Working in a Young Learner Centre and being a techie teacher (we have interactive whiteboards and a computer room) means that online safety for my learners is very important. I tell my learners about my acronym N.A.I.L., which stands for
As I explain, I tend to bite them (my nails that is) if they mention any of these online. This could be on either social network sites or simply creating a user account in order to be able to use an online tool. Let's take a look at that nice little acronym 'N.A.I.L.' more closely.
With Name you can either get students to choose a name from one of the many online nickname generators. This can be quite fun. On one occassion some learners were pressed for their real name by someone in a virtual world when their avatar carried their name above their heads. I told them to explain why the nickname they had was their real name and why their parents had chosen it. Hey, it produced language, kept it light, involved a little humorous creativity and, most importantly, kept their identities secret. That meant everyone was happy. If the person on the other end isn't content with that then it's probably a good idea to say goodbye and reassess the situation.
Besides strangers you also face websites asking for personal details which can be for security reasons. Having to provide your name and an email can sometimes be the least information you are required to enter. This is especially true of websites classed as online tools.
I'm a great fan of the comic creator webpage Zimmer Twins and the site for PowerPoint called Slideshare. Both are great to use with learners and both require personal information. The way I get round this is to create the account myself and share the username and password with my class. That way work can be saved, edited in one location and presented in another, for example at home, the computer room or the classroom. By the way, get your learners to name their work by the title not author. Not only does it mean content has greater anonymity but it's easier for learners to find their work and may also mean your grading and marking is more objective.
With age I simply tell them never to go there. I have introduced the activity of creating a fictional online persona. Something along the lines of a Top Trumps card works well. It's a fun activity in itself and great for role plays, generating written work or even a spontaneous dialogue offline as well as online. You'll also be surprised how often the boys model themsleves on sports stars and girls on TV or pop personalities. Then again maybe you wouldn't be.
This works best, of course, for adolescents. With younger learners you should really have taken greater lengths to be in a safe online environment where these concerns should never arise. I'm thinking of virtual worlds aimed at kids such as Club Penguin or Moshi Monsters, which require you to state your age to ensure safety. However, you have to bear in mind that it doesn't really prevent anyone from lying so it could be anyone on the other end.
Interests are a difficult one as that's what everyone really likes to talk about online. It generates the most language and it's a way to establish more meaningful contact. However, saying you are a fan of a particular team does suggest a certain location where that person might be living. However, I do recall I once saw someone wearing a Barcelona football top in a small village in Laos once, so I guess there is room for manoevre here. See – with that last sentence there you can probably make some quite accurate and possibly unwanted assumptions about me. Personally, I wouldn't baulk at a student writing a sentence about which football team they supported, but if they said that they liked to do an activity at a particular place or venue then I would be quite wary of this. Generally, I say expressing your interests is ok as long as it doesn't conflict with the final criteria – Location.
Location of course can also be a bit tricky. One of the first questions you may need to fill in on an online form or be asked by another is generally “Where are you (from)?”. Nationalities are ok, I tell my students, and I even allow them to say they are from Catalunya, but anything more specific than that and you'll find me self-pedicuring.
I like to think of a hundred mile radius being the ideal field but sometimes this is impractical and difficult to police. City names can be out before you can really swoop down (close monitoring by the teacher is essential – keep moving around on your feet in a computer room and take an interest in student generated content). Discourage the naming of a city, but if it does come out then raise it as an issue with the class either then (keep it brief) or later (discuss in greater depth) or both. Even generic statements such as 'I like going to the beach or the mountains' can be revealing about a person's location but you also have to encourage some English language production.
In a nut shell use your common sense, be vigilant and make sure your learners behave. If any issues do arise then be sure you are clear with yourself about the process in which you should deal with a problem. This can be as simple as reassessing the use of a site in which a problem arises, regularly changing passwords, informing the relevant person or authroity (the website, a parent, teacher and/ or your immediate superior) and generally stay on your digital toes.