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Balancing Technological Accessibility and Cybersecurity for K-12 School Districts

How the right partnership can be a springboard for IT transformation


The impact of IT modernization is lauded from financial services to retail. But its potential to transform lives is perhaps most significant in education, where new technologies can drive major improvements to accessibility and inclusion, and quality of learning. Yet all of those potential benefits could be undermined if K-12 school districts can’t manage cyber risk effectively.

This is where the right technology partner is key – one willing to work together with K-12 institutions to understand their unique requirements and deliver the tools they need to surmount any cyber challenge.

A recent CoSN podcast with Tanium Chief Education Architect, Doug Thompson, and Henry Martin, CIO of Florida’s Walton County School District, has some fascinating insight.

Securing the digital journey

As CIO of the Florida school district, Henry has had a string of successes in a career spanning four decades. Most recently, he’s been instrumental in rolling out a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) network and policy to enhance the school experience for staff and students, and fiber connectivity which saved taxpayers over $20 million. The district is currently upgrading to the Wi-Fi 6 standard, which will further enhance connectivity for every single student and classroom and is deploying digital panels to support interactive learning.

However, at the same time, Henry acknowledges that cybersecurity has become a “very large part” of his role, and that of his peers across the country. That’s part of the reason for partnering with Tanium. Among the challenges he and Doug lists are:

Staffing constraints: K-12 schools are “woefully understaffed” even as they look to drive new digital projects, says Thompson. While IT teams in the commercial sector may have one support person per 200-300 machines, in the education vertical it may be one person for thousands of endpoints. Unfortunately, manual processes are still the norm, meaning those stretched teams are tied up on repetitive tasks such as patching, rather than working on higher-value projects.

Visibility: You can only protect what you can see. But too often K-12 schools are flying blind. The challenge has become particularly acute with the advent of remote learning, where devices could be logging in from outside the school network. This creates security risk in terms of unpatched endpoints and undiscovered vulnerabilities, but it can also degrade learning experiences, if students are using devices running legacy software.

Cyber threats: Last year, an estimated 45 districts operating 1,981 schools were compromised by ransomware. Some paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to their extorters. Cyber threats like this, and the data exfiltration which often accompanies attacks, can expose K-12 schools to compliance and legal risk, as well as the extra costs associated with breach response and investigation. But most concerning is the disruption to teaching.

A new wave of transformation

K-12 organizations like Walton County School District need to tackle these challenges on a budget. The good news is they have partners like Tanium to help. Its Converged Endpoint Management (XEM) platform can offer:

  • Real-time visibility into all endpoints and the software running on them
  • The ability to patch at speed and scale and update to the latest software versions
  • Rapid response to emerging threats
  • Automation to reduce manual effort and optimize IT staffing resources

After running a pilot with Tanium, Henry and his team found 20% more unpatched machines than they expected. They also discovered 30 machines vulnerable to DLL injection attacks, which had previously gone unnoticed. It was an “eye-opening experience,” he says. Tanium is helping the district manage its attack surface more effectively, while freeing IT staff to work on improving the digital learning environment.

Tanium is also helping in other ways. A Tanium technical account manager (TAM) assists with professional development of the IT team and provides updates about new products and features which may be of interest. This is about more than cyber risk management. The right technology partnerships can help future-proof the nation’s schools for the next wave of digital transformation.

To find out more, listen to the entire podcast. You can also learn more about how Tanium can help educational institutions create a safer, more secure learning environment.

Tanium Staff

Tanium’s village of experts co-writes as Tanium Staff, sharing their lens on security, IT operations, and other relevant topics across the business and cybersphere.

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