There is often an assumption in the online safety world that teachers and school staff understand all the terms we use and the difference between them. This can be especially true when talking about technical solutions.
This lack of understanding can mean that children can be left with inadequate safeguarding measures to support them. Of additional concern is that in a bid to meet new requirements, schools can end up purchasing expensive software that doesn’t necessarily provide them with the solutions they need.
In 2016 the Government updated Keeping Children Safe in Education to state that all schools need to have an “appropriate” level of monitoring and filtering in place. But what does this mean in practice?
Filtering and Monitoring
Monitoring and filtering are often talked about together as a package, but they do two very different, but complementary things.
Filtering stops packets of data before they even reach the network, blocking predetermined words, phrases and URLs.
Some filtering providers may notify you if users on your network try to access filtered sites, which can be helpful, but you may get that information weeks later, and there is often little context included in these notifications.
Rather than blocking data, monitoring solutions sit on top of the whole network (in a school for example) and looks out for pre-set words and phrases. Unlike filtering, monitoring solutions look at the whole network, so whether someone is using Google or working on a word document, it will monitor what is going on and report back if anything unusual appears.
If you're still confused, hopefully the illustration below might help:
Most Monitoring software is cloud based, for the purposes of this article we'll call that the “Parent”. But for it to work effectively every machine or device on the network will also need to have the software loaded onto it, we'll call that the “Kid”.
The Parent monitors all the devices through the Kid, with the Kid feeding information back up to the Parent. Loaded into the Parent are the libraries of key words and phrases to look out for. These are broken down into categories such as: grooming, radicalisation or profanities. If one of these words or phrases is spotted on a device (a violation), the Kid will document (capture) this, usually with a screen-shot, and feed this back to the Parent along with the user name and machine reference.
The Parent part of the software has an online consul that the school/designated staff member logs into. This is where the monitoring begins. Because no matter how amazing the technology, nothing can understand context quite like a person.
If a child has been searching terms relating to mental health or suicide, the technology may well classify this as a serious violation, but a teacher would know that they may have been researching for a project about wellbeing.
It’s not uncommon in schools that one individual staff member is responsible for reviewing the data that comes in, but in some settings this in itself can become a full-time job. It’s worth considering how much time that person is spending reviewing the data and how cost effective a solution that really is.
A common problem for schools and other establishments is the sheer volume of data these types of software generate. Most software will very cleverly pick words out even if they have been disguised within other words. This is amazing, but it can also be a little irritating.
For example, “Pearsons” is the name of a learning platform used in colleges and 6th forms, however within it is the word “ARSON”, which is understandably a word of interest. If one class of 30 pupils was using this platform for one 60 minute lesson, the average monitoring software might capture the same violation once or twice every minute. At the end of the lesson you could potentially have 3,600 irrelevant captures to sort through. There are clearly many examples of this type of issue.
With time, the software will improve, (maybe many years down the line) but for now the reality is that once the technology has done its job, a human needs to check it.
With this amount of data, it's very possible that schools could be spending thousands of pounds on the software but not actually utilising it to get the full benefit. To help tackle this problem, some solutions will offer a managed or partially-managed service.
This means that organisations will be offering to not only install the software, but also to monitor the captures for you as well. However, in exchange a lot of these organisations will then hold all of the rights to the data, leaving the school unable to access it.
This essentially reduces the role of monitoring to a trigger for incident response, when it has the potential to be so much more.
Think of the completely managed service as a chauffeur. The car sits in your drive and the chauffer can take you where you want, but you cannot drive the car. You do not own it and if you want to go somewhere you have to go the way the chauffeur wants.
The chauffeur may not even know the place you want to go, so won’t take you. If you really want to go there, you will have to pay for another service, like a taxi. So while it can seem convenient, it can be very expensive and doesn’t necessarily allow you the freedom you might expect for the price.
Partially Managed / Assisted services
A partially managed service involves having a third party that can look at your data within specific parameters. It could notify a school of any serious captures, so that even if no staff were able to look at the consul one day, the school would still be covered by a monitoring service, but with the freedom to use and learn from the data.
The partially managed service is more like a hired driver. You own the car, it is in your drive and you can drive it whenever and wherever you like. You can decide if you don’t want to drive it one day and want the driver to take you. If you want to go somewhere he doesn’t know, you can work it out together to find the best route.
If you think this sounds like the right type of service for you, SWGfL can provide Assisted Monitoring for your setting. Find out more here.
What Ofsted Want
Ofsted don’t just want you to tick a box and say “we have monitoring”. They want schools to be able to demonstrate that they understand monitoring and can explain its impact.
An Ofsted inspector recently gave me a great example of a primary school that was utilising monitoring effectively. The school is based in an area with a lot of different nationalities and languages, and has a student population reflecting that.
Staff reviewing their monitoring data noticed that on Monday mornings there was a very high number of captures in foreign languages. With a bit of human consideration it’s easy to understand why. After being at home with their family all weekend speaking another language, when some pupils come into school on Monday mornings it was taking them a little longer to get back into the swing of communicating in English.
In response to this the school adjusted their time table so that every Monday morning now starts with an English lesson, helping the students integrate back into school quicker, improving their confidence and overall communication.
If the school had chosen a completely managed service, they would have lost out on this intricate insight that has led to the improvement to their school community.
What’s right for you?
Before you make that important and potentially expensive decision, as to what monitoring system is right for you there are a few things to consider:
- What’s your budget?
- How many users need monitoring in your setting?
- How often are you dealing with safeguarding incidents?
- Are there cultural sensitivities that need to be taken into account
- How much resource can you allocate to it?
- Do you want to be able to access your data?
Once you've thought about these, you'll be better placed to make an informed choice.
Effective monitoring doesn’t necessarily mean spending thousands of pounds on software and technology. For smaller settings, it can simply mean that a member of staff physically keeps an eye on what students are doing while they’re connected to the network. For larger settings, where this isn’t feasible a technical solution may be the answer. What works for one school may not work for another.
The most important aspect of monitoring is working out what your setting needs and making sure you choose one that works well for you.
To help schools manage this issue we have recently launched out own Assisted Monitoring Service: