home after that.”

By Niall Byrne