IT Security Challenges and The Digital Divide In Education

By Jim Cropper, director of education sales, Brother International Corporation.

Jim Cropper

The adoption of online learning, already one of the fastest-growing trends in education, was drastically accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Students everywhere, from first grade to college seniors, were forced to shift to virtual classrooms for their safety as well as their teachers’.

There are certainly many benefits of online education primarily the flexibility it affords. However, remote learning also presents new challenges, particularly with respect to data security, as well as “the digital divide.”

Regarding the former, cybersecurity issues begin with the hardware but certainly don’t end there. Learning from home is enticing for many, but any time personal devices are used to handle sensitive data, such as test scores and student information, they run the risk of exposing that information because those devices usually haven’t been configured and vetted as would a school-issued computer.

Contributing to these risks is that learning and implementing cybersecurity best practices, such as recognizing obvious phishing attempts, are still a work in progress for many schools and universities across the country.

Unfortunately, cybercriminals are well aware of these weaknesses and have been using the pandemic to exploit the most vulnerable targets. In fact, between July and August of 2020, when it became clear that the school year would go, on albeit remotely, the average number of weekly cyberattacks per educational facility in the US rose by 30% over the prior two months. As news headlines have revealed, many educational organizations were caught unprepared, with some school districts even having to temporarily cease operations to halt cyber incursions.

Although we are now collectively better prepared, new risks and attacks continue. There are many strategies that school administrators must employ to safeguard sensitive data, such as training all staff in cybersecurity best practices, including the usage of VPNs to connect to school networks from home. And the district or university IT teams must regularly update all school-issued devices to ensure they stay current with the latest firmware, utilizing strong admin passwords.

Besides cybersecurity, another important conversation around remote learning is that of “the digital divide,” which is the acknowledgment that the tools needed to thrive in an online classroom, such as high-functioning computers and Wi-Fi, are costly. Hence, many students from different socioeconomic backgrounds often don’t have access to all the tools they need to thrive in a virtual setting.

The digital divide isn’t a new issue, but it has been magnified by the pandemic, as many students from disadvantaged backgrounds are struggling to keep pace with the rapid expansion of online learning. For example, 16.9 million children nationwide remain logged out from instruction simply because their families lack the home internet access necessary to support videoconferencing and other online channels.

The digital divide isn’t limited to just K-12 students, either: many college students have found accessing stable, high-speed internet quite challenging. For those already faced with paying the high cost of secondary schooling, the increased costs of securing necessary digital tools to complete their coursework can be a bridge too far. Some institutions have been able to provide equipment like loaner computers and Wi-Fi hotspots, but it still hasn’t been enough to close the digital gap.

One consequence of the above is that paper and printing have remained surprisingly resilient solutions amid the shift to remote learning. Printing resources are critical for school systems to distribute important classwork to students without access to the requisite online tools. Administrators are turning to document management solutions that offer a blended approach able to manage student data and materials online, on paper, or both. Integrating paper and digital content, as well as managing the related costs and workflows, strengthens IT security — you can’t hack paper — as well as ensuring that all students are able to access school materials.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust both educators and students into an unprecedented era of digital transformation. But no matter where your local district or university is on this journey, a multichannel approach must be incorporated that accommodates new tools as well as those that are tried and true. Data security and personal background should never be an obstacle to a student’s success.

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