Have you heard about this amazing new piece of software that completely protects children from the potential dangers lurking on the Internet? No?
Well maybe because it does not exist. Perhaps I should be advising you that “SurfProtect” (Exa Educations’s award winning filtering software) is that very silver bullet. If I did, I would be disingenuous; the reality is that even the best content filtering software forms only one small part of a wider solution that enables schools to exercise their duty of care, in ensuring that children are safe from harm when going online.
While children are protected for the eight hours or so that they are actually at school, what consideration should be given to the time spent online while at home and how should we control access through their mobile devices? If schools really want to make a positive impact on the choices that children make while online – it’s vitally important to engage parents in this whole process. I’ve seen some examples where parents’ online behaviour actually undermines school policy.
How families can help children stay safe online
In November 2015, I was invited to present a plenary at an ICT conference in London on the theme of engaging parents in technology education, with a focus on safeguarding and online safety. In my presentation I emphasised the differences between parental involvement and parental engagement. I then followed this up by offering to support schools present with parental engagement in their schools. Following the presentation, Nic Hughes a teacher in West London decided to take me up on the offer.
On Thursday this week, I had been training KS3 Computing teachers during the day at a hotel in Hammersmith on behalf of Dragonfly Training. That evening, following a short stroll along the Thames from my hotel, I arrived at Latymer Preparatory School where Nic teaches, to organise a Family Hack Jam event. Nic was attracted to the potential that a Family Hack Jam offered to engage parents and judging by the high numbers of ticket registrations, he wasn’t wrong. The majority of families attending had a direct connection to the school, but there were others with none including two families who had traveled from Canada Water, east of London.
The event started with a gathering of 50 participants crowded into the school assembly hall, where Nic and I greeted them and explained and demonstrated the potential of Text-Based Adventure Stories (also referred to as Interactive Fiction – ‘IF’). I then asked families to work together in teams to develop an interactive story using a software tool called ‘Twine’. Their adventure stories had to include important lessons to be learned about the wonders and pitfalls of using the Internet.
Developing adventure stories with Twine
After a brief activity in which everyone created the basic structure for an internet safety themed story, the teams moved to different classrooms to create and develop their adventure stories.
Twine can be installed on a conventional laptop or desktop PC but since it can also be used within a browser, this means that it’s available for use on mobile devices too. I recommend use of the desktop version where possible as extra care is required when using the browser based version. When completed, a Twine story creates a file that can be viewed in a browser. It’s possible to integrate media within the story as well as programmatic elements; some parents with an interest in technology experimented with this at the event.
Although I’ve organised nearly 20 Hack Jams in the last couple of years, until this point I had never held one on a mid-week evening. This was largely due to my availability rather than preference. I tend to find that Friday nights are ideal since there isn’t quite the same compulsion to rise early the next morning as there is with a Thursday evening event for example. As such, we timed the event to start earlier (5.30pm) and finish earlier (8.30pm) than we normally do.
This earlier finish suited the predominantly younger audience, aged 6 – 10 years old but made it more difficult for working parents to arrive on time and there was also the complication of facilitating evening meals. At some events we’ve arranged pizzas to be delivered part way through the event, this solves one of those problems but can add other complications.
Throughout the evening, each family team created their own text-based adventure which centred around safe use of the internet with consequences for making the wrong choices. Before the end of the evening there was an opportunity for families to go and try other families’ stories and to provide feedback to each other. Some stories were clearly very entertaining as well as educational, judging by the amount of hilarity and laughter. I’d encourage you to look at the photo album linked below.
The impacts of coding as a family
Some parents also used this as an opportunity to discuss their anxieties and approaches to managing screen time with each other and teachers, encouraging the right kinds of online behaviours and traded tips and strategies with each other. In addition, some parents asked about additional opportunities to support their children’s interests in digital making. As well as suggesting how this could be encouraged at home, we suggested Code Clubs, Raspberry Jams and Coder Dojos in the London area.
Because of the rushed way in which we ended the evening and some unfortunate lack of foresight on my part, I didn’t provide a means to easily collect all the stories created together. I’m planning to contact the families who attended to see if they can send me their creations so I may share them here for others to appreciate.
I believe that the act of creating one of these stories is likely to be more impactful than following a story. There is a lot of potential in asking children and their parents to work together creatively to model responses to given situations that may occur online. It allows for much more open dialogue and discussion than simply opposing rules and expectations on children about their behaviour online and hoping that they will follow them.
The feedback from children and parents attending was very positive and I hope that this will lead to regular events like this at the school.