Academic institutions on alert: A guide on keeping classrooms risk-free

Hybrid working has led to an unprecedented wave of new changes across all industries. Now, people around the world want to feel empowered while working and be able to access information from anywhere, anytime. The use of technology has significantly increased in recent years and in fact, all sectors – public or private – have become more reliant on technology to pave their way to digital transformation.

One area that has experienced some of the most significant changes in recent times is the education sector. It was one of the sectors most affected by the pandemic, and schools and universities have had to adapt in a very short window of time and increase their ability to facilitate remote studying and working, as most of the facilities had to close. Though a challenging period, remote learning has now established itself as being critical to students’ success. Teaching is no longer limited to a classroom or a college lecture hall, a blackboard and a professor. Educational institutions now offer a virtual or hybrid setting for students, and the use of online portals is becoming more common.

With more educational institutions accelerating their digital transformation plans and increasing remote connections, especially through videoconferencing, this has widened exposure to cyber risks. In fact, hackers perceive the education sector as often lagging in cyber maturity and therefore an easy territory to target. According to the DCMS 2022 Cyber Security Breaches Survey, around six in ten (62%) higher education institutions reported experiencing breaches or attacks at least weekly. Additionally, 71% per cent of institutions have experienced the negative consequences of a data breach, such as the loss of money or data.

Criminals often seek to exploit the weaknesses of these institutions by stealing online credentials such as names, passwords and e-mail addresses, and selling this valuable information on the dark web. The use of personal devices is yet another challenge for institutions, as they increase the institutions’ attack surface. These changes have created new identity and access management issues, which, if left unaddressed, can result in major cybersecurity breaches.

Managing the growing number of digital identities

Besides the costly implementation of new digital solutions and platforms, managing online access to networks and applications can prove rather challenging. Picture this. At the start of an academic year or semester, IT departments in educational institutions are flooded with thousands of new users that need to be incorporated or deleted from the institution’s databases. All these users will hold different privileges when accessing resources, with each user requiring specific access rights.

This is a cyclical exercise that puts the limited internal IT resources to the test when storing and managing data. Adding to this, users are expecting a seamless and stress-free process when accessing a variety of systems and applications, creating extra pressure on schools and universities to provide a consistent and user-friendly online experience for students and teachers. However, this whole process can be easily streamlined by tapping into the capabilities of a privileged access management security solution. This can automatically attribute the right level of privilege to the right user and continuously assess and update the user identities present on the network.

Increased use of technology in the classroom

In recent times, digital processes have become a permanent fixture in educational processes. Online portals are being used on a regular basis, with students uploading homework and teachers checking written content. Sharing files and working collaboratively outside of a classroom environment have also increased the need for digital tools. With the uptick of new technologies in the classroom, this increases the cyber risk as there are more endpoints for the institutions to secure. In many cases, professors and students connect to the educational institution’s network with their personal devices.

In addition to an institution’s core community, there are also external members that need access to the online network, for example students who take online courses and are based outside of the country, IT service providers and application suppliers. At the same time, regulatory compliance and data privacy standards affect the education sector just like any other industry. As students and teachers alike require easy and secure access to online and collaborative resources from day one, IT teams are way too often struggling to keep the classrooms safe and secure. In this case, a privileged access management solution can come to the rescue, and provide strict and granular control of privileged access together with traceability of actions to seamlessly mitigate the growing number of entry points for cybercriminals.

Addressing the identity and access challenges

Nowadays, schools and universities must adopt a proactive approach when it comes to dealing with cybersecurity threats, as the reality of a successful cyberattack can have drastic consequences. The good news is that there are tools that provide the extra layer of protection needed, by assessing the privilege level of users on an on-going basis and ensure that students or teachers gain the right privilege level, at any time and location. This not only creates a safer, but ultimately a more user-friendly and efficient online experience for everyone. Among all the current and future challenges faced by the education sector, those of identity management and access security will empower academic institutions to advance in their digital transformation. The most important lesson is understanding how powerful technologies can pave the way towards more secure learning experiences.