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Overcoming security and privacy concerns with e-learning

Few of us can argue that the internet and its connected technology has changed the global educational landscape for the better. More students than ever before now have access to a quality education, no matter where they live. Lesson plans can be tailored to meet the learning needs of individual students.

At the postsecondary level, more than 15% of students were enrolled exclusively online in 2017. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a further 33.1% took at least one online course. It’s important to note that those impressive numbers don’t include remote students at the elementary or high school level.

Without modern technology and near-constant connectivity, online learning wouldn’t be possible. But while we have the internet to thank for our contemporary, robust e-learning landscape, security and privacy concerns are rampant as well.

How students can help secure their personal data

Even traditional students are not immune to online privacy breaches — everything from identity verification documents to coursework and transcripts may be stored online, in the cloud or elsewhere. Educators and administrators can do their part in keeping student information private, by making cybersecurity a high priority.

Furthermore, students should be taught the basics of online security best practices. While the bulk of cybersecurity is in the hands of trained techs and professionals, students can learn how to effectively safeguard their online data. Using complex passwords, installing antivirus software on all devices, and eschewing public WiFi in favor of more secure channels are simple security tools that should be part of every student's arsenal.

Cybersecurity is everyone’s business

While it’s a task that’s typically passed over to IT services, cybersecurity is something that everyone has a stake in. Unfortunately, in the realm of cybersecurity, an old cliché rings true: an institution's cybersecurity is only as strong as its weakest link.

Generally speaking, the weakest link in cybersecurity is its human element, from students and instructors to administrators, IT support, and beyond.

To combat a somewhat lackadaisical mindset when it comes to data security at an e-learning institution, awareness training may be effective. Educators should stay informed about any known threats, as well as proper security processes and procedures, such as what to do if you receive a suspicious email. (Spoiler: Don’t open it!)

As for students, every educational institution should consider introducing the basics of online security via a mandatory video. Thus, cybersecurity becomes part of the e-learning orientation process, and everyone involved is safer because of it.

The team approach to cybersecurity is especially important as universities continue to be plagued by phishing scams and large-scale data breaches.

Regarding privacy and phishing at the university level

Universities are hotspots for phishing scams, which have become increasingly common in recent years. Phishing scams involve sending emails to a large group of people, such as a university's student body, that appear to be from a reputable company or individual. The recipient is encouraged to send money to or share personal information with the sender.

Phishing is a popular avenue for cyberattacks largely because human decisions are involved. And it’s a lucrative business: There were more than 26,000 reported victims of phishing scams in 2018, who lost upwards of $48 million. Higher learning institutions targeted by phishing in recent years include Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh.

One of the world’s most notorious phishing scams seen in a campus environment occurred in 2016. Using malware, hackers extorted $20,000 from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, over a two-week period. Following the attack, the University beefed up its cybersecurity, and all students and faculty were required to change their email passwords.

The human element of data security

Logically, one may assume that spotting a shady email is easy, yet that’s not always the case, especially for students with limited tech experience. By design, phishing scams exist to exploit “a human’s natural propensity to feel and react automatically to authority and urgency,” writes CoinTracker.

Students are especially susceptible to scams that convey a sense of authority or that contain veiled threats regarding one’s permanent record. All students and educators should be on the lookout for suspicious emails that may be indicative of phishing scams.

But it’s not only finances at stake where student data privacy is concerned. Plagiarism is taken very seriously by e-learning institutions, and an unsecured WiFi network or data breach could result in the theft of intellectual property, including essays and research papers.

Protecting the personal identity of students

For young people, having a personal identity is paramount to growth and adult independence. And while school transcripts aren’t as enthralling as, say, a student’s personal music taste, they’re just as vital to personal identity. Thus, as previously discussed, students of all ages should be taught the basics of protecting their personal information from hackers.

Online security starts with a student’s connection source. In our constantly connected world, WiFi is everywhere. Its convenient ubiquity isn’t the whole story, however; public WiFi is easily corrupted by unscrupulous scammers looking to steal confidential information from unsuspecting users.

To ensure that your students’ data is as secure as possible, consider providing a run-down of the dos and don’ts of public WiFi. For instance, when connecting to public WiFi, students may want to use a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN) that encrypts user data and location information. File sharing should always be turned off as well, as keeping it on when on public WiFi is like having your back door open to hackers.

Finally, if you’re doing research or otherwise working or studying in an on-campus environment, don’t assume that the school’s connection is secure. In fact, data indicates that it’s probably not. An estimated 54% of schools don’t even require antivirus software on their in-house computers. A further 27% allow anyone in the community to access their open WiFi networks, which is a significant security risk.

Wrapping up

The unfortunate reality in e-learning environments is that schools are notoriously under-protected in the realm of cybersecurity, and need to step up their game. Unless you’re 100% sure of the security of a network, don’t connect to it, and be sure to pass that knowledge along to your students and colleagues.

Educators now have the responsibility to protect their own personal information and copyrighted online lessons, as well as that of their students. Cybersecurity now needs to become a cornerstone in every e-learning instructor’s lesson plan.