Education in the United States faced a crisis this year. The looming threat of the coronavirus — which spreads easily in enclosed classrooms — forced schools across the country to develop new strategies for education, most involving some form of distance learning.
The dramatic stress of this transition on teachers, parents, and students is well-known. But the impact of long-term distance learning on the cybersecurity posture of schools and districts has not yet been studied — until now. Researchers at Malwarebytes surveyed IT decision-makers and students from K–12 and trade schools, as well as colleges, throughout the US to compile a report on how education security has fared in the wake of the pandemic.
The results paint a rather grim portrait; the education sector, having always struggled with lack of IT budget and personnel, was ill-equipped to move millions of students to a distance learning model. And despite Herculean efforts by IT teams to connect every student and teacher, cybersecurity often slipped through the cracks.
US distance learners remain vulnerable to cyberattack
US schools have been under tremendous pressure over the last 10 months. Forced to close their doors with little warning, teachers, administrators, and IT teams spent the first few months of the pandemic simply figuring out logistics, such as how to get students access to school resources, devices, and Internet service. Unlike most workplaces, schools have been slower to adopt new technologies, and they were not set up for an easy transition to a distance learning model.
Yet even now, halfway through the schoolyear, educational institutions are struggling with cybersecurity for distance learners. Nearly half of all schools did not change their cybersecurity protocols in response to the new distance learning model, which resulted in a number of issues that dramatically increased IT workload and put undue strain on teachers. Some schools even suffered cyberattacks that delayed their distance learning lesson plans for up to a week. Other key takeaways from the report include:
- 51 percent of IT decision-makers said that no students, teachers, staff, or guests (including parents) were required to enroll in cybersecurity training before the new school year began
- 47 percent said their schools developed no additional requirements — no distance learning read-throughs, no antivirus tool installations — for the students, faculty, or staff who connected to the school’s network
- 46 percent of students said their schools suffered a cyberattack (though only 3 percent of IT professionals admitted to the same); On the flip side, of those who engaged in security best practices before the transition to distance learning, none experienced a breach or had to cancel a single day of learning due to a cyberattack
Clearly, security awareness makes a difference in the overall safety of an organization. In fact, of those who were well-studied in cybersecurity, fewer suffered sustained, excess IT workload or experienced Zoombombing attacks than those who were less prepared. However, knowledge is only half the battle. Many respondents were saddled with device and data shortages. Other schools fell flat on security budget. Additional IT challenges presented by distance learning include the following:
- 40 percent of educational IT pros said their schools are still missing laptops, computers, or tablets for students
- 28 percent are still missing these devices for teachers
- 20 percent of IT decision-makers said they had trouble convincing their schools to invest in cybersecurity
- 44 percent admitted to difficulties in managing the sudden increase of devices connected to the school network
- 80 percent said there was a steep learning curve for teachers, students, and staff to adapt to online learning tools
But the report wasn’t all doom and gloom. IT professionals had a gargantuan task in front of them to keep teachers teaching and students learning, and for the most part, they were up to the task. About 72 percent of schools provided Chromebooks, tablets, and hotspots to students, and 59 percent distributed laptops, external microphones, and webcams to teachers. More than 70 percent deployed new software tools for distance learning, including Google Classroom and Zoom.
Unfortunately, despite super-human efforts by some educational IT teams, lack of resources, personnel, and budget have strained an already impacted security posture to nearly the breaking point. About 76 percent of respondents experienced connectivity issues, 30 percent suffered a Zoombombing attack, and 52 percent of teachers had to step in and solve an IT or security issue for students and parents. On the bright side, actual cyberattacks were relatively rare.
So, what can educational IT teams do to improve their school’s security posture in 2021 and beyond? Here’s what the report suggests:
- Create and train teachers and staff on new cybersecurity policies relevant to distance learning (For other businesses, this can be an additional set of rules related to remote work/work from home)
- Develop requirements that direct teachers and parents to the appropriate point person in IT or security, should issues arise that need solving quickly
- Implement access rules, including whether students should use a VPN or password manager to access the school’s network and accounts
- Host cybersecurity training events for teachers, staff, students, and parents
For more information on the state of education security in the US, read the full report from Malwarebytes Labs here: https://resources.malwarebytes.com/files/2020/12/Lessons-in-cybersecurity_How-education-coped-in-the-shift-to-distance-learning_Malwarebytes.pdf