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The pandemic sparked a crash course in online learning--and with it, myriad security concerns that education leaders are left to address

Post-pandemic, where do education leaders go?

The pandemic sparked a crash course in online learning--and with it, myriad security concerns that education leaders are left to address

Education institutions have remained admirably fluid over the past year and a half through the rollercoaster of remote and hybrid learning and teaching environments–scaling systems, devices, and processes for a learn-from-anywhere structure.

These changes are working well for many. New data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) found that over half of institutional leaders plan to maintain “some or all of their emergency remote learning offerings via distance education after the pandemic.”

While the virtual learning model is largely beneficial for student continuity, K-12 districts and higher education institutions are increasingly targets for cyberattacks. Howard University and Allen Independent School District in Texas are just two recent examples.

Where do education leaders go from here? The rapid transition to remote learning was successful, but there is still much room for improvement when it comes to reducing cyber risks that threaten the continuity of operations.

In the beginning…

At the onset of the pandemic, K-12 and higher education institutions weren’t adequately prepared to handle the rapid transition to online learning. Many did not have the capabilities for distance learning for faculty and students–and few were equipped for remote staff work. Further, security processes like two-factor authentication were not in place to help protect the enterprise against the influx of cyber adversaries that capitalized on the new distributed environment.

Department silos and a lack of resources resulted in gaps between IT and security teams, leaving schools open to disruption. These gaps created risk for students, teachers, and administrators, making it impossible for IT to get ahead of threats.

Interim challenges and unequal technology access

The move to online learning also highlighted a significant disparity of access to internet and technology among disadvantaged students, making it difficult to complete daily responsibilities. According to a recent survey, 25 percent of teachers said their students still lacked adequate internet access at home for consistent participation in virtual learning.

Further, many IT staff members within the education workforce did not have the skills needed to improve their institution’s infrastructure for hybrid and online learning models. This caused delays in scaling systems as administrators had to train staff and address mistakes made during the transition.

To combat the digital divide, multiple institutions around the country sent students home with Google Chromebooks, iPads, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other open-source technology. Although this has its advantages, these endpoints are disposed to a VPN, creating greater uncertainty across the network, and making it harder for education and government IT teams to manage, detect, and mitigate those endpoints.

Improving flexible learning environments

Remote and hybrid learning have become the norm, and providing a secure environment is critical. Many devices don’t have adequate endpoint protection and visibility. IT teams need an endpoint management and security platform that empowers them with the comprehensive real-time visibility and control needed to make critical decisions and take the right action, right now.

To improve flexible learning environments, K-12 districts and higher education institutions need to alleviate and mitigate those risks appropriately as they continue remote and hybrid learning.

Adopting a centralized cybersecurity approach bridges the gap between security and operations teams within an institution’s most complex environments and provides a unified view of endpoints across the enterprise. This gives IT teams visibility across end-user tools, cloud infrastructure, and the data center. It also provides the ability to identify assets, protect systems, detect threats, respond to attacks, and remediate deficiencies at scale.

Until educational IT teams have a centralized cybersecurity approach, governance plan, or roadmap, it will be extremely difficult to move along the path to digital transformation.

Simple and secure digital solutions that provide visibility, control, and the ability to respond to potential threats are key to a strong, remote-friendly IT infrastructure. Teams should embrace strategies that enable online, bring-your-own-device, and 24/7 learning environments, while protecting sensitive institutional and student data.

To further address cybersecurity challenges associated with remote and hybrid learning and improve student experiences, education IT leaders should:

  • Conduct comprehensive security risk assessments to ensure a strong cyber roadmap and strategy
  • Integrate security and operations teams on a single platform for the institution
  • Adopt an enterprise-wide approach instead of a bifurcated one
  • Implement data loss prevention technologies
  • Invest in workforce and skills development to further infrastructure enhancements

The symptomatic issues we’re seeing in education are no different than what we’re seeing throughout the public and private sectors. But there are opportunities for corrective action. K-12 and higher education institutions must bring key decision makers together and begin with comprehensive planning for standardization across technology environments.

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