eSafety sets a framework for A+ online safety education

As we celebrate the Daniel Morcombe Foundation’s Biggest Online Safety Lesson today, it is timely to reflect on the importance of online safety education and the lessons learnt from our recent time in lockdown — particularly around 21st century education.  Lockdown saw schools pivot in a remarkable, and remarkably rapid, manner, changing the classroom model to 100% tech-supported remote learning in a matter of weeks.  

In moving national education online, schools faced significant challenges — including how to transition daily classroom activities while protecting students and the school community from online dangers. Online safety issues were paramount, ranging from how to engage with students, to limits for time online and the best tools to prevent or respond to incidents.

COVID-19 has clarified just how important it is for schools to have defined strategies that they can use to prevent and respond to online harms — especially in the most challenging circumstances. Emerging from these uncertain times, what’s clear is that educators need comprehensive frameworks and guidance to enable them to make informed, and positive, decisions for students and broader school communities. This need is the focus of eSafety’s newest research which offers for the first time a ‘best practice online safety education framework’ for Australian schools.

Best practice framework – Stage one

As Australia’s online safety regulator, we recognise the importance of understanding what works in online safety education.  We also recognised that there was a gap in our knowledge, with no commonly used or comprehensive framework we could point to in setting out best practice. That’s why, in 2019, we engaged Professor Kerryann Walsh at QUT for the first of a two-part process to research and identify ‘what works’ [1]. The first stage of this research — an international scan of the literature — is now the foundation for eSafety’s Online Safety Education Framework, which sets out best practice principles to help educators and school leaders understand what makes up a comprehensive online safety education program.

These valuable research findings have already helped to inform eSafety’s recently released Toolkit for Schools which aims to create safer online environments. The findings are also being used to inform our new Trusted eSafety Provider program — with revamped quality criteria aiming to both lift the bar for online safety education providers and to inform a new Community of Practice.

So, what does the Framework tell us about best practice in online safety education, and what does it look like in practice? It includes:

1. Students’ rights in the digital age

Online safety education should be focused around students’ rights and needs, including the right to actively participate online and be safe while doing so. In practical terms, this means having policies and practices that reflect the reality of students’ online lives — and for them to be consulted in the development of online safety education and policies. Even better, it means young people co-designing programs and resources with educators and specialists.

Student surveys are one great way to understand the specific challenges and opportunities in an individual school — and data can be used to develop an effective whole-school online safety education plan. eSafety will soon release a School Community Survey as part of the Toolkit for Schools that can be used for this purpose. Our Engage resources are another option to involve students in online safety education, starting with a thorough understanding of the peer-group relationships and climate of school groups.

2. Individual risk and protective factors

Online safety education should be framed around the positives of technology, while recognising what makes individual students more likely to experience online harm. We know that young people who are vulnerable offline are often more susceptible to harm online, so we need to help those students access the support and resources they need, when they need it.

In terms of education, this could involve helping students understand the positive role social media can play to support them, while also addressing the increased likelihood of exposure to online abuse and trolling that derail messages of positivity.

3. Effective school-wide approaches based on harm prevention

For online safety education to work, it needs to be a whole-school approach, underpinned by effective harm prevention principles. Teaching should be age appropriate, relevant, and structured so that one lesson builds on the last, with clear goals and learning objectives. Lessons that are stimulating, trustworthy and meaningful will have most cut through — fear tactics and zero tolerance approaches or irregular one-off presentations or classes do not work.
A good starting point for schools is to establish strategies and goals by hosting an online safety forum with the school community. This can identify broad community concerns and lay the foundations of the school’s approach. eSafety’s Engage and Educate resources in the Toolkit for Schools are a good place to start. Professional learning for teachers and webinars for parents and carers are another valuable way to upskill the whole community and ensure a common understanding of online safety.

4. Integrated and specific curriculum

The research showed that effective online safety education needs to address specific risks and behaviours. It also needs to be integrated across all key learning areas. Further, it should aim to incorporate both digital citizenship and social and emotional learning in ways that address online harms and promote help-seeking behaviour.

Online safety education can be integrated into the curriculum in many ways, including teaching respectful relationships and image-based abuse in Health Education and Legal Studies, incorporating password protection into Mathematics or understanding how to decipher ’fake news’ in English studies. ACARA’s online safety curriculum connection resource offers some useful information about how to approach key topics.

5. Continuously improved through review and evaluation

Any effective whole-school online safety education program needs to include regular assessments and reviews of the approaches and practices used. This should be supported by research and evidence-based practices.
Reviews could include a program evaluation for students, seeking feedback on activities to keep content relevant and engaging, and a teacher survey to identify their online safety awareness and capability to help identify professional development needs.

Where to next?

Our time in lockdown has highlighted just how important it is for Australian schools to have clear guidance on effective approaches to online safety education curriculum and delivery.

We are excited to move to the next stage of targeted consultations with online safety education experts and the school sector — to test and refine the Framework further. Feedback from these sessions will help to ensure the Framework provides schools with rigorous advice that can be understood by and implemented in schools. We expect a Stage two release toward the end of 2020, so planning for the new school year can begin on a solid foundation.

[1]Walsh, Wallace, Ayling, & Sondergeld, 2019, Best Practice Framework for Online Safety Education, Queensland University of Technology