Monday, May 21, 2007

Managing the Risks of the Web in the Classroom

Julie Amero is a substitute teacher from Connecticut who was arrested in January for the crime of child endangerment. Her crime? Exposing her students to pornographic pop-up ads, because the computer that she was required to use for her lesson was infected by a "mouse trap" (where "the browser is no longer under the control of the user and porn images will simply keep popping up until the computer is turned off").

At trial, Amero was found guilty of four felonies, and faces as much as 40 years in prison. Her sentencing has been postponed four times -- a fact which ed-bloggers are taking as a hopeful sign. But unless Julie Amero is pardoned, even if she receives no jail time, she will never again be able to teach, and owes tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

For a detailed but readable summary of the Julia Amero tragedy, I recommend this paper from the Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet. There's also more on the ramifications of Amero's story at Learning Now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education, part of the generally excellent teacher's resource section of

Due to the excellent work of our district IT staff, the likelihood that something like this might happen to us is pretty darn close to zero. Our computers' virus protection software and constantly updated network firewall keep most pop-ups and other inappropriate materials from coming in.

But if we ever needed a reminder that eternal vigilance and firm strategies for worst-case scenarios are necessary, this seems like a good one...

  • If you ever see a website coming up in school that you believe to be inappropriate in any way, let Mr. F or our school technician know, and we'll send in the request to have that website added to the district list of blocked sites.

  • For this and many other (and pedagogically beneficial) reasons, if you're planning to send students to a website as part of a lab or classroom activity, always check the website out beforehand, to make sure it hasn't changed since you last saw it.

  • Planning on letting your students find their own resources online? School computers are set up to search Google with "safe search" on , but sometimes content can slip through -- especially on Google Images. IF you choose to let students search the whole web (rather than restricting their web search to a list of pre-approved sites), stationing yourself where you can see most or all students screens helps you ensure that they are on task, and lets you know immediately when something inappropriate comes up.

  • One of the reasons that Amero's case was so interesting is that she had not been taught how to turn off the projector she was asked to use, so she was unable to turn off the offending images quickly when they popped up. If you need a quick lesson on how to turn off a monitor or projector safely and immediately, please ask Mr. F or our school technician for a 2 minute lesson...

  • Safe computing means treating all unknown computers, flash drives, and disks as a potential risk. In the case of disks and flash drives, dragging the content to the network before using it will generally "take care of" any potential problems or malware.

    If a student MUST bring in her laptop or use his flash drive as a way to present or transport work for a class, make sure that the materials are what the student claims they are before letting them show up on a screen in front of those students. And don't let students go "live" on the web on school computers which still have student flash drives or CDs attached to them.

Interested in having your students learn more about how to stay safe online? Worried about staying safe online yourself? Have a concern about how best to use technology in YOUR classroom? Stop by the lab, or email Mr. F to arrange an instructional session or planning period!