Security tips for teaching from home

Pieter Arntz, malware intelligence researcher at Malwarebytes, provides practical advice on how to stay safe online and protect against cyberattacks while working from home

When lockdown measures were introduced across the globe, the majority of teachers found themselves in uncharted territory – teaching from home. Restrictions are now easing, but teachers still face an uncertain timeline for when they can return to ‘normal’. Even though the summer holidays are now underway and schools are going back in September, teaching from home has opened up a world of possibilities that could persist long into the future.

Although many industries have been working remotely, teaching from home presents extra hurdles. Not only are you trying to keep the attention of a demanding audience, you are working with sensitive data about children.

When juggling the needs of 30 or more students at a time, it can be easy to forget about your own needs – especially when it comes to staying secure online. The cyber hygiene of individuals has been – and will continue to be – put to the test during this unique period and beyond. Here are some top tips for teaching from home and staying secure while doing so.

Easy as 1-2-3?

Teaching from home is hard for many reasons. It’s tricky gauging a student’s wellbeing, and sparking topical debates through a screen, even without the sudden adoption of new technologies.

We all remember the teachers who struggled to transition from overhead projectors to software slides, and we’ve all helped tech-challenged family members use FaceTime or Skype. I’m sure there are many teachers with stories to tell of recent remote technology fails, and it doesn’t help that our home internet bandwidth has never been put to the test like this! Georgina Farnham, an English teacher, had issues when her students found a way to cause virtual classroom trouble through bots when using ‘Kahoot!’.

Over the past few months, many schools have used video or virtual lessons. If these continue, we suggest limiting distractions as much as possible. Review your background – is there anything that could start an unwanted conversation? Sit in front of a neutral backdrop or take advantage of software packages (like Zoom) that let you choose your virtual surroundings. That way, if the video cuts out or there’s a technical issue, at least you won’t have to worry about students judging your messy living room!

Additionally, familiarise yourself with the security settings of the software you’re using. If it’s Zoom, you don’t want your classes interrupted by Zoombombers! Generate a unique meeting ID and set a password for each meeting, use a waiting room, only allow signed-in users, and enable the chime when users join or leave – which will allow you to track late arrivals and ensure no one joins undetected.

By now, you’re probably comfortable with the technology you’ve been using since lockdown. However, with the pandemic as a catalyst, the way we work is getting increasingly digital every day. Students entering the classroom are digital natives and so even once COVID-19 is over, familiarise yourself with the technology before you jump in at the deep end –  that way it’s a lot easier to take advantage of what it has to offer.

Understand the importance of privacy and data

Depending on where you are in the world, there are different privacy and compliance guidelines to follow. In some countries it would be against privacy regulations for students to hear each other, even if they’re asking questions about lessons. It’s imperative you’re aware of local rules. Management boards and head teachers should make privacy a top priority for staff, and that it’s a topic frequently re-visited – especially as teaching and technology become more intertwined, meaning rules will likely be updated.

Whether you’re using your own laptop, or one provided by your school, you will be storing sensitive information about your students on a system connected to your home network, and maybe even on your personal device. It’s crucial to keep that data protected. Make sure your devices are physically safe to avoid unauthorised viewing of confidential information. If you need to leave your home, lock or turn off your work devices; if you live with other people, lock your computer, even when stepping away for just a minute.

Best practice security tips

In March alone, the National Cyber Security Centre took down 2,000+ coronavirus scams. Cybercriminals show no mercy, even in the middle of a pandemic. As a teacher, protecting your laptop is also a matter of protecting your students. It goes without saying that access to your computer’s desktop should at least be password protected – and not by ‘12345’. If the system is stolen or lost, this will keep anyone from easily accessing information. If you’re signing into lots of different programmes, using a password manager is the safest way to keep track.

Make backups to avoid losing everything in a crash, but ensure they are encrypted too if they contain sensitive data. What’s more, always try to practice a scheduled daily scan for verifiable security; it’s best to use an efficient cloud-based solution – this will bolster security, monitoring and remediation efforts while minimising risk.

Ultimately, heads of schools and those sitting on institutional boards should be promoting a security-first mindset, particularly if remote working continues. They say you learn something new every day – a lesson in cybersecurity should be at the top of your list. Schools should encourage staff to learn how to identify phishing emails, tech support scams, and other social engineering tactics that threat actors use to bypass otherwise strong security measures.

When it comes to phishing scams, incorrect spelling and grammar and anything that asks for card details or money are some ways to recognise phishing mails. Also, emails from a financial institution you are not a customer of are suspect, as well as ones from your own bank if they address you by a generic term  or incorrect name. Email attachments and links in emails should be considered carefully before opening. Hover over links to check if they are leading where you would expect.

The future of education

These tips should keep yourself safe (and sane) while teaching from home, and if the return to the classroom happens after this summer, remember that if you’re bringing your laptop home at the end of the day, many of these best practices will still be relevant. Beyond this, the future of education certainly looks digital, with the pandemic having highlighted the power of edtech. As we enter the ‘new normal’ it’s crucial you familiarise yourself each time new technologies are thrown your way, stay up to date with privacy policies, and do not underestimate the threat of the cybercriminals lurking behind your screens.

You might also like: How to create a safe virtual school environment


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