There has been a steep rise in the number of online threats targeting schools, as virtual learning becomes a larger part of New Zealand education

Schools were targeted by more than 2000 online threats per minute after students returned to classrooms after the Covid-19 lockdown.

New analysis by crown company Network for Learning (N4L) has reviewed online safety and students’ use of its school-based internet services during term 2, from April 15 to July 3, 2020.

The company is tasked with connecting all New Zealand schools and kura to internet services through its managed network, in order to keep students safe from harmful and distracting content.

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N4L’s first data and insights report shows it blocked more than 120 million cyber security threats and 90 unsafe websites featuring harmful digital content in that time.

The timeframe being analysed marks a time when the world’s 1.7 billion students, including New Zealand’s 860,000 learners, became increasingly dependent on online learning. 

Term 2 also included 22 days of remote learning, away from the “managed school network”, due to the level 4 lockdown.

In the months since New Zealand’s lockdowns, organisations – both within New Zealand and around the world – have reported a rise in the volume and severity of online threats.

Cyber criminals have been quick to exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems and anxieties around Covid-19, since the global pandemic changed the ways people work and learn.

The report found phishing scams, malware and unauthorised attempts to access the school network were the most common cyber security threats blocked by N4L’s managed network service.

And a spike in Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks – a malicious effort to disrupt traffic to a website by overwhelming it – were noted the week of May 24th, when students had returned to school. 

Schools also use the protective service to keep students focused on learning by blocking websites featuring file sharing and storage, games, free software downloads and social networking sites. 

Together these sites represent more than two thirds of all web content blocked by N4L’s filtering system. The report showed social networking sites represented 12 percent of blocked content, and gaming accounted for 20.4 percent.

Meanwhile, pornography represented 1.4 percent of all content blocked during term 2.

Because more learning is happening outside of schools – particularly during the pandemic – the crown company also provides an optional filter for parents to apply to their child’s devices.

Data from these filters showed a high number of unsafe websites (3 million) and online threats (500,000) were blocked for the 25,000 remote learners who used the filter between April and July.

“Technology is an important part of the online safety solution but it is never bulletproof. Ongoing vigilance and education is paramount.” – N4L CEO Larrie Moore

N4L chief executive Larrie Moore said schools were the largest consumers of daytime internet in the country and were not immune to online threats.

“Schools are increasingly reliant on safe internet for teaching and learning and we are doing more to keep them safe and secure while at school and beyond.”

Moore said keeping schools and students safe from online harm was a massive task involving many organisations, and the role was expanding. 

“Technology is an important part of the online safety solution but it is never bulletproof. Ongoing vigilance and education is paramount.”

Nicola Ngarewa, Principal of Spotswood College and Teaching Council chair, said it was important schools had access to safety and filtering tools.

“The best learning will happen in an environment that is protected from the worst of the web and free from content that is inappropriate and distracting to learning,” Ngarewa said.

“Schools choose which books they stock in their libraries, and which online content they allow their children to access for learning.”

Students consumed 174 terabytes of data consumed via N4L’s network during term 2, the equivalent of 58,000 hours – or 6.5 years – of streaming Netflix-quality video. 

The report also looked at the patterns of use by students, including the amount of data used, and the websites most visited by students and schools.

It found internet use continues to climb, with 174 terabytes of data consumed via N4L’s network during term 2, the equivalent of 58,000 hours – or 6.5 years – of streaming Netflix-quality video. 

If this consumption was spread across 800,000 New Zealand students, the average weekly data use would equate to 1 gigabyte per student.

Secondary school students used twice as much data as primary school students, with data consumption changing depending on the school’s size and location.

N4L also looked at data use across 16 regions, with students attending schools in the West Coast and Manawatū-Whanganui regions consuming the most data.

Meanwhile, students attending Marlborough and Northland schools consumed the least.

Streaming media accounted for 25 percent of all data consumed on the managed network. 

However, Netflix and YouTube were not named on the report’s lists of top 10 websites, which indicated where students were spending the most time.

The websites schools spent the most time on were those owned by the big three tech companies: Google, Microsoft and Apple. 

And while the tech giants continue to dominate this space, as Newsroom has reported over the past year, the pandemic has helped boost the use and reliance on new and independent education technology platforms.

New Zealand companies including Kami and LearnCoach, as well as the global phenomenon Seesaw, have seen significant growth domestically and around the world due to the pandemic.

Google’s New Zealand search data from 2020 showed Seesaw – the secure online network for sharing learning with students, parents and teachers – was the fourth most searched term, after Coronavirus, US Election Results and Zoom.

Moore said as schools and students became more reliant on online tools and learning, N4L was building its security operations capabilities, and providing more cyber security support, he said.

This work would support the Ministry of Education’s rollout its four-year, $49 million of its ICT system expansion, across all state and state-integrated schools.

N4L created the report to review how its services were being used within, and outside of, school, and to share the insights with government, education and technology organisations serving the digital needs of our school communities.

The company plans to release a second data and insights report, to cover the second half of 2020, later this year.

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