How education IT departments need to learn from their students — It’s all in the apps

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In the wake of the digital boom that echoed out from the pandemic era, schools have steadily been coming to grips with how to operate in a reality where devices are far more ubiquitous in classrooms than before, and classes are forced to make accommodations for a split between remote and in-person learning. Breakthroughs in classroom management and content filtering solutions have helped keep students away from outside threats, such as harmful online content. Still, one of the greatest threats to any school’s digital safety net comes from within — the students themselves.

Even before the widespread proliferation of digital tools in classrooms, students have been rapidly becoming more tech-savvy and outpacing expectations and the capabilities of many less adept districts to stop them from getting into trouble. In a study run by Impero Software, 27 percent of students reported they had successfully circumnavigated their school’s internet filtering system.

Today, the chief way that students are slipping through holes in school security is through unregulated apps such as VPNs that shield their activity from view. Many students aren’t doing this for anything malicious and are just looking to play games or watch movies. However, these apps serve as a gaping hole in the school’s digital fence, leaving students to freely explore (or accidentally stumble upon) all manner of much more harmful or potentially dangerous material such as pornography, information on weapons or traps set by abusers. A significant percentage of US school districts have moved to 1-2-1 environments where kids are taking school-managed devices home and using them for unsupervised work and recreation. The likelihood of interacting with harmful material online is much greater outside of the classroom when kids are not being directly supervised.

The leading apps students use to dance around security and filtering run the gamut from sophisticated and dedicated tools to surprisingly devious uses of otherwise innocuous software. For an example of the latter, some school districts have noted that students have taken to embedding complete movie files inside of a PowerPoint presentation to sneak it past the school’s ability to easily detect it when they watch in the middle of class.

Some of the most popular apps used to bypass filters include TOR, Psiphon, Ultrasurf and ProtonVPN. These apps, commonly marketed as “censorship circumvention tools,” are designed to conceal and anonymize users, freeing them from any active filtering while hiding their identities from anyone else who may be watching – even including internet service providers and governments. The potential danger of these tools is too great for schools to ignore. TOR, in particular, is known as one possible gateway to the “dark web,” which is replete with content so highly illegal and dangerous that it’s regularly monitored by the FBI.

Many school districts don’t yet realize the dangers posed by these apps and their ability to punch directly through their security measures. For example, one district in Houston that had seemingly gotten by with a basic firewall ended up logging more than 280 million flags of worrying student activities upon switching to a more nuanced solution that tracked these apps.

The technical sophistication of today’s students demands that school IT departments learn from their habits and deploy solutions that match their savviness. The best schools today make use of multi-layered security strategies that mix nuanced content filtering with app-based control and management dashboards. While it also blocks the circumvention tools discussed above, this approach has the added benefit of introducing controls over less malicious apps commonly used to create distractions in class, such as Spotify and Discord, a chat platform popular with today’s students.

The continued adoption of technology both in and outside the classroom will see students becoming ever-more tech savvy as time goes on. School leaders need to recognize this and take the necessary steps sooner rather than later if they want to keep up with their young learners’ resourcefulness.

Image creditmonkeybusiness/

Justin Reilly is CEO at Impero Software.

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