Cybersecurity Threats in Online Learning and How to Mitigate Them

The face of online learning has changed hugely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, over 1.5 billion students around the world were forced out of the classroom, with schools and colleges pivoting to online learning. 

But while online learning comes with a wealth of benefits, such as accessibility of time and place and affordability, it also comes with increased cybersecurity risks. Cyber criminals know that educators have now become reliant on online learning tools (spending at least 2 hours per day on their computer), and as such have developed new and advanced tactics to attack systems, thereby disrupting learning and setting students back. 

In order to stay safe online and continue educating your students, it’s important that you learn how to mitigate online attacks. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at the cybersecurity threats faced by online educators, and what can be done to prevent them.

A young female student at home, online learning.

Top Cybersecurity Threats 

Just as educators have been refining their online learning strategies, cyber criminals have been busy working out ways to access, compromise and steal their data:

Ransomware

Ransomware is on the rise, with a total of 304 million ransomware attacks worldwide in 2020. It’s a form of malicious online attack that blocks the educator’s access to their system until they’ve paid a set amount of money. 

DDoS Attacks 

A DDoS attack (Distributed Denial of Service) overwhelms your server by flooding it with internet traffic, thus rendering your site or service unavailable and denying students access. This is especially disruptive as these attacks can last from a couple of days to a few weeks. A report showed that between January and June 2020, the number of DDoS attacks affecting educational resources increased by at least 300-500%, compared to the corresponding months in 2019.

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Human Error 

Human error can manifest in many ways, from having weak passwords to giving up sensitive information to phishing emails, which give attackers a foothold into the organization. A study found that human error is the main cause of 95% of cybersecurity breaches. 

For example, cloud computing is seen as offering protective armor against cyber criminals, and it’s recommended that educators and students back up their data in the cloud. However, nothing is safe from hackers, with estimates suggesting that 7.5 million attacks were attempted on cloud accounts in the first half of 2020 alone. In particular, criminals are on the lookout for unpatched systems and cloud servers that have no passwords—two factors that students and educators have control over.

Here’s How to Mitigate Cybersecurity Threats 

Staying safe online is what we all want to do, and that should go for both teachers and students. Here are some things you can do to – as best as possible – prevent cybersecurity attacks from disrupting your systems: 

Manage User Privileges 

It’s important that schools manage user privileges so that only trusted users have access to their systems. This will not only help to reduce the risk of calculated attacks, it will also reduce the risk of accidental attacks. 

If a staff member is no longer on the payroll, you’ll also need to revoke their access instantly. 

A young female student at home, doing her online learning about school and cyber threats.

Vet Third-Party Providers

Schools and colleges will naturally use software and platforms created by third party providers, such as Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace. Before you sign up for any of them, you need to check their safety and security measures. Are they as thorough as yours? How much sensitive data of your own will be shared?

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If after checking their security policy you’re still unsure, you can carry out a questionnaire. It’s really important that you ask questions and get answers, because 80% of companies who had a security breach found that the trouble came from their vendor system.

Empower Your Students 

As well as training your staff, it’s also important that you educate your students about cybersecurity. 

There are companies that help with this, too. For example, Cybint offers cybersecurity training services that are aimed at both the educator and the students.

Among other things, it’s important that you teach your students the value of good password management, such as creating strong passwords and not writing them down on paper. Teach them about how to spot suspicious emails, too, and that it’s essential not to click on links that don’t look right. 

You could also hold online meetings with parents, too, and discuss things such as the importance of always using secure WiFi, as well as the possibility of using a VPN to protect the students’ traffic from falling into the wrong hands. 

Protect Yourself With End-to-End Encryption 

End-to-end encryption ensures that your messages are encrypted so that only you and the intended recipient sees them. It helps to keep you and your students safe online, preventing your important data from being intercepted and used against you.

For example, you could build a custom communication app that has end-to-end encryption to protect messages, images and files – among other things – while allowing effective students and educators to communicate in real-time.

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Regularly Update Content Filters 

Content filters establish rules about the types of websites you and your students can access. Unwanted categories are blocked, which serves the triple purpose of keeping undesirable content away from students, restricting access to sites that are known for posing a high risk of malware, and improving productivity.

Wrapping Up 

The internet is a fantastic place for online learning, but it’s also a dangerous place. It’s important that educators understand the biggest cybersecurity threats they and their students face, and that you put measures in place that help mitigate them. 

Then, make sure to keep checking up on the latest advancements in cybersecurity so that you stay one step ahead of the cyber criminals.

Michelle.Deery

Michelle Deery is a content writer with over 8 years of experience. She specializes in writing content for SaaS companies. The words she writes convert readers into paying customers. Learn more at her website michelledeery.com and connect with her on Twitter @MichWriting.