Home Features How to tackle network risks in schools

How to tackle network risks in schools

by Andy Clutton

How can networking technology in education help keep schools, students, and staff secure? Gary Roche, Business Development Manager and Education Specialist at TP-Link UK explains. 

According to Ofcom, 97% of children own a mobile device by the age of 12 – within their first year of starting secondary school. The UK Government recently announced its plans to crack down on smartphone usage in schools, claiming it can “lead to online bullying, distraction and classroom disruption which, in turn, can lead to lost learning time”. With only 68% of secondary schools having a digital strategy in place in 2023, the time to act is now.

Meanwhile, schools are navigating new challenges with the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in education, in particular regulating its use in independent studies, such as coursework, while identifying areas it can best facilitate learning. This is made more challenging with schemes such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) that can make regulation and managing distractions across connected devices more difficult.

Schools and academies are therefore tasked with creating a digital learning environment where technology can enrich learning and help students excel, while managing security and safety risks. At the heart of this issue is ensuring schools have a stable and secure network infrastructure that will not only effectively host all devices but protect students and staff too.

Identifying the digital risks

With 98% of teachers using technology for classroom activities and 80% to support homework, it is becoming a staple of modern education and an unavoidable tool of the future. As such a cascade of network and safeguarding concerns for teachers, staff and parents has reared its head. As more pupils attend school equipped with smartphones, the Global Education Monitor warns that growing use of mobile phones is creating an increased risk to student privacy. The United Nations echoes this sentiment, suggesting that “only technology that supports learning” should be allowed within schools.

These challenges are emphasised by the fact that just under half of young children are now opting for an internet or social media based activity to enjoy during their playtime. While innate digital connections have become shorthand to members of Generation Z and Alpha, the risk of exposure to inappropriate web pages and cyberbullying have highlighted unsecure networks as a significant safeguarding concern.

Social networking applications centre this issue. While they can be blocked by a school’s networking infrastructure, social media can create a significant negative impact on learning if not monitored or managed effectively. More than 80% of students have admitted to using social media during classes – impacting in-lesson engagement levels and learning outcomes, which has continued to play an active role in distracting students during lessons.

Tackling cyber risks with urgency

External security risks add another layer of complexity to network security in education. Six in ten higher-education establishments have experienced a cyber breach, attack or the introduction of ransomware to their internal network. As these often involve extortion of some kind, or have illicit intentions, the need for a strengthened and secure network is of paramount importance. Given 99% of secondary schools use technology to store and manage student data, the sensitivity of this issue cannot be understated.

Students and staff can knowingly – or unknowingly – introduce viruses and ransomware into the network. A third of UK-based secondary schools have experienced cybercrime in the last 12 months – the need for more secure and robust networking solutions becomes even more urgent.

While most SDN (software-defined networking) providers do not provide filtering or firewall systems as standard, education establishments should not overlook their importance – filtering content is a critical step to securing a network.

Secure networks light the path of digital transformation and help to protect End User Device investment and security – keeping staff and students safe online. What is perhaps most fundamental when segmenting wireless network trafficking are the role of SSIDs (service set identifiers). An SSID helps to develop cohesion in the network by directing users to the correct network offering to suit their needs. Furthermore, SSIDs can be used to apply filtering elements across the network to ensure teachers and students can access only the relevant content needed in a safe manner.

Robust and secure networking capabilities are critical to helping establish and deliver high-quality duty-of-care considerations when handling sensitive data. With half of all UK higher education establishments already developing a cybersecurity strategy, the importance of this is now being recognised.

By securing internal networks, an establishment can reduce the chance of data interception by cybercriminals targeting weaker links. Upskilling staff and students will help schools become more vigilant of cyber risks and the exploitation of sensitive data. Through building  a knowledge base around digital risks and harmful content online, schools can further secure their networks and help staff and students protect themselves.

Alleviating concerns through a secure network

In both primary and secondary schools, secure digital networks that incorporate web page restrictions guide students to content appropriate for their age range and protect against inappropriate content. By doing so, essential digital etiquette can be taught at a young age to both manage what students see and guide what they explore online.

