Yohana Solis

Keeping our students safe in our classrooms should always be a priority, and remote settings are not an exception. Being aware of the risks that exist and how to prevent them is the first step for ensuring a safe learning environment. Yohana Solís is the Regional Safeguarding Manager and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Lead for the Americas in the British Council. This means she oversees the safeguarding and EDI policy in the whole region. We talked to her about safeguarding in remote teaching. She explained the different kinds of risks that exist, how to prevent them, the differences in safeguarding measures we should take between children, teens and adults and what the British Council Team has been doing to act on this sensitive and crucial area. Read below the interview transcript.

Can you tell what safeguarding is exactly?

Yohana Solis - It's an interesting question because the concept is not that old, and especially for our region, for the Americas, safeguarding as such is quite a complex concept. Even translating that concept into Spanish has taken a lot of debate because, although it has a 1 to 1 translation into Spanish or Portuguese, which are the two biggest languages spoken in the region, to the term 'salvaguardia' in Spanish or 'salvaguarda' in Portuguese, these have social services connotations, and therefore we've decided to consider the term as in Spanish and Portuguese, which conveys the idea of protecting. Related to the idea of doing no harm. Which means we're not going to do more harm by intervening in a community and a group of people or interacting with somebody than the actual benefit that these people will get from working with the British Council. That's basically how we have chosen to use the concept of safeguarding or translate the concept of safeguarding. Safeguarding is a term used in the United Kingdom and Ireland to denote measures to protect the health, well-being and human rights of individuals, which allow people — especially children, young people and vulnerable adults — to live free from abuse, harm and neglect.h. So that's why protection is a better word that we use in Spanish or Portuguese, especially in countries in which the concept of safeguarding is binding.

You've been working on digital safeguarding or protection. What's different about digital safeguarding?

Yohana Solis - Basically, if we start by understanding safeguarding as protecting people from abuse, the massive migration to the virtual and the digital environment, a bit generated by the normal evolution of technology, but a whole lot of it generated by the pandemic and everyone having to go virtual in a short period of time, of course, have moved not only educational services and students to the digital world, but also perpetrators of different kinds of abuse have moved online as well to the digital world. This means that the harm and the risks have also moved to the online world. And therefore we started seeing instances in which the risks of being online haven't been considered, the risks of using certain apps because they were better than others to get people connected, especially in extended lockdown, but also after that pandemic to more remote contexts, translated into putting people at risk because we weren't properly trained on how to use these apps, we weren't properly trained on how to explain to our students how to use these apps and these platforms. And so in the end, we were putting our students and our communities at a higher risk.

Interviewer - What has the Safeguarding Team been doing to address this?

Yohana Solis - During 2022, the Safeguarding team was commissioned a work on digital safeguarding and how to keep safe online. So a lot of work has been put on that. For example, to begin with, what we did was establishing what digital safeguarding core guidance was. I think all the teachers we work with and everyone we work at the education community has a clear understanding of what a code of conduct is when it comes to face-to-face, but not everyone understands what online safety is, so we developed a core guidance, but also we developed digital safeguarding app guides, in which the most frequently used apps and platforms were analysed. We understand that we will need to use certain apps because they are the only apps that are used in a certain context or because those are the most well-known, are the ones that use less data or less digital resources. While using those apps, especially for teaching and especially for young learners, for children or anyone under 18, which doesn't mean adults are not at risk, we developed guidance specifically for children in a very easy to understand kind of way, with an appealing look, and then we've developed some guidance for adults who also have other challenges because they've migrated to technology, they're new technology. So sometimes they are at a different type of risk. Therefore, we work a lot on that, on developing those tools that are available to anyone working at the British Council, but also anyone that works with the British Council, like partners or beneficiaries or associates or anyone that is working through the British Council or for the British Council. 

When you talk about staying safe online, what kind of risks are there?

