IT Security Challenges and The Digital Divide In Education
By Jim Cropper, director of education sales, Brother International Corporation.
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.