Guarding against online unknowns

Student reading outline on his laptop

Youth Hong Kong March 2020 – Section Features

Less than a year ago, who would have thought that Hong Kong’s parents, teachers and students would have become veritable virtuoso’s of online learning? With demands spiking across the territory, and with schools closed and students kept at home, everyone is hastily familiarizing themselves with the various e-learning tools that are available. It has proven to be quite the challenge.

In the rush to create the illusion of life as normal, we are likely to stumble upon new issues that we weren’t properly prepared for. So it seems sensible to take stock and remind ourselves of a few things we can do now to ensure we are navigating the educational cyberspace as responsibly as possible.

Logging off and signing out
Google classroom. Zoom. Skype: e-learning requires online platforms and that means being signed in to a multitude of different sites at any one time. This is something many of us are used to as far as Google accounts are concerned, but leaving a litany of accounts open when they aren’t being used is unwise.

This is largely because of the transmission of files through different mechanisms. With personal computers being used in many cases, we can’t be entirely sure malware isn’t being inadvertently circulated. Logging out of applications can also prevent the snooping of active cookie data open in browsers or windows by bad online actors.

We would be wise to take the extra 2 seconds to log out of e-learning accounts before we shut off devices at the end of each session and on all the devices we have been using.

This goes for browsers too. Many people think that having different browsers open means information is restricted to the active browser in use. Actually, they all link to the same ‘family’ of browser, so if you are on less secure sites in another browser this may compromise the security of the browser being used for study. The best approach is to proceed the same as you would when logging out of your personal online bank accounts: close it all down after use.

A class conducted via webcam invites a whole host of problems into the learning equation. Laggy connections and problems with audio-visual synchronicity can foster an incredibly frustrating experience for both teacher and student alike. Not to mention the invasive nature of screen grabs that can lead to less than flattering images of oneself doing the rounds.

While these issues are irritating, they don’t tend to do much damage other than to one’s patience (or ego!). However, it is important to remember that webcams aren’t responsive to actions within the browser, and so do not turn off automatically when a lesson is over. This wouldn’t be such a problem were webcams not notoriously easy to hack.

Controlling the hardware is the only way to keep yourself safe from prying eyes. To solve the security issue, shut down the computer or physically close your laptop lid. If you are using a tablet device, place a piece of tape over the lens. While the next friend you chat with on facetime may be greeted by your barely visible frosty blur, they’ll be quick to point it out.

What’s the magic word?… Passwords and firewalls
For many students and teachers, learning online is more distracting than learning in the classroom. An innocent enough comment can spawn an Alice-in-Wonderland-like departure from the topic you are trying to administer as everyone searches out definitions, examples or clarifications online.

The real concern is that the attention of students will wane and their desire to explore other things will take hold. A simple way to prevent this is to add particular sites to your browsers firewall. Avoid any overkill if you can so that studies themselves aren’t affected, but sensible restrictions can prevent distracting sites from being active on the desktop, helping students to stay focused on the task at hand.

Meanwhile all these new websites, portals and programs require a roster of new passwords and profiles. If you have a young child and are creating logins on their behalf, be sure to use passwords that are different to other accounts you have online. Services like LastPass will autogenerate passwords that satisfy the various security requirements when creating new profiles or accounts, while Google Keep is a great place to store those passwords as a back-up.

Class conduct
Maintaining interest and focus amongst 20 or more youngsters, all of similar ages, in a real classroom, for hour-long stretches at a time, is itself an ambitious task. It doesn’t become any easier online. Teachers in traditional classrooms fulfil the role of mediators or guides as much as they do educators, keeping students on track and easing tensions when they can.

Online, this role is massively diluted. Without the teacher’s real presence, the behaviour of students can be difficult to monitor. While learning may have moved online, the same personality clashes and peer dynamics continue to pervade the learning environment.

It’s important therefore that parents check how students are doing. Though they may not have left the house, they have been involved in interactions with teachers and classmates over the course of the day, not all of which may have been positive. An innocent “how was it online today?” will keep the online experiences feeling more relevant to real life and give your children the chance to discuss any personal worries they might have.

The first term of 2020 has certainly been one for the books! As we grapple with the new online learning reality, let’s all do what we can to make the experience as smooth as possible.

Simon John
Cicero Group Limited

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