Furthermore, by employing secure and easy-to-use networking devices through harnessing the power of high security Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), advanced Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3) encryptions, 2-factor authentication methods, automated web blockers, and captive portals, schools can relieve pressure on stretched IT teams by limiting the need for manual control. In doing so, schools can increase the value of learning processes by limiting and restricting distractions from inappropriate or irrelevant content and secure networks from external threats. Students can then feel empowered to freely explore digital tools without the fear of accidentally accessing harmful content.

Confidence that a network has the capability to handle additional BYOD workloads cannot be understated. Additional network occupants come from student-owned devices, which now include personal smartphones, tablets and laptops used in lessons. By developing this, schools can encourage students to engage with educational content they find useful online and foster a secure online environment encouraging appropriate student responses and behaviours within the classroom.

Perhaps two of the most important elements to consider when securing a Wi-Fi network in schools are speed and accessibility. Dealing with slow networks, users might seek alternatives (such as using personal mobile hotspots), and such replacements can introduce further networking issues as they may not be as secure or safe – this increases the likelihood of data transfer interception and access to irrelevant/inappropriate information. Establishments should consider just how important these elements are to safeguarding, especially with increasing levels of budgetary constraints within schools.

Balancing restrictions with exploration of digital tools

 While schools navigate safety and security concerns, they are under pressure to tackle issues with online distractions impacting student attention spans and overall performance.  An issue sparked by the pandemic and remote learning, many schools are now falling behind expected standards across the UK. In Scotland, one in four children are falling below pre-pandemic primary school standards while students in Wales are facing a standard drop of almost one year across reading, maths and science.

To reduce further impact on student performance, schools need to strike a balance between limiting access to online resources that can distract students, with giving them the freedom to explore digital tools online that enhance learning and improve student engagement.

Interactive and digital learning-based tools can help reengage students with the content of their lessons. Interactive whiteboards, mobile tablets and AR/VR can directly improve  learning outcomes. Research suggests that gamified experiential technology (GET) can improve academic wellbeing and motivation, helping students work better both independently and in a team, all while enjoying their learning experiences.

Moreover, the UK Government introduced the ‘Connect the Classroom’ initiative in 2023, which further recognised the importance of faster networking in developing the digital classroom. With tools such as these, schools can now use recording technology to analyse and chart student behaviour patterns or attention spans, allowing Special Education Needs Coordinators (SENCo) to create specialised and individual learning plans for particular students.

Role of networking technology in supporting tech-literacy

Technology should be used to supplement lessons, minimise poor behaviour and drive engagement in a way that works for all students. Today’s digital-first students typically have a high literacy with technology, but some students may struggle with certain aspects or take longer than others to adapt to new technology and digital tools. Ensuring tech literacy across the board is imperative in creating an equal learning environment for all students.

Effective network infrastructures allow Special Education Needs (SEN) students to harness technology that provides enhanced accessibility and equity within the classroom. This includes data heavy programs such as: text to speech software; voice recognition and dictation software; and interactive whiteboards. None of these adjustments can be implemented without secure and stable networking in place.

Having these digital accommodations provides students with SEN the ability to focus and engage with interactive and collaborative learning environments, ensuring that institutions can provide an equitable level of teaching across the classroom. It is also important that schools meet digital and technology standards outlined by The Department of Education which champions that each advancement in the classroom should consider accessibility to support students and staff. By meeting this standard a collaborative and communicative environment can be developed.

Classrooms of the future adding value to school life

Technology has become an immovable object within the classroom and is essential to accommodating student learning, particularly in addressing issues with engagement and performance. The objective at present is ensuring students can excel in their studies and gain the necessary skills to comfortably move into the working world. To achieve this, schools need to keep up with the technology available to students outside of the classroom to ensure lessons are engaging and are delivered in ways that meet each individuals’ needs.

The classroom of the future will no doubt continue to follow technology’s lead, further incorporating smart features to meet the growing demands of students and their connected devices. At the heart of this is a robust networking solution that adds value to student learning by allowing them to use interactive online platforms and digital tools, but with minimal security risks to keep students and staff protected.

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