Remote Learning

Keeping Students Safe and Focused During Distance Learning

With students learning from home due to COVID-19, teaching digital citizenship and choosing secure online tools are more important now than ever.

Bracken High School has always been focused on online safety and privacy. On the first day of each academic year, we set aside time for teachers to go through a Digital Citizenship Agreement between the school and the student. Keeping our students away from inappropriate sites and cyberbullying is essential. Students need to know that if suspicious activity occurs on their accounts, school management will investigate. Students should also understand that, as the Digital Citizenship Agreement stipulates, they are responsible for what happens on their device.

The agreement highlights the risks of sharing personal information and email passwords, as well as the prohibition on taking and/or posting photos or videos of students or staff members without their permission. Being a Google school also allows us to manage the students’ privacy. All emails are filtered and suspicious activity brought to our attention. Since schools closed for the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve taken some additional steps to make sure our students are learning in a safe and private online environment.

Connecting Teachers and Students Safely

With our schools building closed, all our students and staff members are collaborating in the brackenhighschool domain, which allows teachers to connect with their students via Gmail and Google classroom. Some teachers have also created WhatsApp groups to communicate with students.

We have used Zoom to host a few meetings and haven’t experienced any problems. However, we’ve decided to switch our online meetings to using Google Meet starting this week, as we wanted to keep our communication within the Google Platform, as well as safety concerns over “Zoombombing,” and that the free version of Zoom only allows 40 minutes for a meeting.

Keeping Students Focused on Appropriate Content

While safety is our priority, another major challenge of online learning is keeping students engaged. Videos are a big help. Many people are familiar with YouTube as a source for videos, but the problem is that, while a YouTube link takes you to the specific video, many other videos come up below and next to it. These may be connected somehow to the linked video, but there are no guarantees what will pop up.

Although YouTube has filters, my experience is that very few people actually know about these, and fewer use them. When I have provided optional in-service training to teachers on YouTube, the attendance was poor because teachers assume that they know how to simply insert topics into the search bar. This is frustrating, and ultimately I’ve found that a curated platform like Boclips for Teachers is our most reliable source for safe, secure, and age-appropriate videos.

In the Life Sciences classes I teach, I use short, explanatory videos from Boclips to introduce new ideas in a visual way that captures students’ attention. There are no distractions like advertising on the side, and all the content is educational so the risk of students stumbling on inappropriate videos is reduced. (In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Boclips has made its video library free to teachers and parents until the end of June.) I provide students with links to the video I would like them to watch, and they’re required to enter a code to access the video. This way, I know the students are only watching the video I’ve assigned.

Preparing for More Online Learning in the Fall

After our experiences going online during lockdown, our management decided to move more classes online. Once we are back at school we will hold a brainstorming meeting where we will evaluate the triumphs and challenges of our online learning experience. Concerns around student privacy may require changes to the Digital Citizenship Agreement. The updated Digital Citizenship Agreement will be taken to the parents on our School Governing Body for approval. Students will be made aware of the changes and challenges.

At the beginning of the academic year, we have and will continue to allocate time to training staff on various online issues, including safety and security. Since our government is planning a phased-in return to school, we will use some of this time to do the training. If the staff are able to use the various platforms and apps more proficiently, they will be able to better help their students, as well.

As we eagerly move to more online learning, it’s important to keep things clear and simple. It’s also important that the team driving online learning at the school is enthusiastic, supportive, and up-to-date. Nothing is more inspiring than enthusiasm.

About the Author

Jenny Woolway is the deputy principal at Bracken High School in Alberton, South Africa. She also teaches grade 11 and 12 Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]