Yohana Solis - Mainly considering that the Internet presents risks for all ages, we've developed a guide that talks about four different types of risks: content, contact, conduct and consumer risk. We're generally very aware of the content risk, which is the type of content the children have access to because we are all familiar with certain websites that they shouldn't be accessing, certain images they shouldn't be looking at, but then, although we might be aware, not so much focus has been given to the contact risk and the risk of people being contacted by people not saying who they actually are. They see the interactions that may or may not result into grooming or any other actions. But definitely those contact risks, especially for teenagers, because they are looking for followers, um, for interacting with people, they might be suffering things at school and therefore finding some safe space online, which turns out not to be that safe, for example. And then of course, that conduct which is behaving in a way online that you wouldn't do in face-to-face. So there you have like cyberbullying and other actions people probably won't do face-to-face because of the fear of a face-to-face interaction. But by having these other plausible faces online, they will do. And then there are other cross-cutting risks that have to do with hacking and password sharing and safety online in terms of protecting data and what information I share, I disclose, online.

Are there differences in the approach that we should have regarding safeguarding young children and teenagers?

Yohana Solis - I think that there are and as far as the materials we've developed to share especially with teachers, we've developed some online safety advice for those that are, let's say, between the age of 8 and 12, and then for those over 13, considering that the use they do and the language they use is different, but also the risks are different. It is more likely that teenagers get in touch and connect through social networks, trying to gather followers, trying to connect with people, not necessarily connecting with people they know in real life. While young learners are generally users of educational platforms. That in a way, although they may have their risks are a bit more controlled, and also there are lots of tools that parents use for parental control when we're talking about young learners, on different devices. So the risks are different, and the guidelines and the advise we've developed is different for young learners, teenagers and adults, especially the youths. 

Generally teenagers have either their own phones or their own devices because of the nature of the interactions of the teenagers that are not always supervised. I would say that regardless of how less vulnerable teenagers may look at first, I think that is a group that we should be focusing a lot on because those are the digital natives. They know how to use their devices much better than the grown ups.  They know how to hide or share information. And those are the ones that might be looking at certain interactions or certain apps that are not so safe.

You mentioned this behaviour risk of doing things online that you wouldn't normally do face-to-face. How can we make sure that students establish relationships that are empathetic when sometimes you don't see the person on the other side?

Yohana Solis - I know, and I think that for teachers, the Internet opens a world of opportunities, especially for language teachers, because the old pen friends that we used to write a letter to now have become a real interaction with somebody speaking the language on the other end. So it's endless opportunities. But I think it is as important as developing writing skills, for example, to develop awareness on how to stay safe, on what information I shouldn't disclose to strangers online, on how to interact. So, for example, in a four minute video we developed specially for children, one of the advice we give is like, I do not interact with somebody I do not know in real life with my camera on, unless I know the person on the other end, because that's like letting the other person into my personal world, which is the room I'm staying at. So I do not share certain information. One thing is to share what football team you're a fan of and another thing is to share your address, your phone number, your family details, right?

So it is like also the type of tasks as teachers we set out to do is and this has been discussed a lot, but if we're asking people to describe themselves because we're teaching parts of the body, we need to be very much aware of what that will generate online or if we're asking people to post the picture, do we really want people to post their own private picture of their own private life or families? Can we do the same by describing a cartoon character, bitmoji, I mean, something that is not their own picture? Because in a way we are fostering or we are encouraging people to post online. And honestly, I'm not a user of the online networks and stuff. I'm not a fundamentalist that we're not allowed to use social media, but we need to make sure who access what type of content. And something that is a very teachable moment for teachers is teaching them about digital footprints, is that whatever is online will stay online. It's not as easy as I post it, and I erase it later because what is online is open to the public. So there are a lot of teachable moments when using the digital, but I think it's part of educating the younger generations on how to properly behave online or how to properly interact online. Let's enjoy the internet, but let's be aware of the possible consequences and take precautions.

What difficulties might teachers have to address safeguarding in their lessons?

Yohana Solis - Sometimes a teacher would say, ‘I don't have enough time for my whole curriculum. So if I take time to speak about, say, body, I don't have enough time to cover the syllabus’. It's not either or. Speaking about online safety as well as safety in general should be part of your curriculum. So as well as you speak about, let's say, healthy relationships when you talk about family and healthy interactions with your family so as not to normalise certain types of violence, well, this is the same thing when going online. If we're talking about the platform we're going to use throughout the year to post our writing papers, then take the time to talk about privacy, because you don't want anyone to access your own pieces of work and talk about copyright and talk about your own creative process and talk about your intellectual property. Therefore, ‘this is how you use a safe password to protect all this work you do’. It needs to be organic as part of the curriculum we deliver because it's part of who we are and what we do online.

