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How to Keep Kids Safe While Distance Learning

With remote learning set to keep a strong foothold even after the pandemic passes, security must be a top priority.

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The sector has gone through a radical transformation in the last year. While many schools had deployed in-classroom devices and software programs meant to augment in-class learning, much of what was happening within the school occurred as it always had. An industry that is often faced with tight budgets and timelines, we saw widely varying degrees of digital readiness for operating a school as a completely online experience, from administrators and educators to parents and students across the country.

The Covid-19 outbreak completely changed this almost overnight. When students and staff were sent home in the spring, schools suddenly found themselves faced with the daunting task of getting distance learning programs off the ground while also accelerating their adoption of a digital-first operating model. What takes many organizations months to accomplish…they had just days.

From a security perspective, such rapid adoption put already-vulnerable educational institutions even more at risk. As of mid-October, The K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center reports there have been more than 1,000 publicly disclosed cyberattacks on schools since 2016. This would be a concerning statistic for any industry – but in education, it becomes even more dire with the added elements of ensuring student safety and spending taxpayer dollars wisely.

While securing a large digital environment is a complex undertaking, it is one that nearly every education organization – and IT team – will need to navigate in the face of continued uncertainty with the new school year now fully underway. These are three critical components that should be deemed non-negotiables when it comes to enabling successful, secure distance learning programs.

Related: How Modern Technology Is Reshaping the E-Learning Industry

1. Permanent device connection

The first critical component of a secure environment, as obvious as it may sound, is the ability to track all devices and know how they're being used. But, this has proven to be a significant challenge for a majority of schools and districts.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a very clear focus on sending devices home and ensuring students and teachers stayed connected ... but challenges in tracking, managing, and securing those devices at scale while remote often arose. This left schools unable to see where their devices were physically located, which student took what device home, and what those devices were being used for. And equally intimidating is the need to reclaim and re-provision all of those devices at the end of the school year.

Just like in corporate environments, school districts have spent massive amounts of money on hardware over the past decade – with significant spend in the last six months alone. And with a limited supply of laptops available, it is more critical than ever that IT teams maximize all devices at their disposal.

Education IT teams need a permanent connection to every device, whether that device is on or off the school network. This connection, and the full visibility it enables, makes it possible to say how many devices went home with students and staff and whether there are any devices missing or unaccounted for. It makes it possible to answer key questions like – are students who received a device able to connect at home? Are they actually using these devices to learn? How will we reclaim devices at the end of the school year?

In order for a digital learning environment to be considered truly safe and secure, there must be clear, real-time answers to these questions and tools to take action accordingly.

2. Data, data, data

IT teams certainly have a daunting task in front of them: ensuring students are digitally enabled and properly equipped to learn remotely, while also ensuring the digital technologies and applications they're deploying do not compromise student security or privacy. This means they must know if a student or staff device has critical security controls installed – such as antivirus, web filters, and VPNs or other remote access tools – and whether those controls are working effectively. Can they see if patches and critical updates have been successfully deployed and installed on remote endpoints? Can they identify students using rogue VPNs to access inappropriate content, potentially jeopardizing their safety and privacy?

Schools have multiple shareholders that they must be accountable to, and so it is imperative to have access to the insights needed to demonstrate this accountability to each and every one of them. There are the students they teach, the community they serve, and the taxpayers who fund them; all of these parties need to understand the effectiveness of their learning programs and if the investments made in these programs paid off.

What's just as important as the ability to track every device is having a continuous feedback loop to that device, one that is capable of delivering insights directly aligned with key metrics – such as the number of devices in the hands of students, levels of student engagement with digital learning apps, and whether student data is properly protected. Only with this feedback can schools assess and take steps to improve their processes, technologies, and security posture over the coming months.

3. Agility and flexibility

The third critical component here is operational agility; you simply can't build or optimize for one model in particular. In order to have a secure distance learning environment, there must be a consistent level of security regardless of the current operating model. Schools must be able to make seamless transitions between models – whether remote, hybrid, or in-person – if and when required, as well as maintain the same level of device visibility and data protection whether a device is connected to the school or home network.

Related: A Safer Return for In-Person Education and Childcare

If there's one thing that all can agree on, it is that students need to be able to learn no matter where they are – and their safety and security needs to be at the forefront, regardless of whether they're in the classroom or at home. These three components will prove to be absolutely crucial in enabling schools to meet this massive responsibility in front of them, to deliver on the promise of a secure and productive learning environment no matter what model they choose.

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