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Month: June 2021

Best Practices for Stopping Ransomware Attacks

Original Published:
EdTech Magazine

A vetted, strategic cybersecurity plan helped one school district successfully push back against cyberattackers.

The annual back-to-school superintendent conference day on Sept. 3, 2019, at New York’s Monroe-Woodbury Central School District should have been one of excitement and reconnection for staff and administrators. But that wasn’t the case for Bhargav Vyas, who serves as the district’s assistant superintendent for compliance and information systems as well as its data protection officer. Instead, the night before, his team got a system failure warning that caused them to start troubleshooting early in the morning.

It started at 7:30 a.m. When bringing up the domain controllers, one of the leading techs called and said, “Our biggest nightmare is here.” Vyas knew then that a cyberattack was underway.

Cybersecurity Incidents Spike During the Pandemic

According to “The State of K-12 Cybersecurity: 2020 Year in Review” from the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center and the K12 Security Information Exchange, what happened at Monroe-Woodbury is becoming increasingly common. The 2020 calendar year saw a record-setting 408 publicly disclosed cybersecurity incidents. These attacks, which affected 377 school districts across 40 states, resulted in temporary school closures, millions of stolen taxpayer dollars and student data breaches linked to identity theft and credit card fraud.

Schools moving to remote and online learning environments in March 2020 only exacerbated the problem. With the rapid shift to remote learning putting more devices into students’ and teachers’ hands, a lack of cybersecurity training, and plenty of enticing free apps to download, cracks in schools’ cybersecurity were almost inevitable.

IBM’s Education Ransomware Study, released in October 2020, surveyed 1,000 K–12 and college educators and 200 K–12 and college administrators. It found that “while administrators are 20 percent more likely to receive cybersecurity training than educators, they are still unaware of critical information relevant to protecting their schools.”

Pre-Emptive Protocols Lead to Faster Recovery

When Monroe-Woodbury faced down its cyberattackers in 2019, it was ready. Well before the attack, the district had established both internal protocols and a disaster recovery plan.

As soon as the IT team became aware of the attack, it notified Superintendent Elsie Rodriguez and the other assistant superintendents. Once Rodriguez informed the Monroe-Woodbury board of education of the situation, the communications team and the public relations specialist contacted all key stakeholders, including the business office, the district attorney and the insurance company.

Within an hour, the district had an incident response team working with Vyas to contain the attack, assess the damage, and develop a mitigation plan. The attackers had just started targeting the servers when the storage area network was shut down, so there was nowhere to go to do more damage.

We had an updated disaster recovery plan that identified the location of our data in all systems, as well as a robust redundancy system. This strategic move mitigated any further damage and communication.”

Bhargav Vyas Assistant Superintendent for Compliance and Information Systems, Monroe-Woodbury Central School District

Once the IT team finished restoring data from the snapshots cleared by the incident response team, it took a few days to build up a Microsoft infrastructure. By the end of the first week, 70 percent of the district’s mobile devices were back up and running, including those for transportation services. At the end of the second week, the IT team had all systems up and was able to bring Wi-Fi back online to connect mobile devices for 3,000 students and staff.

Plug the Holes with Internal Security Lessons

Looking back, Vyas says, “it was strategic on the district’s part, not from the ransomware perspective but from a resources perspective, that we had an updated disaster recovery plan that identified the location of our data in all systems, as well as a robust redundancy system. This strategic move mitigated any further damage and communication.”

The district made another strategic move that may have hindered the attack. It signed up for a National Institute of Standards and Technology cybersecurity assessment that reviewed risks and threats to the district’s entire network.

Months before the attack, the IT team used the assessment’s recommendations to “plug the holes,” which, in hindsight, could have been a factor in a much more significant cyberattack. It was essential for the district’s IT team to build up goodwill and support, so staff and teachers were educated on cybersecurity and best practices for keeping their data safe. While not everyone understood the technology, they recognized the importance of cybersecurity and trusted the process.

Finally, the team placed great emphasis internally on implementing an electronic inventory and ensuring that record-keeping was accurate and secure. As a result, when reimaging all devices and computers after the cyberattack, the IT team knew the device location and count within 5 percent.

Training Ensures Everyone Stays Educated

After the attack, the Monroe-Woodbury IT team focused on lessons learned. The district changed its policies so that only school devices could access the network, and guest networks were eliminated. Noting that “security is not just a technology concern, it’s a district concern,” Superintendent Rodriguez established scenario-based cybersecurity tabletop training.

Critical stakeholders such as the disaster response team, IT department, business office, and support staff continue working together to ensure they’re well prepared for the future. Because people forget, Vyas continues to educate the school community, including the school board, about developments in cybersecurity. He adds that, even in a cyberattack or pandemic, with the right people on your team and a willingness to do what is best for students, you can work together to give technology back to the school community.

Digital Learning Annual Conference DLAC 2021: A Preview

Originally Published: 
Tech&Learning

Austin, Texas, is a place of eclectic music, beautiful lakes, superb Tex-Mex and BBQ restaurants, and on June 14-16, 2021, it will host the second annual Digital Learning Annual Conference (DLAC). 

This innovative conference will focus on online, hybrid, and blended strategies and solutions that best support the entire school community. Unlike other conferences, DLAC 2021 will not be a “sit and get” event. Instead, attendees will have opportunities to share their experiences, learn through collaboration, and network with colleagues in facilitated sessions and informal settings. The organizers believe that there is value in the hallway conversations outside the sessions and aim to maximize those opportunities while maintaining the benefits of more traditional conference programming. 

Understanding that not everyone will attend the conference in person, DLAC 2021 has thoughtfully created its conference in a flexible hybrid model, with onsite and online attendance options. The online option will occur in three segments: an online conference opening June 8; onsite sessions June 14-16 that offer online programming; and a final DLAC Encore online session on June 30. 

