Understanding your digital footprint

Written by: Andy Barnes | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools must replicate the way society is evolving and adapt teaching methods to empower students to take control of their data footprint, says Andy Barnes

The volume of data surrounding an average secondary school student today is phenomenal. New data is created every day, without them even realising it. What’s more it becomes invisible to them and their classroom teachers.

And while students might care about the latest device, the latest app and being able to keep up with their friends, they rarely understand and consider the risks associated with their data footprint.

And this unwitting data trail that students are leaving behind them when using their personal devices is something they need guidance on – especially if they’re to embrace a future where they have the knowledge to make their own decisions about data and become a confident mobile-enabled user.

For example, students need to understand what it means when they slide their device button to “on” in their settings, granting applications access to their contacts list and location. Yes, it might be a great communications tool, letting them locate their own friends and share images, videos and more via apps like Snapchat. However, it is much more valuable to a third party who is able to absorb and exploit that data.

For example, if an application can place you at a particular location at a particular time of the day and build a trend and profile for you based on the locations you visit, that’s useful. Equally, if it can also determine that three of your contacts will also be in that location at the same time, it’s going to have the ammunition it needs in its bid to engage and target you.

Teaching the reality of choice

The important point is that our students should have a choice. They should understand that data access is something they can control. If we are to take our responsibility for safeguarding and guiding students seriously, then we need to be able to paint a picture of what their data looks like to people behind the screen at the other side, and what they’re able to do with that data – whether it’s targeting them with adverts or otherwise.

It isn’t to make them afraid or to suggest this kind of activity is always nefarious. After all, schools need to collect similar data for security purposes. It’s simply to help them understand data privacy and make it clear that they can make their own decisions about what data third parties can collect and use.

After all, it’s about proportionality. Much in the same way that we prepare our students with relationships and sex education, we must also equip them with the knowledge they need to control their data hygiene. It’s about providing them with an awareness and confidence surrounding the reality of moving from childhood to adulthood.

At present, the existing level of education around data hygiene and personal devices is limited. It’s not being prioritised within schools and educators are simply struggling to understand the sheer volume of data being generated. Ultimately, helping students understand that this is something they control is the most powerful message we can give, and there are certain ways in which we can do this in the classroom.

Putting theory into practice

First, it’s about teaching them to learn from their mistakes and move on. After all, students never know when that piece of data created years ago might come back to bite them. That selfie that was taken when they were meant to be in class for example – that’s a large chunk of incriminating evidence in their profile.

Thinking beyond the school gates, it’s important they realise the implications of their data footprint when it comes to things like job interviews. Employers do a reasonable amount of due diligence before making an offer or accepting candidates for further interviews these days. They’ll have a probe around and use online services that dig a little bit deeper to understand who they are and what they’re about, and it’s so easy to leave digital footprints that you didn’t realise possible.

Within our school we always use the mantra: “If you don’t want your mum to see it, don’t share it.” That helps us hit home that once this type of data is out in the public domain, it’s very difficult to claw back.

Teaching technology – the practicalities

But it’s not as simple as talking this through and verbally introducing some use cases. It’s about giving a live demonstration of what your digital footprint is and the concept of how to cleanse it when things go wrong. Effectively learning how to manage the shape of that digital footprint.

For a school that’s equipped to do it, network management tools and beacons can provide a great platform for these demonstrations. For example, you can use beacons to show students how third parties can respond in an intelligent way to their movements.

This can be done via a mock scenario created in the classroom where beacons send push notifications to students’ devices and respond to certain login data. The first time around, a generic message will be received, but upon repeating the login, the notifications will adjust to be personalised to the specific user. This would mean the message would say hello and include a specific name to welcome them back.

Showing students the difference in communication from generic messages, to personalised notifications helps to demonstrate the level of personalisation third parties can achieve using the data they are often unwittingly sharing, showing how they develop ways to better engage them. After all, a message that addresses you personally and is targeted to your needs is always going to be more difficult to ignore.

Similarly, in our school we use network management tools to show pupils how their devices are tracked moving around the school. Showing them a visualisation of the building and floor plans, with devices moving around the rooms can be exciting for students to see and helps them understand how their data can be seen by others.

However, it can also alarm them to know how much we can see of their own footprint. Overall, however, this prompts them to question what data they really want to share with third parties that they do not know or necessarily trust. It also provides a great opportunity to discuss the importance of these tools within a school setting because they pertain to their overall safety.

Championing choice

Ultimately, as teaching staff we can’t enforce change or control how students behave outside of school. What we can ensure, is that education adapts to suit the way society is evolving. That means taking note of the changes that have happened since our generation went through the school system, when mobile devices weren’t prolific and data privacy was much less of a concern.

It is our role to put this technology use into context, help them understand the volume of data these technologies create and take ownership of their data hygiene so that they understand there is a choice, and that they have the opportunity to opt-out. 

  • Andy Barnes is IT director at Bryanston School. This article is based on a roundtable discussion that took place last year hosted by wireless technology company Aruba and in which Mr Barnes took part.


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