Dilemma

4th December 2009 at 00:00
I want to open up access to the school's learning platform so pupils can log in from home, but I'm worried about security. What should I do?

While there are security considerations to take into account, giving pupils access to their learning platform from outside school is exactly the right thing to do. It creates valuable learning opportunities because resources and tools are available at any time, not just during the school day.

For example, an English teacher may ask two groups to develop an argument for or against a particular character in a studied text. The groups have separate discussions to build and agree their side. Then they use the learning platform's online forum to argue their case before reflecting on the debate back in class.

You could also ask pupils to submit homework or assignments via the learning platform, store work and make notes in their own personal learning space, with the right settings. They can even collaborate with peers or take part in live discussions. Pupils can learn at their own pace and teachers can track their progress more effectively.

When opening up access, there are three essential steps to ensure security. As the saying goes: "People never plan to fail, they fail to plan", and planning for secure access is the essential first step. Speak to pupils, staff, parents and governors to assess what is needed and, more importantly, how this can improve learning outcomes. Create an acceptable use policy (AUP) and ensure that everyone understands it. You will also need to ensure that pupil data is only available to appropriate and authorised users to comply with data protection legislation.

The second issue is encryption. While this may sound difficult to manage, it is actually quite simple and will stop eavesdroppers gaining access to the learning platform. All you would have to do is ask the provider of the learning platform - whether that is your own team, a local authority or a commercial provider - to ensure any encryption is turned on. This will be denoted by a padlock symbol appearing in the internet browser when you go to the learning platform.

If you are nervous, it might be worth piloting open access with a small cross-section of the school and closely monitoring the impact. This will allow you to assess if anything needs to be changed and can highlight security risks. Inevitably, there will be changes to make, but this is part of good IT management.

The third and final essential step is to make sure that all pupils know how to keep themselves safe and secure by protecting their user names and passwords.

They should be taught how to keep their log on details private by, for example, not saving them on public computers in libraries and logging out after use.

It is important to make sure they are aware of how to use the learning platform effectively and how to report anything that they find that may indicate a problem or a breach of security. This will help to ensure that they don't do anything that could jeopardise its use such as uploading copyrighted materials. In teaching pupils how to use the technology responsibly and effectively the school also has a duty to monitor their activity and be open about doing so.

Once learners have access from home, get their parents and carers involved too. This will provide the opportunity for them to play a greater role in supporting their child's learning. Research shows that this has significant impact on learner attainment.

Dr Stephen Lucey is executive director for Strategic Technologies at Becta. www.becta.org.uk.

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