Cybersecurity in education: Securing schools as they transition to online learning

June 15, 2020 | Nahla Davies

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

Whether they were prepared for it or not, schools around the world have been forced to adopt an online learning model for students thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the biggest concerns educators need to have in this situation is exactly how to create a fully secure remote learning environment in order to keep sensitive information for both the schools and individual students safe from hackers.

Data breaches cause real-world damage and tarnish the credibility of the organizations that fall prey to them (including schools and educational institutions). As schools across the globe turn digital due to students studying from home, they are also becoming more vulnerable targets to cyberattacks. Schools are finding themselves outmatched as these threats intensify.

Parents likewise need to learn about and ensure safe cybersecurity practices for their kids, and would therefore also benefit from learning about the security methods that we are about to cover.

In this article, we’ll discuss how school technology leaders can develop the necessary strategies to protect against and mitigate breaches by procuring technology and developing risk management policies and planning for incidents before they occur.

Why Are Schools At Risk of Cyber Attacks?

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus and attention of most of the cybersecurity community have been on protecting government institutions, the airline industry, and the healthcare industry from hackers. This is good, but educational institutions are at just as much risk from malicious hackers as the above industries and organizations are as well.

If anything, this risk has only increased significantly due to the record numbers of students who are now attending school via online learning platforms, video conferences, and e-learning environments.

In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned extensively about the greatly increased cybersecurity risks of teleconferencing and online classrooms. The FBI specifically cites examples of malicious cybercriminals delivering threatening content to Zoom classroom calls (colloquially referred to as Zoom-bombing), which has even resulted in numerous school districts pulling out of Zoom and seeking alternative platforms.

This highlights a larger issue of schools and school districts using technology that has either not been properly vetted or that educators and students are not prepared to use safely. In other words, even as school districts turn to alternative teleconferencing options besides Zoom, they can still be a major risk of falling prey to hackers and cybercriminals.

This leads us to our next question: what exactly can school districts and educational institutions do to better protect themselves and their students against cyber attacks as they transition into online learning? Here are a few measures that schools would be wise to adopt:

Control End User Access to Data

The number one cybersecurity vulnerability for educational institutions today is the end-user. This is why one of the most important priorities for any IT department in an educational institution needs to be to control end-user access to remote data.

This will, however, also serve as a major challenge because most IT departments at schools still utilize firewalls rather than more effective cloud application security systems such as Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS. Here, it’s critical to mention that SaaS companies are faced with a pretty high competition nowadays.

Such a high competition that the smallest things could really make a difference. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise to notice that the companies that buy a good domain name will succeed, whereas those who choose inappropriate domains may fall behind. SaaS providers are also responsible for securing cloud-based platforms and applications, and also offer many benefits to organizations, including greater scalability, accessibility, and cost savings.

When it comes to cybersecurity, there are a number of ways that SaaS can help to control user access to data, including through detecting compromised accounts, encrypting cloud data (both data that is in storage and in transit), and utilizing IAM (Identity and Access Management) solutions to ensure that end-users do not gain access to more resources than required.

Monitor Remote Activity

One of the biggest challenges that schools face is the sheer number of individuals (both staff and students) who will access remote learning systems outside of the school network.

Fortunately, proper cybersecurity and data privacy measures for remote learning do not have to be sacrificed just because a student or staff member accesses an online school platform outside of their local networks.

Remember, all it takes is just one person to make a mistake that could result in the network of a school district becoming infected with malware and leading to a significant data breach. While firewalls can serve as a good first line of defense, outside of a school network they will, unfortunately, be borderline useless.

This is because when users are accessing information via cloud-based apps, system administrators lose visibility with a firewall, which can otherwise be used to monitor activity to help secure a website. This is a risk that exists in any cloud computing environment, but it becomes even worse with remote education. Data leaks will easily happen when school system administrators no longer have the ability to see who is accessing information.

Fortunately, schools can effectively enable secure remote monitoring of their online platforms with a number of methods, including working with managed security services providers (MSSPs), and using endpoint security tools and proxy servers.

Encrypt Traffic Between School and Home Networks

As stated above, one of the most vulnerable targets is not even the school network itself, but rather the home network of a student or staff member. Remote network monitoring of these networks when online school systems using the above-mentioned methods is highly effective, but it’s also not an end-all solution.

This is because in the event that a cybercriminal or other malicious actor were to hijack a home router, they could inject malware into the person’s home network. That malware could then potentially make it ways to the school network and get past the firewalls in place.

This is exactly why most secure school districts utilize virtual private networks (VPNs), which are designed to encrypt traffic using encryption protocols between a student or staff member’s home network to the school district’s network. VPNs today are among the most effective methods for encrypting traffic. Some school districts are wary of using them because of their reputation for slowing upload speeds due to encryption, but the truth is that many low-cost VPNs can offer high-quality encryption while maintaining uploading speeds up to 37 Mbps and download speeds of 65 Mbps.

Conclusion

School districts and universities need to act quickly to improve their cybersecurity measures and skills.

Specifically, educational institutions would be very wise to ensure that no third party providers have direct access to online learning platforms, focus on minimizing any private information that is contained or released in an online learning platform, ensure that they can view and monitor remote online activity, and consider utilizing SaaS over local clients.

Nahla Davies

About the Author: Nahla Davies

Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she managed – among other intriguing things – to serve as a lead programmer at an Inc. 5,000 experiential branding organization whose clients include Samsung, Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.

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