EXPERT OPINION: How safe is Digital Technologies for Learning for youngsters?

Dr. George Ngwacho Areba, PhD

For Kenya’s already fragile education sector, the coronavirus pandemic has spawned extraordinary challenges for the government, learners, and parents.

These challenges have already laid bare some policy gaps in the education system especially on the use of technology to aid dissemination of knowledge and skills (Areba, 2020).

The pandemic challenges have prompted haste innovative remedies such as virtual learning and teaching. As the state begins to grapple with these challenges, a key question arises: How safe are our Learners as they utilize Digital Technologies for Learning in the Wake of COVID-19 Pandemic? 

In March 16, 2020, the Government of Kenya announced the cessation of all schools, colleges, and universities to prevent any further spread of Covid-19 following the identification of the country’s first positive cases.

The shutdown affected approximately 18 million learners in pre-primary, primary and secondary, including 150,000 refugees (State Department of Early Learning and Basic Education, Kenya, 2020, henceforth, SDELBEK, 2020).

In May 2020, the SDELBEK issued the Kenya Basic Education Corona Virus Disease-19 Response Strategy to provide guidance for continuity of learning during school closures and the transition back to school after the pandemic has subsided (SDELBEK, 2020).

The plan aims to facilitate the production of virtual teaching and learning resources, and to further develop existing open/distance learning programs among other interventions to remedy the COVID-19 challenges in education.

KICD has been leading the learning continuity efforts with radio, TV and digital interventions for students and teachers. They are partnering with several private EdTech providers like Ubongo to provide additional content where gaps exist (SDELBEK, 2020).

However, the question on safety of our Learners as they utilize Digital Technologies for Learning in the Wake of COVID-19 Pandemic remain unexploited amidst confusion about whether learning has been inclusive through these efforts.

According to UWEZO Kenya (2020), two out of ten parents were not informed that children were supposed to continue learning virtually, or by other means, while at home. It is widely accepted that there is no policy on schools and teachers’ preparation.

Teachers are not yet equipped with the skills needed and many more other challenges.

Digital technologies

Digital technologies are all too often seen as bringing nothing but positive benefits. This is a dangerous myth, and for any benefits to be achieved by the use of digital technologies in education it is essential for governments to put in place measures to mitigate the harms that they can be caused through their use.

Such harms are both intentional and unintentional. Moreover, what is seen in one culture as a benefit may be seen in another as harmful. There is thus rather little international agreement on what should or should not be permitted on the Internet, on how this should be managed or policed, and who should be responsible for this.

However, the one area that most jurisdictions and governments can agree on is that children should not be harmed through their use of digital technologies in general, and the internet in particular. This is therefore one area where positive international collaboration can be encouraged and built upon.

Children and young people are disproportionately affected by the threats of the digital world. Potential harms, including hate speech, online pornography, sexual abuse and harassment, bullying, and other forms of unwanted behavior are far greater than is usually imagined.

In 2019, for example, the UK-based internet Watch Foundation, registered an increase of 28% over the previous year in the number of Reports it confirmed as containing images and videos of child sexual abuse.

Almost a third of all webpages occasioned by their analysts contained self-generated images, and three-quarters of these showed a girl aged 11–13; 89% of hosting sites were in Europe (including Russia and Turkey).

Yet, according to INHOPE (leading the fight against child sexual abuse material) only 42 countries currently have a hotline within their network for reporting child sexual abuse material (CSAM); African and Asian countries are noticeable by their absence from this network.

Additional risks include those associated with children’s lack of privacy, disinformation, unwarranted data collection and algorithmic analysis of their digital behaviors.

There is limited guidance on how children’s data should be handled and protected against any unauthorized or unethical future use.

Governments should aim to establish and follow a localized, responsive and future-proof child-centered ethical code of practice and companies need to co-operate with them to protect children’s privacy and safety.

Access to digital technologies within education systems is one of the main ways through which children both access and also make themselves vulnerable to those seeking to exploit and abuse them through digital technologies.

Governments must therefore ensure that they do everything that they can to limit such opportunities, train young people in the safe use of digital technologies, and prosecute those who seek to harm them through its use.

Fortunately, there is now an increasing amount of wise advice for governments in how to address these issues. UNICEF’s seminal report in 2017 thus highlights that there are three main forms of risk (content, contact and conduct) and that these intersect with three main types of harm (aggression and violence, sexual abuse, and commercial exploitation).

They also note that the most vulnerable children tend to be those who are already marginalized, girls, those from poorer households, those living in communities with a limited understanding of different forms of sexual abuse and child exploitation, those who have disabilities, those out of school and those with mental health problems.

Furthermore, the Broadband Commission in 2019 reached consensus amongst its private sector and government partners on five key elements of a universal declaration to affirm their commitment to protect children as they access the internet.

To achieve this goal, and to highlight their responsibility in educating all children for the digital future ahead of them, they asserted that they should: 

-Proactively utilize available and develop new innovative technologies to block child sexual abuse material and prevent networks and services, as well as the internal IT environment from being used by offenders to commit violations against children. 

-Design age-appropriate digital services that best meet the needs of children while equipping them to protect themselves online. 

-Work collectively, across policy, regulatory, the private sector, law enforcement, and national security circles to minimize the risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation of children online. 

-Protect children’s privacy, security and safety. 

-Challenge existing policies, approaches, mindsets, technology tools, and any medium that knowingly or unknowingly hinder the cause of protecting children, building upon internationally recognized legal recommendations.’

Conclusively the following seven steps are identified for the government to consider ensuring that leaners can use digital technologies safely to enhance their learning:

1.   The highest priority of government must be to ensure that all children are provided with appropriate and ongoing training in the safe and acceptable use of digital technologies before they are introduced to its use in education and learning.

2.   Government must enact appropriate legislation to prevent the use of digital technologies for the exploitation of children, and ensure that the police service and other agencies identify perpetrators and bring them to justice.

3.   Government should ensure that they have mechanisms in place to facilitate international collaboration in child online safety, both to ensure that good practices are shared and to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice.

4.   Government should ensure that there is a national hotline for reporting all child sexual abuse material (CSAM), and that this is integrated within the INHOPE international network.

5.   National education policies should mandate  relevant ministries and institutions to provide digital safety training to all those involved in the national education system (officials, administrators, head teachers, teachers, other educational facilitators, learners and parents) on how to identify child online abuse, how to report it swiftly and in confidence, and how to support those encountering it.

6.Safe spaces should be created in all schools and educational institutions where those suffering from online abuse can escape from digital technologies, learn safely through other means, and gain the skills necessary to participate actively as survivors in digital environments.

7. Government should fund media campaigns (TV, radio, social media) in local languages to highlight the issues surrounding child online safety, and how to protect them from harm. These should aim to create a culture of support for children and their families, and remove the stigma attached to reporting online exploitation and bullying.

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Dr. Areba is the Dean School of Education and Human Resource Department of Education Foundations, Educational Administrations, Planning & Economics at Kisii University.


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