From educators, IT teams, and school administrators to parents and students, nearly everyone with a stake in the education industry is aware of the promise new digital technologies hold to improve learning outcomes, increase student engagement, and add variety and depth to instruction and assessment.

Whether they’re talking about one-to-one computing initiatives, digital textbooks, using “smart” interactive whiteboards and 3D printers in classrooms, or moving to full-scale “flipped” instructional models, educators are excited about technology’s potential.

Related content: 5 key network steps to support edtech

These innovations are making it possible for teachers to customize lessons to suit individual learning styles, extend instructional time beyond school hours, and better capture the attention and interest of students.

But digital transformation is also threatening to overtax the resources of district IT teams, which are already challenged to accomplish a great deal with small staffs and limited budgets. With increasing reliance on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) learning applications and growing numbers of student-owned devices connecting to school networks, educational IT environments are more complex and heterogeneous than ever before.

In addition, school buildings are incorporating Internet of Things (IoT) devices to boost the efficiency of their lighting and climate control systems, and adding facility monitoring and physical security systems into their networks.

The increasing numbers and new types of connected devices represent an enormous expansion of the network’s attack surface. This challenge is complicated by the reality that IoT devices are notoriously difficult for IT administrators to discover, monitor, and secure, and continues to be compounded as networks become more distributed–requiring education IT teams need to secure devices across multiple schools and networks, rather than limiting technology deployment to a single, centralized location.

Education IT budgets not growing as fast as cybersecurity challenges

The other half of the challenge is that across the United States, overall educational expenditures have remained relatively flat since 2009. The inevitable consequence is that IT teams are being asked to do more without seeing corresponding increases in the resources they’re being allocated.

Possibly as a result, several K-12 information security breaches have recently garnered national media attention, so the pressure is on: as educational tools and strategies expand, school districts are becoming more aware of the importance of developing broad and robust cybersecurity strategies and policies across distributed locations and networks.

Emphasis on security is especially important as many schools are pledging to follow best-practice guidelines developed by external advocacy groups such as the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). Additionally, all must conform to state and national government mandates, including regulatory compliance requirements such as the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) – this stipulates that schools establish internet safety policies and enforce them with technology controls.

One of the biggest issues is that most school districts are comprised of a number of geographically dispersed buildings. In rural areas especially, school buildings may be many miles apart. Despite this, IT administration is still usually coordinated from a single, centralized facility. As a result, IT teams are challenged to monitor and secure numerous endpoints in these various locations, while attacks may focus on the edge, the local access layer, or the WAN itself.

Traditionally, the solution was to backhaul all traffic to the central network for inspection, but these “hub and spoke” style architectures often introduce latency and impede network performance for critical educational tools and services. In addition, individual classrooms increasingly require direct connections to cloud-based applications and internet resources, circumventing a centralized security strategy.

Districts need integration, ease and simplicity of management in cybersecurity solutions

Given the nature of the budgetary constraints school districts face, it’s imperative that IT directors find technology solutions that can be managed most efficiently. Many have attempted to cut costs by assembling a medley of point solutions over time, only to discover that they have become victims of vendor and device sprawl, making their technology stack ineffective and difficult to maintain – especially across distributed networks.

The most effective strategy, both in terms of budget and manpower, is a fully-integrated, consolidated security fabric made up of interconnecting components. This allows IT teams to secure distributed and complex environments far more effectively with far less labor. In particular, educational institutions need to look for solutions that offer all-in-one single-pane-of-glass style management for their entire remote infrastructure, including firewalls, switches, wireless access points, and network access controls.

Solutions designed for distributed locations – such as schools located across a district, satellite university campuses, or even different colleges and departments located across a sprawling university campus – not only provide cohesive end-to-end solutions that are more readily scalable, but such unified systems offer enhanced visibility across the entire network. This visibility is extensible to numerous device types, including school-issued, student-owned, and IoT devices, even when they’re being used off campus and outside of school hours.

Another key to achieving maximum results with a small staff is the intelligent use of automation. The most advanced next-generation firewall solutions implemented as part of a distributed school district or campus can automate vulnerability and risk assessment, as well as the initiation of threat and incident response playbooks. This relieves small IT teams of the burden of manually monitoring, logging, and reporting while facilitating rapid, highly coordinated responses to intrusions and attacks. Tracking and reporting can also be automated for enhanced ability to meet compliance requirements.

Of course, distributed networks do not come with a distributed IT staff. Solutions deployed on-site at schools to manage and secure local networks, devices, and connections, therefore, need to include zero-touch deployment, remote management, configuration, patching, and updating, and automated threat and traffic management services to detect and respond to threats and maintain the highest levels of performance and connectivity without requiring human intervention.

Improving performance and security at each campus

As educators at schools across regions come to rely on increasing numbers of cloud-based applications to facilitate learning in their classrooms, as well as voice-activated and video-based teaching tools, the legacy WAN infrastructures of most districts are becoming less able to meet end-users’ performance demands. With this in mind, education IT teams must seek security solutions that enable them to extend policies and controls to distributed campus networks while maintaining performance, especially for latency-sensitive applications.

Next-generation firewalls with built-in SD-WAN capabilities can allow your team to meet networking and security needs within a single solution. Integrated switching management ensures seamless traffic management and availability, while secure wireless access points enable schools to provide students with in-classroom Wi-Fi access, a vital component necessary for one-to-one computing. Selective web filtering or blocking can dynamically protect students from websites containing malware or inappropriate content.

These services, part of a true SD-Branch solution designed for any organization with a distributed footprint, not only enable faster connectivity and better performance at the edge, but drive that security deep into the local school network, further simplifying and protecting the management of their distributed infrastructures.

Final thoughts

The very same digital technologies that offer educators the greatest opportunities to increase student engagement, improve learning outcomes, and individualize learning and assessment also lead to an expansion in IT network attack surfaces.

To ensure that the digital privacy and security of students is not at risk, schools must adopt comprehensive and integrated security strategies that include technologies that are simple to deploy, remotely manage and administer, and that incorporate intelligent automation. It’s important to select a converged solution that can meet individual schools’ network performance and wireless access needs while also offering deep visibility into the local LAN environment.

About the Author:

Peter Newton is the Senior Director of Product Marketing for Fortinet. He has more than 15 years of experience in high tech product management and product marketing. Newton is the product marketing lead for Fortinet’s Operational Technology (OT) solution, including ICS & SCADA.


Add your opinion to the discussion.