Is online delivery placing students at greater risk of abuse?

Amid mass online instruction, universities need to up their game around digital safeguarding and student welfare, say Andy Phippen and Emma Bond

January 15, 2021
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High-profile cases of online abuse among students have highlighted concerns about the harm that use of online platforms can cause. Clearly there is much potential for abuse online, and recent weeks have shown the potential for both good and bad that results from social media. In the higher education sector, we, as academics who have researched various aspects of online abuse over many years, are seeing both increasing alarm about students being subject to online abuse and also a sector perhaps unprepared to support students in their use of social media (and, arguably, sometimes placing them in harm’s way).

These online attacks are sometimes referred to as cyberbullying, but we would rather use the term online abuse to encapsulate the range of dangers individuals can face. Cyberbullying has become an expression used to cover everything from name-calling or an online spat to prolonged online abuse. However, as a term, cyberbullying both infantilises and minimises the harms associated with online abuse, and its overuse does not help the discourse around online harms.

We know from our experiences working with universities and conducting research across the sector, that online abuse can be extremely harmful, affecting students’ long-term mental health and educational outcomes. However, we also know that students, and some in the sector, are too willing to dismiss online abuse as “banter”, or simply something one has to put up with in the online world.


Netiquette: encouraging good behaviour in online classes


There has been much concern about how the effect of the Covid lockdown(s) on online abuse, and media coverage has highlighted cases across the sector. However, in the early cases of “zoombombing” lectures, we would suggest this serves to demonstrate poor access control to the new learning platforms rather than an epidemic of a new form of abuse. Plus, there is little evidence from the sector to suggest that lockdowns have resulted in an increase in online abuse, although cases of domestic abuse have clearly increased.  

Does this mean that it isn’t happening? Or does it just show that we, as a sector, don’t know? And does it prove that students are not aware of how to disclose abuse in confidence or that complaints will be dealt with?

Towards the end of 2019, we served Freedom of Information requests across the sector asking for institutions to detail policy and practice around online safeguarding. What we discovered was a sector unprepared to address concerns around online abuse – few had effective policies in place, even fewer had comprehensive education and training programmes in order that staff and students might be in a position to recognise, disclose and effectively respond to online abuse claims. Furthermore, very few institutions recorded anything around complaints that contained elements of online abuse. Without these reporting routes and recording mechanisms, how can we, as a sector, know the scale of abuse?

While the move to online delivery has certainly created greater awareness in institutions around the role technology plays in teaching and learning, there is little evidence to show that with increased online delivery there is greater awareness around online abuse.

We should also reflect on whether we, through our practices, are placing students at greater risk of abuse. “Camera on” culture in the delivery of online sessions has the potential to place a vulnerable student in an exposed environment where screen grabs of online discussions can facilitate the potential for further abuse. The member of staff who captures the class Zoom and shares it online may also cause similar potential harm. While classes used to take place in public spaces, with everyone in full view, the online lesson now provides windows into private spaces and potentially ones that vulnerable students do not wish to be shared with the class.


Creating a welcoming and inclusive online learning community


In 2019 we released a toolkit, funded by the Office for Students, to help universities scope policy and practice around online harms. This provides guidance on a number of elements, such as defining effective policy, putting training in place and implementing reporting routes.

Clearly, institutions have responsibilities for student welfare and safeguarding that support those who are victims of online abuse. Having clear routes to disclosure is a fundamental part of this support, alongside transparent responsiveness to these complaints. The technology itself could also help, and we would recommend the consensual recording of class sessions as a means to capture discourse that takes place to protect both staff and students from later claims of abuse.

We have seen many in the sector assume that online safety is taught in schools and therefore not our concern. We should inform readers that our extensive work in the statutory education sector would show this is not the case, and a lack of national guidance means schools deliver online safety, at best, in an ad hoc manner.

There is a fundamental need for effective education that makes students aware of what is, and what is not, acceptable online discourse – particularly in times such as these, in which freedom of speech is claimed by many as a right that allows abuse.

Within the wider online harms debate there is much discussion on duty of care for those who provide the platforms upon which abuse can take place. Universities need to take note. While some might argue that abuse during an online class, or using a platform encouraged by the university, makes them either liable or negligent, we feel this would be unreasonable. However, demonstrating duty of care through effective policy, disclosure routes, educated students and well-trained staff are all within the gift of the institution, and we would encourage senior leaders to be proactive about these issues. They will not be going away.

Andy Phippen is professor of digital rights at Bournemouth University and Emma Bond is professor of socio-technical research at the University of Suffolk. Between them they have more than 30 years’ experience researching online safeguarding.

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