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How to secure remote learning

Amer Owaida, security writer at ESET explains that as schools and students continue to contend with the very real cyber-risks of virtual classrooms, and he shares some advice for protecting children’s data and privacy

The COVID-19 pandemic is still here, with pupils and students still soldiering on mostly remotely and focusing on their education from the confines of their houses. While another semester studying from home isn’t what many children, parents and teachers were looking forward to, they are doing their best under the circumstances … which in itself is an admirable feat.

Remote education presents its own set of challenges, especially where data privacy is concerned, but they’re not impossible to manage assuming everybody pitches in and does their part. This Data Privacy Day, known in Europe as Data Protection Day, we look at some of the ways that educators and parents can make a virtual classroom a secure space that protects the privacy of kids and their data.

Choose the right tools for the job 
One of the key elements of getting remote education right is choosing the proper tools for teaching and learning online. Keeping that in mind, the applications should comply with the privacy and security regulations needed to protect students’ data. This means that when you’re deciding on the platform you’ll be using it’s better to rely on reputable vendors that have a verifiable track record and understand your institution’s needs; for example, Google Workspace, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom for Education are all platforms widely used in distance education.

On that note, institutions may look into other supplementary applications they would like to use to educate their students, however, not every proposed ed-tech solution is suitable. Before you opt for a solution you should perform a deep dive into how it handles user data, what its Terms of Service and Privacy Policy are, and whether it has been rigorously vetted or even approved by the authorities. In the case of the United States, the tools should be compliant with the Family Educational Right and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

One of the approaches to remote teaching that should be avoided is social media, since these platforms are not geared towards teaching and may open up a whole other can of worms. Also, some of these platforms may not comply with data protection standards aimed at children; meanwhile, another issue is that users must be at least 13 years old to create a profile, in theory anyway. You also have to factor in the risks that social media in particular pose, such as cases of cyberbullying or predators lurking in the shadows. And let’s not forget about the amount of data collected for targeted advertising.

Institute data protection measures and train staff
While choosing the right applications that comply with children’s data protection regulations is a great start, educational institutions need to introduce robust data privacy protection measures and policies of their own. This should be the role of IT admins who’ll decide which applications and programs should be used depending on the needs of the teachers and the student body, as well as security requirements.

Admins should also focus on creating secure storage for student data including their exams, notes, basically anything that might contain any type of data that could be abused or misused. Another option worth considering is instituting the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) solution to add an extra layer of security when accessing applications and data housed on the school’s servers. Additionally, every member of the staff should undergo proper training on how to use the apps and what privacy options should be turned on to prevent any private data from leaking and from strangers intruding on classes.

Educate children about the internet
With most of the education and socialization being done online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is necessary to teach children the skills they’ll need to remain safe and respectful while interacting with others on the internet. Both parents and teachers should have a hand in demonstrating the threats that the online world poses for minors who aren’t quite able to handle them. This includes the risk of being exposed to inappropriate content on social media and to cyberbullying.

The latter, especially, shouldn’t be taken lightly: since all of the interaction takes place online, kids might not be aware of how hurtful the behavior might be if they partake in cyberbullying themselves. Indeed, the online disinhibition effect is a well-documented phenomenon, where people say and do things online that they would not say in real life and feel little to no remorse for their actions since they can’t see their effects. Therefore, it is crucial to explain to children that bullying, both in real life and online, has consequences and they should steer well clear of it.

Another key aspect that children should be taught in the digital age is proper internet etiquette when interacting with peers and elders alike. That includes being respectful when commenting, socializing, or even playing video games – when playing online, emotions tend to run high and abusive language is often used. Safer Kids Online is a great source of information, especially for parents who want to take a more hands-on approach in teaching today’s generation of connected kids.

Get parents involved
Speaking of parents taking a more hands-on approach, they should also be involved in setting up the devices and applications their offspring will use to get a remote education. While it is true that children nowadays are tech savvier than those of any earlier generation, they still can make mistakes and may download a fake version of an app they need and thus infest a computer or other device with malware. However, instead of parents just downloading all the apps themselves, they could involve their children and teach them safe downloading habits, which could help them in the long run.

Although parents’ attitudes towards parental controls may vary, it is a thing that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially since kids are spending even more time online than ever before. Indeed, besides their schoolwork, children’s social lives are often limited to the online world, and since that is the case, it’s probably safer to keep an eye on who they interact with and how. For example, the FBI, for one, has warned that children have been at greater risk of encountering various types of criminals online during the pandemic.

While the pandemic will eventually subside, remote teaching may be here to stay in some manner or form. Whether you’re a parent, teacher or IT admin, you can use the tips in this article to create a safer remote teaching environment and foster robust cybersecurity habits among your staff and students.

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