Prioritizing Security in a Remote Learning Environment 

Prioritizing Security in a Remote Learning Environment 

Learning environments are not what they used to be, and as educational institutions deploy new technology to facilitate a safe and effective remote learning environment, their cyber vulnerabilities also increase. Canadian schools especially have seen a rise in ransomware attacks with the transition to online learning, opening the door for hackers to exploit student data and sabotage academic research. To combat the rising cybersecurity concerns, educators need to implement new measures to uphold secure and efficient distance learning environments without allowing student data and privacy to hang in the balance.

Why Education Has a Target on Its Back

Limiting disruptions remains a high priority for educators as they discover how to manage their remote classrooms. Although many teachers are familiar with supplemental technologies such as tablets and online programs, it’s another matter entirely to be completely dependent on them to support a fully virtual classroom.  When investing in online learning tools, educational institutions should not allow their concern for efficiency to overshadow an equally important requirement: safety.

The education sector has seen its fair share of cybersecurity attacks since the widespread shift to remote classrooms. According to Microsoft, the global education industry has the most malware attacks, even more than prominent industries such as business, finance, and healthcare. K-12 schools especially have experienced an uptick in ransomware and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS).  Many Canadian schools are experiencing cyber security incidents, damaging the integrity of their student data and privacy. With hackers consistently seeking to take advantage of the vulnerabilities in new technology, this prompts further discussion into why education is such a highly targeted industry.

The rapid shift to remote learning is an obvious culprit for the increasing threat level, but higher education institutions were already vulnerable before the pandemic. Many students simply lack the proper security awareness when using their online devices. In Morphisec’s CyberSecurity Threat Index, more than 30% of higher education breaches were caused by students falling victim to email scams, misusing social media, or other careless online activities. Budgetary constraints are also to blame for increasing online attacks, as many schools lack adequate funding to support a robust cybersecurity infrastructure. Cybercriminals recognize the vast amount of student data that schools have on record, and this incentivizes them further to infiltrate their systems.

Many of the new remote learning technologies introduced during the pandemic have exposed the risks associated with a lack of stringent security measures. For example, until recently, Agora’s video conferencing software exhibited a vulnerability that would have allowed hackers to spy on video and audio calls. With a growing number of students accessing remote learning technologies through their schools’ networks, it’s especially critical for schools to re-evaluate their security protocols to safeguard their students.

Safeguarding the Virtual Classroom

Schools at all levels need to proactively secure their digital technologies and safeguard their students’ data integrity. With the right approach, students and educators can mitigate the risks of cyber threats. Here are four critical cybersecurity steps that schools should take immediately:

1.Enforce User Awareness Training

It only takes one person to allow a hacker to infiltrate a school system. Digital security training is a must to ensure that students and faculty can recognize and take the appropriate action for suspicious activities like phishing emails. For example, a common cyber threat is when hackers pose as school officials asking for important information such as tax information or identification information.

Since many of the learning technologies on the market are new to students and staff, it’s especially critical to understand the implications of a security breach and the necessary steps to mitigate risks.

2.User Access Control

The principle of “least privilege” can also help avoid a  cyber attack. This principle only allows users access to data and systems on a need-to-know basis and can mitigate data breaches that occur via unauthorized or unnecessary access. Hackers often try to infiltrate lower-level devices and accounts as a way to gain access to higher-value accounts and systems. Schools can take action by optimizing a list of what users have access to, which functions they have access to, and why. Ensuring that users have access to only what they need will limit attacks to smaller areas of the system and help protect the security ecosystem as a whole.

3.Update Security and Password Management Policies

An often overlooked but critical cybersecurity protocol is having a robust password management policy. These policies must also be in accordance with provincial and territorial legislation, which set guidelines and rules that govern how students and faculty use their devices and online learning technologies. Password management policies that encourage strong passwords and multi-factor authentication are essential to prevent password sharing and unrestricted access.

4.Third Party Vendor Management

Third-party technology vendors have become an integral component of distance learning, but they are also a vulnerability. Educational institutions need to ensure that they are properly managing their technology vendors so their students’ safety is prioritized above all else. Undergoing a thorough vetting process to evaluate third-party technology, as well as vendors’ terms and conditions, will help identify any security gaps that can create greater issues down the road.

Make Distance Learning Safe Learning

The ascendance of distance learning during the pandemic has given educators, students, and parents new insights into both the opportunities and challenges of not being in a physical classroom. One of the most critical is the importance of creating safe and secure virtual environments to ensure that students are safe. Despite the benefits that education technology provides, without proper training or technical safeguards in place, schools and students are left vulnerable to the dangers of external threats. By enhancing awareness of cyber threats and implementing a strong security strategy, educators and parents can start creating safer learning environments for students to thrive.

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