How to ensure cybersecurity when students take devices home

Software allows IT teams to grant access to websites and spot troubling or inappropriate activity
By: | July 9, 2020
School district IT teams are using new cybersecurity software to keep students safe during online learning. (GettyImages/Tuan Tran)School district IT teams are using new cybersecurity software to keep students safe during online learning. (GettyImages/Tuan Tran)

When online learning students in Kansas’ rural Ulysses Public Schools can’t access a website a teacher has sent them to, they can use software installed on their computers to send an immediate request for approval to the district’s IT team.

The IT team received about 25 to 50 such requests a day in the days right after the shift to remote instruction, says Dennis Gonzales, the technology director.

IT staff granted access through the Impero software once they confirmed the teacher had provided the link.

The district sent home 1,500 devices in the spring and recently recollected all of them, except 50, to clean, update and redistribute to students for the new school year, Gonzales says.

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As for cybersecurity, Gonzales says, parents also have some responsibility to monitor how students use the devices.

“When they’re in school, we don’t allow to play games unless teach says it’s OK,” Gonzales says. “At home, that’s parents’ judgment to let them play games.”

A bright spot in the shift to remote instruction is that it motivated teachers to sharpen their online skills, Gonzales says.

“We’ve always had those teachers who struggled with wanting to move toward online classes,” he says. “They embraced the challenge and moved forward.”

A teacher’s role in cybersecurity

During normal school operations, IT teams put the burden on parents for monitoring students’ use of school devices at home.

But the shift to full-scale online learning forced districts and schools to take on the responsibility for 24/7 cybersecurity and compliance with student privacy laws, says Jim Morrill, the director of technology for Regional School Unit 25 in Maine.

That included giving teachers some guidance on how to best communicate with students online, considering some kids could be working in a McDonald’s because of a lack of internet access at home.

“We asked teachers to deliver lessons and answer questions in the online classroom but not discuss an individual student’s progress,” Morrill says.

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The district also runs Gaggle software in the background to watch out for inappropriate activity or students threatening to harm themselves or others.

The IT was also able to take control of devices remotely to provide troubleshooting assistance when, for instance, a student or teacher didn’t know how to allow Zoom to access their camera for an online class.

Headed into the new school year, the district will use the Brightspace learning management system so all students are on the same platform. The tool also allows teachers to create differentiated pathways for students who are progressing at different rates.

When online, the district’s teachers may only spend 15 to 20 minutes on a class meeting, and reserve the rest of the time with work with individual students or small groups, Morrill says.

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