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Schooling security: How safe are Kiwi kids in the age of hybrid learning?

By Mitchell Hageman
Fri 25 Feb 2022

With the inevitability of online and hybrid schooling becoming the norm for many Kiwi kids, parents and educators are finding the risks significantly higher than they were pre-pandemic.

And although cyber safety is the overriding theme of concern, a number of other factors from accessibility to device usage have impacted the way various challenges are navigated. From a wide range of opportunities for hackers to exploit to the exposure of sensitive content to tamariki, the online environment has never been so unsafe in a learning capacity.

Last year, more than 550 schools in Aotearoa took part in a crown facilitated survey called Touchpoint, which ran in June 2021. This survey analysed feedback from the schools and surprisingly found that 88% of them felt confident they could deliver secure protection online for students.

Unfortunately for some, confidence would have been short-lived as a result of the infamous Kaseya ransomware attack that hit 11 schools around the country in July 2021. Although short-lived, sensitive information was stolen and trust in educational technology systems severely wavered as a result. It proved that software choices and monitoring are crucial in preventing extremely damaging data breaches, especially when concerning tamariki.

A key benefit of the aforementioned report was that it provided insight into the challenges faced by schools and Kura, and identified three areas where schools would like more technology support. 

These were:

  • Online safety
  • Device and internet access
  • IT support 

All of these themes have strong links to cybersecurity and good management practices by schools, which are ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of their student's educational needs and experiences.

The report also revealed that a variety of factors determined if learning was safe and effective, whether it came as a result of socio-economic backgrounds, prior learning experiences or family situations.

It proved that cybersecurity in schools was a distinctly human issue, and it takes many systems and processes to implement successful strategies. When it comes to cybersecurity, the days of the traditional kiwi number 8 fixes are gone, and schools and parents now have to be on their A-game.

"Touchpoint shows that schools and kura need, more than ever, to be supported around online safety, remote learning and managing their technology so they are free to teach and ākonga are free to learn," says N4L (Network 4 Learning) CEO Larrie Moore, who helped facilitate the research, and commented on the findings.

In an article published by Manukau Institute of Technology, Dr Sreenivas Tirumala also reinforced the fact that the country's schools may be under threat, saying that the growth of BYOD devices has contributed to a 40% increase in security breaches over a 12 month period. 

He says the lack of standardised frameworks and cybersecurity skills has led to schools becoming more vulnerable, and he is working with InternetNZ to conduct a study on how safety can be improved. Tirumala also hopes to provide his research to the government in order to help further improve cybersecurity practices for schools around the country.

Although there is sustained risk and a lack of standardised frameworks, government initiatives are already working to help provide educators with a clearer path forward during these challenging times.

The Ministry of Education are vital players in ensuring cybersecurity is a top priority when it comes to the safety of online schooling. They fund and partner extensively with Netsafe and Network 4 Learning, which provides various tools and assistance measures for parents and educators to navigate the online learning climate. 

"During the early part of the pandemic some schools reported issues creating secure online learning environments, which we assisted them with, including a partnership with Network 4 Learning and Netsafe to produce a free content filter, Switch on Safety," says Āpiha matihiko Rangatira | chief digital officer, Te Puna Hanganga, Matihiko | infrastructure & digital, Stuart Wakefield.

He says that although schools are responsible for their own ICT environments and decisions to ensure student cyber safety, the Ministry provides guidelines and resources to follow. They have also been instrumental in providing secure devices and Wi-Fi to schools and students who need it.

"Since 2020, the Ministry has distributed more than 40,000 devices to schools to enable online learning and this continues as new cohorts of students move through their education during the pandemic. We also work with utility companies to establish Wi-Fi connections to students in remote areas, and subsidise internet connections to households identified by schools as needing that assistance," he says.

As well as their partner content and support, the Ministry provides advice on technology, including good cybersecurity, and guidance and support for delivering hybrid models of learning.

"The Ministry of Education also funds regionally-allocated professional learning and development to support digital teaching and learning," says Wakefield.

The Ministry also advises a range of basic cybersecurity measures to keep tamariki safe, such as:

Device and information security

  • Avoiding the use of public hotspots for school devices
  • Maintain confidentiality of student information
  • Only use approved BYOD devices or school-issued ones
  • Avoid using personal USB or Hard Drives as they may contain malware

Awareness of phishing and scams

  • Treat suspicious emails with caution and never click links that ask for personal details
  • Consider whether the email was expected and check the sender's details carefully
  • Don't disclose sensitive, personal, or financial information in emails, texts, or instant messaging
  • Don't disclose any information over the telephone without first confirming the caller's identity

Wakefield also says that the Ministry consistently updates their advice and provides key points of contact through their message and advice boards specifically for schools and educators.

"We support schools with advice and best practice on our website, and twice-weekly updates for school leaders during periods of intense covid response through our school bulletins (as well as our regular school bulletins)," he says.

Although cyber threat is a significant problem in the age of hybrid learning in Aotearoa, and there's always work to be done, parents and educators can likely be comforted by the knowledge that there are tools and systems out there working to keep children safe. Those who are aware, alert and prepared will undoubtedly be better off in the long run.

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Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
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