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A teacher’s guide to cybersecurity in the classroom

Posted on August 31, 2019

It seems like cybersecurity issues are in the news all the time. From data breaches at major financial institutions to ransomware attacks on city governments, scarcely a week goes by without another disturbing story of digital disaster.

And unfortunately, schools and school districts are now being targeted by cybercriminals as well—in part because they provide a tempting combination for hackers: huge amounts of sensitive data and relatively weak security protocols. 

While some issues will have to be addressed at a district or even a governmental level, a big part of the problem is a lack of training and awareness among teachers, staff, and students.

In this article, we’ll talk about how teachers can help make their classrooms and their schools safer places for students…and for themselves.  

The talk in the teachers’ lounge

One survey of educators done in the UK found that over half of teachers polled felt that their students knew more about computer issues than they did. Almost as many thought that specialized training would better help them keep their students safe.

Yet although they saw the need for training, many respondents also indicated that they weren’t concerned about the most likely types of cyberattack—a strong indication that these teachers weren’t aware of the actual threats they were facing.

Suffice it to say, a good place for concerned teachers to begin is with raising awareness of cybersecurity issues. Talk to your colleagues and school administrators about the scope and seriousness of the problem to see what they know about it (or if they know about it). Then seek support for training materials and programs.

Teaching the teachers (an 80/20 approach)

Cybersecurity is a huge and complex topic, but the good news is that most cybercriminals aren’t especially creative…or even all that bright. Some basic cybersecurity education, along with the implementation of a few core data security practices, can make a significant difference.

An easy place to begin is by learning basic cybersecurity terminology and familiarizing yourself with core cybersecurity best practices. Start with the basics, which can be learned in a few study sessions and will protect you from the majority of threats you’re likely to encounter: password security, two-factor authentication, updates, and backups. You may also want to read more about the types of attacks that schools are most likely to face, such as phishing attacks and ransomware

Beyond that, it’s wise to make cybersecurity a part of your long-term professional development (especially since new issues and threats are always cropping up). To this end, teachers may want to look for training opportunities offered by the government or by private organizations. For example, this free training portal is available to government employees in the United States, including public school teachers. Even something as simple as listening to a weekly cybersecurity podcast on the way to work is an excellent way to keep up to speed with the latest news and gradually build your knowledge of computer security and privacy. 

Securing the classroom

Not all digital threats come from outside of the school. Any serious cybersecurity policy also needs to address problems that may arise from the students themselves.

To begin with, teachers should be aware of the practical aspects of working with young people who have grown up around technology. Just as your own teachers kept exam papers safely locked in a desk drawer, you’ll have to take similar precautions to prevent students from accessing your data and cheating or changing their grades. If you’re keeping any sensitive data on computers or in cloud accounts, make sure to follow basic physical security practices. For starters, always password protect computers and mobile devices. Use biometric credentials like Face ID or fingerprint locks with phones and tablets, and never leave desktop or laptop machines unattended without first sending them into a password-protected sleep mode.

Give some thought to how the students interact with one another as well. Cyberbullying is a growing problem, and with smartphones becoming ubiquitous both inside as well as outside of the classroom, it’s harder to monitor than ever. Teachers should let students know that they can ask for help if they’re being bullied. They should also review the advice of experts who urge innovative responses to cyberbullying such as peer intervention and restorative practices.

Teachers should also be willing to listen to student voices on issues of cybersecurity. There have been several cases of student cybersecurity researchers who have uncovered serious issues and bugs, yet have struggled to get the attention of school officials or the technology companies involved. One of the best ways that teachers can engage their own students in the fight for better classroom cybersecurity is to set up an open door policy, letting their students know that they can come forward with their concerns and, more importantly, that they will be listened to.

Using your “teacher voice”

As a teacher, your voice carries weight—and not just in the classroom.

Since you’re on the front lines of defense when it comes to keeping schools safe from cyberthreats, it makes sense to use your voice to advocate for better digital security as well as smarter, more comprehensive policies.

You can engage parents in a dialog about cybersecurity, sharing information with them about how to work towards better security in schools or talking with them directly during parent-teacher conferences.

You can raise the issue with your school’s administrators or district officials.

And finally, if you’re a member of a teachers union, you can ask your union rep to press for better security protocols with the school board or with local and state governments, since cybersecurity is very much a workplace safety issue.

Raise your hand if you have a question 😉

If you’re a teacher, school administrator, parent or student, and you have a question about cybersecurity in the classroom, feel free to write to us at security@securemac.com. We’re always happy to hear from our readers and to help if we can.

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