As digital transformations take over the education sector, schools and educational institutions must reap its benefits for learning and engagement and equip themselves to face cybersecurity challenges. Cyber-attacks have been rampant among academic institutions, including the University of Winnipeg’s data networks being infiltrated by a threat actor. While the university took down its networks, the incident still disrupted student services and compromised personal information among staff and students, signifying the severe consequences of cyber-crimes.

Across the country, schools of all levels and sizes are also experiencing cyber threats, with 21 percent of educational services having their operations negatively impacted by privacy and security breaches. Now that more and more institutions are transitioning to virtual spaces in light of remote and hybrid learning, cybersecurity is increasingly becoming a priority. This alarming trend entails a better understanding of the implications of cyber-crimes and how educators and school administrators can address these through cybersecurity strategies.

Impact of cybersecurity challenges on education

Cybersecurity challenges in education can range from malicious software and ransomware that exploit computer system vulnerabilities to phishing attacks and account takeovers aimed at gaining unauthorized access to sensitive data like personal information, academic records, and financial details. Regardless of which cyber threat exists at your school, here are the most significant consequences of data breaches.

Financial losses

The average cost of cybercrime response and recovery can vary by industry. Still, global estimates on the cost of a data breach can reach up to US$4.45 million (approximately CA$6.11 million) per incident. These costs typically cover insurance deductibles, payment for cybersecurity services like system recovery, and, in some cases, the replacement of affected hardware and software. The financial impact can be especially damaging among smaller schools and institutions, but all educational budgets are otherwise vulnerable to cybersecurity incidents.

Disruptions to productivity and learning

Since cybercriminals aim to infiltrate not only a single device but entire systems and networks, cyber threats and attacks can take a long time to identify, monitor, and respond to. So, network downtime can result in productivity and learning disruptions that can range anywhere from three days to three weeks.

Personal and reputational damage

Lastly, personal data leaks, such as the incident involving four schools in Calgary where hackers stole student images, can psychologically damage victims. Their identities could be stolen, and their information could be sold to the dark web for illegal activities. Beyond personal harm, schools’ reputations can also take a hit since families may be encouraged to send their children to other institutions with safer cybersecurity measures.

Fortunately, such consequences can be minimized through the cybersecurity safeguards discussed in the following section.

Safeguarding schools from cyber threats and attacks

Cybersecurity awareness education

Reducing the risk of data breaches starts with increasing cybersecurity awareness among teachers, students, and school administrators. So, while a previous post advocates for open and free communication in the age of technology, it also warns against spam emails that can compromise privacy and security through social engineering.

Besides being trained on recognizing these phishing scams, all parties involved can also be taught about standard cybersecurity practices to incorporate into their daily routines. These include using unique and strong passwords for their accounts and devices and consistently backing up their data.

VPN use

With more and more schools taking advantage of the cloud for data storage and organization, schools must also invest in virtual private networks to protect the vast amounts of information they have. VPNs can encrypt the internet connection to prevent hackers from stealing teachers' and students’ personal information.

VPNs must be installed in computer networks and devices like classroom televisions, which are increasingly becoming tools for more engaging and immersive edtech. In this light, NordVPN is a secure VPN option for both Apple and Microsoft devices, as it can be easily set up and connected to a private server for end-to-end encryption and protection from online traffic and third-party monitoring. Besides enabling schools to choose a subscription plan that fits their budget and needs, the VPN provider also has additional benefits, like bypassing censorship to expand the educational content students can access and watch.

Risk monitoring and assessment

In addition to adopting these measures, schools and educational institutions must conduct regular risk monitoring and assessments as security challenges evolve.

These organizations can thus take advantage of platforms like SecurityScorecard, which has recently partnered with the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security to deliver security ratings and real-time monitoring across critical data infrastructures. By using the platform’s A through F letter-grade rating system, institutions can easily measure and quantify their cyber risks and make more informed decisions on responding to and eliminating security threats.

Overall, cybersecurity requires coordination among school administrators, teachers, and students to continue leveraging the benefits of digital transformation in education without compromising personal and organizational privacy and safety.

About the author

Ruby Doherty is a freelance writer with a deep interest in health and education, having been inspired by her own struggles while growing up. When she is not busy caring for her only son or reading about the latest news in nutrition, Ruby is passionate about preparing healthy meals for her community.