Cybersecurity, Student Safety, and Modern Learning: What You Need to Know

COVID-19 accelerated a transition that was already happening in education. Amidst lockdown measures and school closures, districts were all but forced to make the leap to e-learning. And even now, as some places finally begin to reopen, it’s clear that there’s no going back.

We already know hybrid learning and digitization are the future of the education sector. In many ways, that’s a good thing for students and teachers alike.

Online learning can lead to significantly better outcomes for students, particularly if they’re provided with the right tools and allowed to learn at their own pace. A robust student information system can streamline student management from beginning to end, making things easier for both students and parents. Meanwhile for teachers, digitization can improve lesson management, provide deeper learning insights, and improve every facet of administration. 

But with all of this connectivity comes another important matter: data security. 

Read on to learn more about data security in K-12, as well as key strategies you can use to stay protected.

A Look at Data Security in the K-12 Landscape

It’s no secret that K-12 institutions struggle when it comes to data-security. Since 2016, there have been over 1,180 cyber incidents in the United States alone. In 2020, the number of publicly-disclosed cybersecurity incidents impacting K-12 institutions increased by 18%

Ransomware is a major driver of this growth, and the bad actors behind ransomware attacks have become more ruthless, with increased ransom demands, threats of data exfiltration, and more damaging infections.

Virginia Fairfax County Public Schools is an excellent — and sobering demonstration of the above. After suffering a ransomware attack in fall 2020, the district saw a considerable volume of personal information stolen and published on the dark web. In addition to names, this included social security numbers and health insurance details. 

Making the situation significantly worse is the fact that, especially for public school districts, schools and their IT departments must consistently do more with less. These budget constraints are only further exacerbated by the fact that neither students nor staff are taking security seriously. Case in point, a study of 287 school districts by the Government Accountability Office found that the majority of data breaches were caused, either accidentally or intentionally, by students or staff

Addressing this will be far from easy — but not at all impossible.

K-12 Cybersecurity Tips

Despite the sensitive nature of the data K-12 handles, there are several steps school districts can take to ensure this sensitive data stays in the right hands.

1. Start With The Right Mindset

First and foremost, you need to get leadership on-board with your security initiative. If the decision-makers in your school district are not committed to improving their own practices as well as the district overall, your efforts will be for naught. On the other hand, if everyone embraces their role in protecting the safety and privacy of both students and staff, your likelihood of success increases significantly.

2. Perform a Risk Assessment

In order to protect your district against security threats, you need to understand a few things. 

  • The data you’re trying to protect.
  • The systems on which that data resides.
  • Who has access to those systems, and why.
  • What you’re trying to protect those systems against. 
  • Weaknesses in your data governance policies and processes. 
  • Weaknesses in your security policies and processes. 
  • Security measures you’ve taken to keep e-learning secure. 

3. Promote Awareness and Mindfulness

For all that we hear horror stories about highly-sophisticated, unmitigatable cyberattacks, the vast majority of criminals are born opportunists. They count on their targets being either careless or ill-informed. With that in mind, a little education can go a long way. 

Ensure both students and staff understand how to spot a phishing email, and general best practices for safe browsing online. Explain to them, from the perspective of keeping their own data safe, why poor password hygiene, online carelessness, and password sharing are dangerous. Don’t focus on the school’s data — focus on each individual’s personal information. 

4. Incorporate Network Segmentation

Particularly with the proliferation of smartphones and the Internet of Things, network segmentation is more crucial than ever. Students and staff should each have their own separate network on which they operate. More importantly, sensitive systems and data should always be kept air-gapped from devices which might not be fully secure. 

5. Leverage Automation

Ideally, your school district should be able to incorporate full end-to-end security, and harden every single endpoint against potential intrusion. Unfortunately, given that you’re likely operating within a limited budget, you may need to prioritize.high-value systems and assets. Alternatively, a combination of artificial intelligence and automation may help you bridge the gap. 

Through the use of endpoint detection and automated network management, your district can potentially safeguard its network at only a fraction of what it would cost to do so manually. You might also consider using file-centric Digital Rights Management (DRM) to better support remote learning. 

6. Embrace Identity and Access Management

A zero trust approach combined with an identity and access management solution is crucial, particularly in the weight of remote learning. Access to your most sensitive assets should be strictly controlled, limited to only those who strictly require it. And no device should be trusted automatically until it is verified. 

7. Always Keep Things Simple

Complexity is the enemy of security. If any of your policies, processes, or platforms are cumbersome or frustrating to use, your staff and students will find workarounds. Whatever solutions you incorporate should therefore be deployed with usability in mind — the best security solutions are those that the user barely notices at all.

How Your School District Can Earn a Passing Grade in Security

Modern school districts face a threat landscape unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. With cyber incidents on the rise and criminals becoming more ruthless and opportunistic, cybersecurity has never been more crucial. 

If you’re to meet your duty of care to students and staff, you must build a strong foundation for cybersecurity sooner rather than later. 

Find out how school districts across North America are using the centralized Edsembli ecosystem to streamline how they manage, store, and access staff and student data.

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