Let us ensure protection for online learners

While on the internet, learners are susceptible to abuse on various social networking sites.

Just like it caught the entire world unaware, the COVID-19 outbreak spared no schools.

As a result, many scholars around the world ended up being sent back home on short notice.

In Uganda, schools closed in March 2020 and until now, the Ministry of Education and Sports together with school heads are still scrambling for new solutions to ensure continued learning of children.

Towards this end, the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization recently donated equipment meant to produce learning content that will be broadcast via the internet across the country.

Teachers, especially in private and international schools, have as well positively embraced internet use in engaging their students.

Study material and assignments are sent to learners via email, classes are conducted via zoom and skype, and announcements are made via WhatsApp groups contrary to the routine morning school assemblies that used to be the major module for making such communications.

Online learning offers contactless communication, a perfect solution to combat the spread of the coronavirus which is responsible for the current world disruption.

This medium of learning is extremely suitable in the long run especially for disabled children such as the deaf and the physically handicapped.

It also helps us integrate the internet into every fiber of the country’s system since the young generation is being raised on the internet.

As the old adage goes, where it is good, there is bad and so is the story of online education. E-learning poses a few threats to learners, despite its many advantages.

We must therefore be well conversant about these challenges as a country, and accordingly, be ready to either live with or avert them.

While on the internet, learners are susceptible to abuse on various social networking sites.

This abuse mostly takes the form of bullying, sexual abuse, exposure to pornographic content, among others.

In extreme scenarios, learners end up getting economically tortured when they fall victims to addiction or gambling via the internet if at all they are not lured into dubious get-rich-quick online schemes.

Whereas it is good to be exposed, most learners are gullible. They are often naïve to be able to discern between the good and the harmful.

Many of them fall in the age brackets of those, whose brains retain and imitate quite a lot of content, some of which is rather unpleasant.

Whereas physical presence in class kept them around their age-mates, the internet has greatly widened their age gaps and yet brought them close to each other.

This explains why a six-year-old can be seen wearing makeup because she follows an acclaimed older musician who is heavily dressed in makeup before hitting the stage, or probably before taking a selfie.

There are more dangers than those listed above, and it is very critical, especially before getting to a position of no turning back, to focus on how to effectively, and timely address them.

There is a need to educate learners about the key tips of navigating the internet. As more active digital citizens, learners need to know their rights and responsibilities to be empowered to look out for themselves.

“Avoid Gifts from Strangers”, “Avoid Dark Corners” and “Stay in School” campaigns need to be revised to inform a new campaign for online safety.

Internet service providers and mobile operators have a huge arm in this fight too.

Just like they have championed the spread of awareness about COVID -19, they can do the same for online education safety and surveillance.

The government should regulate public internet cafes. A requirement to have child-specific computers in internet cafes should be put in place to avoid/limit access to adult content.

Better still, the government can expand public libraries just like the one at KCCA headquarters which may offer better protected public internet than private profit-minded ones.

Even as such, learner-protective measures should be taken up. Chances are, there will still probably be casualties in this child online-safety-war.

The government hence has the onus of being prepared to support the culprits. Free, accessible, and professional counseling for internet user-related victims needs to be put in place.

Parents and guardians should also be educated about how to read signals of online abuse among their children.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, parents were at peace knowing that their children were safe inside the school fences.

However, with online learning, new gates through which their children can be harmed, have been opened hence the need to erect stronger cyber walls to protect the children as they pursue learning via the internet.

This will however be effectively achieved through the collective efforts of every stakeholder; the parliament, law enforcement agencies, teachers, parents, concerned citizens, and the children themselves.

By Stella Namatovu

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