Interviewer - Yes, absolutely. And it's also very easy to much like to have both linguistic aims and digital literacy aims that include all these aspects of safeguarding that you're mentioning. 

Yohana Solis - And the most important thing to bear in mind is because many of our educational systems in the Americas and it is the same throughout the globe, but focusing on the Americas, have focussed their educational platforms on this idea of trying to provide devices to children, especially to those that didn't have access to the devices before. And we had very interesting programmes in different countries such as Uruguay or Argentina that they do develop the whole concept of digital education. Mind you, if we do not have digital safeguarding in our top ten objectives, we might be setting up our students with a bullseye in their backs as a target for perpetrators. Because perpetrators take all the time we take to find classes, to deliver lessons, to do all the amazing things that teachers do, to find ways to target our students to do harm. So we need to make sure that this is considered as important as a linguistic objective, because if not, we might be putting them at a higher risk than they were before. 

If teachers identify that there are risks or they raise some sort of alert because of the behaviour of some students or what they see. What can they do?

Yohana Solis - Well, there are different risks online. I think the critical thing here for any contact, for any conduct risk, I think that creating safe space for students to talk to you, some students may not have those safe spaces at home. There's this person that is asking me to do this and this thing online. So generating safe spaces in our classrooms to me is critical for contact risks. For content risks is moderating the platforms we use, making sure we take the time. If we ask students to post things online as part of their curriculum, to take the time to read and monitor what's going on online. And also we spot certain things such as, let's say, conduct risks, for example, peer bullying, peer online bullying. Therefore, we take the time out of our classes to discuss ways of behaving online as well as we would do if we spotted bullying face-to-face in our classes. So it's not like I'll erase the comment and that will be it because, yeah, of course, eventually you will erase that comment because it's a violent comment to remain on the platform, but use it for a teachable moment in your classes. And definitely, my greatest advice to teachers is that you shouldn't be choosing between teaching English or taking time for safeguarding. Safeguarding should be organic, an organic part of your English lessons, right? There are even concepts that are very similar in English and in your mother tongues. So talking about bullying and talking about bullying in Spanish or in English is exactly the same thing because that behaviour is there. You shouldn’t need to prioritise between keeping your students safe online and the content you teach. It should be all part of the same thing.

Is there anything important that you haven't yet mentioned and that we should raise awareness towards?

Yohana Solis - I think that because the main audience of this conversation would be teachers, I would definitely point them to all the resources the British Council has created to make their life easier. Because I also understand how busy a teacher is preparing lessons, making sure they are up to date with all the technology and all the platforms. So we've developed some easy to use resources that they can just grab. I would definitely point them to those things that are already available. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. You don't need to run your own risk assessments on your platform, we've assessed the most commonly used platforms for you. So we've given you recommendations on how to use them. And definitely we're not online police to say, ‘Hey, you shouldn't be using that platform’. What we're saying is, if you're using this platform, this is the best way to be safe using this platform. So I think that we've done a lot of work to make teachers' lives easier. These resources are free, these resources are available to any teacher that can download them and share them with their community of practice. So definitely, I think this  is a great opportunity for them to get to know these resources. 

Interviewer - Absolutely and will make sure to link them. Anything else you'd like to say at all? 

Yohana Solis - Um. I think that to me that the online world is a reproduction of what the face-to-face of the real world is. Therefore, if we see, especially in the countries we live in, in the Americas and we operate them, we've seen certain types of abuse and certain type of violence that have become normal, everyday things for us. It would be very naive to think that those haven't migrated into the online world. Therefore, I'm not here to scare everybody, but I'm just here to raise awareness. Be aware that all those risks that you see every day when you go to work on the bus, face-to-face, all of those risks have migrated into the digital world as well. 

Interviewer - Thank you so much, Yohana!