Keeping Our Online Students Safe…and Learning

Prompt: What are the cues and clues we as blended & online instructors need to be aware of to ensure we are indeed teaching/reaching each one of our students?

The advent of blended and online learning is easily the most significant change in public education since my career began two decades ago. The fact that so many students are learning online does not, however, change many of the fundamental realities of education. Chief among these realities are time-tested cognitive theories like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As Greene (2013) explained in her video lecture, students must feel safe before learning can occur. The importance of keeping students healthy and safe is news to no one. But are we teachers paying enough attention to the online safety of our students? Every day, our students navigate a murky online world where harassment, bullying, and child predators are constant threats. These threats are often unseen, and there may be other types of threats that are even more difficult to pin down. In our increasingly internet-dependent world, privacy and data security are also primary concerns that affect the safety of our students.

Take the example of a teacher who innocently creates an account for his or her class on an education website or app, for example. Such a teacher may, with just a few mouse clicks, upload students’ names, email addresses, assessment results, and other sensitive information to servers where it will be easily available to a whole cast of shady characters, including data brokers, stalkers, burglars, and identity thieves. We adults are frequently warned that cyber-criminals often employ phishing scams and other clever techniques to attain the last one or two pieces of information that they need to pull off a caper. In such a world, teachers may be exposing students–and their families–to invisible safety risks.

Greene (2013) also described the importance of informal norms in learning. Of course, when considering the role of social learning theory in education, the role of culture cannot be overstated. Even after two centuries of history in this country, brick-and-mortar classrooms have yet resolve the pervasive achievement gaps and cultural divides that serve as roadblocks to so many of our students. The online world, of course, is a far younger environment, where cultural norms are even more fluid.

Consider the internet’s influence on the recent national election, for example. Historians will no doubt be debating the effects of instantaneous news coverage and social media on voters for years to come. Depending on one’s political point of view, and the issue being considered, the internet may facilitate and deepen meaningful discourse between people, or it may actually stifle communication by allowing people with narrow or extreme viewpoints to retreat even further into the media of their subculture, completely ignoring other, potentially moderate, ideas.

Online culture may disrupt the learning environment, for better or worse, just as it has the political environment. We teachers face a tall order in this regard. Even while we send our students off into cyberspace to more freely explore new learning experiences that interest them, we must carefully structure that learning in a way that encourages authentic academic discourse and healthy exposure to new ideas. Otherwise, our students may fall into traps like reinforcing pre-existing misconceptions, mistaking creative expression for significant learning, or allowing a useful discussion to descend into what Greene calls a “massive flame war” (2013). Children, and even young adults, need guidance to avoid these traps. 

As with traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms, the ultimate success of the online learning environment depends on a skilled teacher’s informed, deliberate, and caring application of cognitive and social learning theories. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Greene, K. (2013, September 19). Nuts and bolts [Video file]. Retrieved from


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