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5 Things to teach to develop cyber-savvy students

A version of this post was originally published on November 25, 2019, in Education Technology.

A sense of security is something usually unseen yet it’s paramount to a great learning experience. Educators have always tried to ensure a safe learning environment for students, as a way to reduce negative outcomes and increase retention rates. Nobody can learn anything new when they feel they’re in danger, after all.

Schools of all shapes and sizes have done a wonderful job at protecting their students, especially if we’re talking about the physical premises; there are gated campuses, security guards, access cards, surveillance cameras and even AI-powered software that contribute to maintaining a safe environment. Even though exceptions do exist, educational institutions are quite safe to be in, nonetheless.

But the physical space is just one aspect of ensuring student safety while they engage in learning activities. With educational technologies taking over the classroom, the virtual learning environment needs to be a safe space for students as well.

Online safety is a concern in many industries but within the context of education it automatically takes bigger proportions. Not only do educational institutions handle a lot of sensitive data (be that academic records, personal information, financial details, and more), but that data belongs to minors most of the times. Identity theft affects children as well, as their clean records are very desirable in the eyes of cybercriminals.

Protecting student online data is a complex matter and only a complex team of people can do it successfully. Every stakeholder must be involved, from the school management to the faculty body and other staff to each student, their parents and anyone who might need to access that data.

Read more: Ensuring online safety in schools is everyone’s business

While everyone has their role to play, let’s focus on students at this time.

5 Things to teach to develop cyber-savvy students

Most students today barely remember the world without internet access and have a hard time wrapping their heads around the usefulness of encyclopedias. Smartphones are in their hands, more and more, from a younger and younger age. They grew up (or are growing up) with technology literally at their fingertips, so they intuitively know how to get around new ones.

But being tech-savvy from a young age is not enough. If we want our students to become great digital citizens — and we do — we need to teach them to be cyber-savvy as well.

Here are a few tips on how to help students become so. Consider these to be the basis of a healthy online presence, so that the younger the students are when they master these concepts, the better.

  1. Always have an up-to-date antivirus

    Antivirus software does an amazing job of protecting devices from all sorts of malware. It ensures users will avoid many cyber attacks by default or at least it will notify anything that seems suspect. Students should only use computers, laptops, tablets or phones that are protected.

    A lesson about the importance of having an antivirus program installed on each device they use to access the internet should answer at least the following questions:

    • What is an antivirus program and where can you find it?
    • How to check whether a device is protected?
    • How to install a new antivirus?
    • What kind of malware does it protect your device from?
  2. Never use weak passwords

    “123456”, “password”, “qwerty” — these are probably the best examples of the worst passwords. The surprising reality is that too many people still use these kinds of passwords for their online accounts. It’s therefore imperative for students to know how to create and use only strong passwords for their online activities.

    A lesson on the importance of strong passwords should include at least the following ideas:

    • How to create complex and unique passwords for each online account
    • How frequent you should change your passwords
    • The case for using a password manager
    • Why it’s best to prevent public networks or computers to save or store your passwords
  3. Be cautious with free Wi-Fi

    Not all that shines is gold, and not all that calls itself “free” actually is. Free Wi-Fi connections are everywhere: the city center, malls, coffee houses, etc. For someone who doesn’t have a great data plan (which is the case for many students) these connections are alluring. But they are also risky, opening up users to malware distributions and other cyber-attacks. Students need to know better.

    A lesson on developing critical thinking regarding the use of free Wi-Fi connections should include:

    • How to discern between connections that are ok and those that are not
    • What kind of data is ok to share
    • The types of data and files that are never ok to share
    • What kind of online activity comes with the lowest risk
  4. Learn how to identify potential scams

    Cybercriminals are expert in finding multiple ways of tricking unsuspecting online users to give them their personal information. Text messages and direct messages on social media websites, emails and voice calls are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to phishing methods and students need to learn how to identify potential scams and avoid them.

    A lesson about avoiding phishing scams should include discussions about at least these topics:

    • What is phishing and why to cybercriminals develop these scams?
    • What are some obvious clues about phishing?
    • What are some of the less obvious clues that can give them away?
    • Whether or not it’s ok to interact with a proven scammer?
  5. Report any problems related to cybersecurity

    Cybercrime is still crime, no matter if it happens online. Profit-oriented individuals, trolls and bullies may hide behind online curtains, but that doesn’t make them less responsible for their actions. Being a good digital citizen means not only to behave responsibly online but also to raise the alarm when someone else doesn’t. Students themselves may not be able to do much, but the simple reporting of such misbehavior to any adult can go a long way.

    Read more: 5 Aspects of digital citizenship students must be aware of

    A lesson regarding how important it is for the entire educational community that everyone report any action that might be a cybercrime should include:

    • What is cyberbullying and how to recognize it
    • Why the fault should never be put on the victim
    • Why any suspicion is worth reporting
    • The importance of why students should go to any adult, teacher or parent, to report any online misbehavior.

All in all

Educational institutions will always need to provide all their students a safe learning environment, be it physical or online. Cybersecurity measures become more important as more students engage in online activities for their studies. No matter how old they are, they need to know first how to protect themselves from a cyber attack. That’s why it’s important to teach them about antivirus software, how to create and manage the most secure passwords, the risks of public Wi-Fi connections, how to identify potential cyber-scams and also that they should report any suspicious activity to the responsible adult.

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