Survey reveals disconnect in online safety education

Nearly all administrators said schools should help students learn basic technology skills that incorporate safety and security, but many teachers say they're not prepared to teach these subjects.

A new report suggests that many schools are not adequately preparing students to be safe in today’s digitally connected age, and it cites basic online safety and ethics as two areas in which students need more education.

The report, “State of K-12 Cyberethics, Cybersafety, and Cybersecurity Curriculum in the United States,” was published by the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and sponsored by Microsoft.

Although policy makers have urged K-12 schools to integrate technology into their curriculum and expose students to devices that will help them in college and the workforce, the survey reveals that administrators, teachers, and IT coordinators have different opinions on how best to ensure that children are adequately prepared for cyber safety and online security the digital age.

Eighty-one percent of school administrators, including principals and superintendents, said they believe their districts are adequately preparing students in online safety, security, and ethics. However, only 51 percent of teachers agree.

Despite some different opinions about how well schools are educating students on cyber safety, school leaders agree that schools should prepare students to be “cyber-capable” in college and the workforce. In fact, 68 percent of principals and superintendents said they feel confident that their schools are preparing students to follow a college-level coursework in cyber security.

Nearly all administrators (97 percent) said that schools should help K-12 students build basic technology skills that incorporate safety and security. Eighty-one percent of administrators said schools should teach cyber safety curriculum throughout all grades, so that students are equipped for careers in the cyber security field.

Many teachers say they’re not prepared to teach these subjects, however.

Just over half of teachers surveyed (55 percent) said they feel prepared to teach their students how to protect personal information online. Fifty-seven percent said they are prepared to address cyber bullying, 58 percent feel prepared to address sexting, and 67 percent said they are confident that they can discuss basic computer security with their students.

Thirty-six percent of teachers say they have received zero hours of district-provided training in cyber security, cyber safety, and cyber ethics training. Forty percent of teachers received between one and three hours of training in their school districts.

Overall, 86 percent of teachers received fewer than 6 hours of training in the last year, up from 2010’s survey, which indicated that 78 percent of teachers reported receiving fewer than 6 hours of cyber safety, cyber security, and cyber ethics training.

“The survey reveals a critical need for new curricula and teacher training that will encourage safe, secure, and responsible behavior among school students,” said Dena Haritos Tsamitis, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Networking Institute, as well as director of education, training, and outreach at the university’s CyLab. “It’s essential to address this need in order to prepare a cyber-savvy workforce for our nation’s future.”

To date, not a single state has passed comprehensive legislation that mandates online safety, security, and ethics be a part of K-12 curriculum. The NCSA is urging states to support legislation that does just that.

“Kids and teens have embraced the digital world with great intensity, spending as many as eight hours a day online by some estimates,” said Michael Kaiser, executive director of the NCSA. “Yet America’s schools have not caught up with the realities of the modern economy. Teachers are not getting adequate training in online safety topics, and schools have yet to adopt a comprehensive approach to online safety, security, and ethics as part of a primary education.”

Though student computer and internet use in school increases, teacher efforts to instruct students in cyber safety and security are not keeping pace.

Thirty-three percent of teachers said they believe their school or district requires a cyber safety curriculum be taught in the classroom setting, 68 percent of administrators said they believe the same thing, and 64 percent of IT specialists agreed.

More than half of teachers (56 percent) said their students use computers at least twice per week in school, and 81 percent said students use computers in school at least once per week. But only 34 percent of teachers have taught about risks associated with social networking over the past year.

Eighteen percent of teachers said they have taught their students about dealing with alarming posts, videos, or other content. Thirty-four percent of teachers have taught their students about how to make decisions about sharing personal information online.

Plagiarism appears to be among the most-taught aspects of cyber ethics—74 percent of teachers said they taught students about this topic.

Over the past 12 months, teachers responded that they have taught the following:

  • Risks tied to social networking sites (34 percent)
  • Using strong passwords (23 percent)
  • How to send an eMail (20 percent)
  • How to identify a secure website (18 percent)
  • Identity theft (17 percent)
  • The role of a more secure internet in U.S. economy (7 percent)
  • The role of a more secure internet in national security (6 percent)
  • Protecting a mobile device (6 percent)
  • Careers in cyber security (4 percent)

Many stakeholders struggle to determine who holds the responsibility for teaching students about online safety, and they wonder if the duty falls to schools, parents, or both.

Teachers said they believe parents should take the most ownership over education children about safe and responsible online behavior. Seventy-nine percent of teachers said parents should take the lead, and 18 percent said teachers and schools should play the largest role in students’ online safety education.

Sixty percent of administrators agreed that parents should be responsible for educating their children about online safety, while 34 percent said teachers and schools should take the lead.

Interestingly, 52 percent of IT coordinators said teachers and schools should have biggest role in educating students about online safety, and 45 percent said parents should assume that role.

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