A Primer on Cyber Security For Students and Families Schooling at Home

As many as 60% of parents are considering at-home education for P-12 children in the Fall of 2020. No matter how many families make that choice, many or most will be using computers at home. These may be computers shared with other family members or computers dedicated to home learning. Either way, the home computer environment is likely to be different from the one at school:

  • The computers are not controlled by a school (or district) IT department.
  • There are likely few or no controls on what sites the computers can visit (formerly called whitelisting and blacklisting of sites).
  • There is no computer lab monitor to oversee student computer use.

Here is a list of some steps families can take to help with the security and safety of computer use at home. This is not an exhaustive list but rather an essential starting point. This list is useful even if families do not choose homeschooling or virtual schooling. (Virtual schooling is a situation where a traditional teacher online as opposed to a homeschool environment independent of a traditional school or district teaches the student). Some schools may issue computers or tablets to families, but most of these steps also apply to those devices. In some cases, the local school district will also have policies. It is good to check.

Important Steps to Take

  • First and foremost homeschool and virtual instructors need to stress the importance of cyber security and internet safety. They don’t need to be experts in the area, but they do need to be aware of critical issues. Few parents know how to support their children online. Local districts, homeschool organizations, and others can help parents become familiar with the issues. Children of all ages are particularly vulnerable to “social engineering” – a form of manipulation frequently used by hackers.
  • As we stress in Learning Tree’s cyber security introduction course, keep the operating systems, applications, anti-virus, and router firmware up-to-date. Ensure that automatic update is enabled to keep the operating systems current. Anti-virus tools tend to update regularly if the subscription is current. If you are using a tool other than the one included with an operating system, check the tool and verify it is current. I use ZoneAlarm and have my subscription set to renew every year.
    Keeping the router firmware current is more difficult. Check the manual or the internet for specific instructions, as there are many brands and models all with different steps to update the firmware (the software inside the router). Updating can help protect the home network from eavesdroppers.
  • Back up your computers. Software that backs up the system and user files online is inexpensive and can be critical if files are lost or a system is damaged.
  • Know what software children will need to use for classes and what websites they will need to visit. It is especially to monitor the computer use of younger children. Adults and children often find themselves following links and continuing reading about an interesting topic. Many children don’t know which links are safe and which are not.
  • There is software available to restrict access to sites believed to be child-safe. I have not used any in many years so I do not feel confident in recommending any. A district or homeschooling group could be of help here. Another option is to configure the computers’ DNS resolver (that converts website names to addresses) to 1.1.1.1, which is designed to be family-friendly. You can find the instructions to do that at https://blog.cloudflare.com/introducing-1-1-1-1-for-families/
  • Children need to be cautioned to avoid chatting or messaging people they don’t know. Someone volunteering to “help” with a difficult math or geography topic may be someone intending harm instead of help.
  • Monitor social media use and have rules for its use. Particularly caution against sharing personal information. A post that “we’re going to spend Friday at the zoo” or “our camping trip starts Friday” may alert a thief that the home will be vacant then.

These are a few of the critical steps families can take before school at home this fall. For those unfamiliar with any of these steps, please ask someone for assistance.

UPDATE: as I prepared to upload this to Learning Tree’s blog site, my good friend and colleague Dr. Bob Cromwell added a page to his site with some important cybersecurity recommendations. Many of his comments expand on the recommendations here. There are far more suggestions that I could make in a blog post. Please consider his steps for improving your internet security.

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