Session Types

DLAC 2021 guarantees that both their online and in-person sessions will be shorter, livelier, and more interactive than most conferences, “creating a high-energy gathering built on sharing and conversations.”  

Onsite DLAC includes contributed talks, workshops, panel discussions, debates, table talks, and PechaKucha talks. In addition, DLAC online presentations, discussions, and networking opportunities will include extensive break-out rooms to allow small group video discussions and text chat options.

Finally, live streaming several sessions from Austin will give online attendees a connection to the onsite conference with live moderators and real-time interaction. 

Tracks

Focusing on topics relevant to the many districts seeking to create, expand, and improve digital learning, conference-goers will have the opportunity to attend sessions relevant to our new world of online schools and classrooms. Tracks will offer consecutive sessions that will provide attendees with planning and implementation strategies that support robust digital learning initiatives. 

For districts looking to create or expand their online and hybrid learning environments, the How to Start an Online School Track will dive into critical topics such as setting goals, operational and district policies, and how best to support online teachers. The twelve Online Teaching Track sessions will help the needs of both new and experienced online teachers with topics such as Building Community in the Online Classroom, Engaging Reluctant/Struggling Learners, and Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Strategies. Finally, the challenges of the hundreds of school districts expanding their use of blended learning in summer 2021 and school year 2021-22 will be addressed in The Blended Teaching Track, which will focus on creating customized learning pathways, understanding blended learning in the early grades, and, most importantly, designing engaging online learning experiences.  

Recognizing the challenges faced by rural school communities during the recent pandemic, DLAC 21 includes various online and blended learning sessions specifically for rural teachers and administrators. Sessions of interest include highlighting how a rural district addressed continuity of learning during the pandemic using various learning models, online tools, and digital content, and how to engage and provide equity for more than 150 square miles.

While in-person conferences are slow to come back, DLAC 2021 has found the secret sauce of connecting districts and educators across the country through their hybrid conference model.

When they launched DLAC in 2019, they said: “No technology has ever transformed education quickly, and we see no sign that technology is about to do so. But we see plenty of examples of dedicated school leaders, caring teachers, thoughtful providers, effective researchers, and respectful policymakers using technology to improve student opportunities and outcomes.

This commitment is reflected in DLAC’s focus on the needs of their community and providing professional development experiences that will ensure sustainable, effective, and engaging digital learning experiences for our students.  

ISTELive 21 Preview: Designing a New Learning Landscape

Originally Published:
Tech&Learning

With live, interactive, and immersive learning sessions, featured voices, playgrounds, poster sessions, and an expo hall, this virtual ISTE conference exemplifies that “the show must go on!”

For those of us still energized and inspired from attending the ISTE 2020 Reimaged Virtual Conference, we will have another opportunity to engage, experience, and connect at ISTELive 21 – Designing a New Learning Landscape, June 26-30, 2021. 

Again, ISTE is proven to create a virtual conference experience that models what educators across the country have implemented in their hybrid and remote classrooms – engaging, personalized, collaborative learning experiences. With live, interactive, and immersive learning sessions, featured voices, playgrounds, poster sessions, and an expo hall, this second virtual ISTE conference exemplifies that “the show must go on!” 

As an innovative and forward-thinking conference, instead of the usual keynote speakers, ISTELive 21 will highlight powerful voices with inspiring stories that impact education. During the five-day event, featured voices will include educators, thought leaders, and authors such as Brett Salak, Regina Gonzalez de Cossio, Patricia Brown, Dominic Caguioa, Alberto and Mario Herreaz, and Dr. Henry Turner. Critical topics such as inequity, anti-racism, global collaboration, and the pandemic’s impact on our students will be addressed by these experts, who will look to inspire us to lead change.  

No matter the roles of the attendees, they will be hard-pressed not to find sessions tailored to their challenges, areas of interest, and future initiatives. ISTE has crafted 39 professional development topics that include relevant and timely challenges such as online and blended classroom models, social-emotional programming, and student-driven game-based learning. In addition, unlike in-person conferences during which attendees must choose between sessions, the live recording, and media-rich on-demand sessions ensure that attendees can fully experience all that  ISTELive 21 offers during and after the conference.  

Fourteen topic-based session lists curated by the ISTE Professional Learning Networks allow attendees access to high-quality presenters and learning experiences.

Not to be missed are the 80 international content sessions whose theme is “listen, learn, share and stay connected globally.”

Global change-makers such as Sandra Chow, Dr. Kelly Grogan, and Dr. Jessica Hale will present “Pathways to Tomorrow: Building Global Competencies through Intercultural Experiences” to expand perspectives on competencies for our students’ future. In the “Best tools for Global Collaboration” ISTE Global Collaboration, PLN leaders Margret Atkinson and Anne Mirtschin will explore tools that can help provide successful connections, interactive problem-solving, and professional networking and development in virtual environments.

If you are a district or school leader, it is worth the price of admission to attend the Leadership Exchange. This recently added pre-conference event brings together worldwide educational leaders such as Ken Shelton, Temple Lovelace, Kumar Garg, and Adina Sullivan-Marlow. The focus of the Exchange is to provide edtech leaders with collaborative opportunities to accelerate transformational practices and explore emerging models of post-pandemic learning.  

As we are closing the books on this school year and looking ahead with hope and possibilities for the upcoming school year, ISTELive 21 is the event that will highlight, support, and rejuvenate our commitment to our students. So, take advantage of the collaborative experiences, connect with colleagues doing the work, and end this year with renewed energy and enthusiasm for a new learning landscape of SY 2021.