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K-12 Tech Leaders Prioritize Cybersecurity, But Many Underestimate Risks, Survey Says

School technology leaders appreciate the rising cybersecurity threats in K-12 education, but many still are not taking all the steps necessary to better protect their schools, concludes a new annual report on ed-tech leadership.

The report, released today by the Consortium for School Networking, points that only 18 percent of respondents said their school or district has a full-time employee dedicated to cybersecurity; and fewer than 20 percent marked any items on a list of cybersecurity threats as "high-risk" from their perspective.

More than 500 CoSN members responded to this year's survey, which was conducted between November 2019 and January 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the vast majority of American schools.

As of January, K-12 school technology leaders still considered cybersecurity their biggest priority, according to the annual report. Their priorities likely have shifted since schools moved to remote learning, but cybersecurity is still probably a top concern, especially since a record number of teachers and students are using school-issued or home computing devices to access school networks. 

Some other notable takeaways from the report:

IT leadership remains not especially diverse. More than 90 percent of respondents identified as white, and one quarter identified as women, which means the vast majority of IT leaders are white men. The percentage of female IT leaders in the survey has declined by more than 10 percentage points since 2016, which "could reflect an increasing preference for technical backgrounds in hiring requirements for IT Leadership positions," the report said. Indeed, more than half of surveyed male IT leaders said their professional background is in technology, compared with only 29 percent of women.

Staffing was an issue even before the new financial crisis. Fifty-one percent of respondents said their team isn't large enough for implementing new technology. Fifty-seven percent said the same for integrating technology into the classroom, and 63 percent said the same for supporting teachers on maximizing the value of classroom technology. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to prompt massive budget cuts in schools nationwide, which means these staffing challenges aren't likely to go away anytime soon, and could get worse.

IT leaders know equity is a major challenge. The digital divide has become a national talking point over the past two months as schools scrambled to provide devices and Internet access to millions of students who didn't previously have them at home. Ninety-six percent of respondents said equity is a priority in their work, and more than half said they were already implementing strategies like purchasing hotspots and partnering with local businesses to help increase students' tech access outside the school building. Recent efforts to bridge those gaps "highlight the innovation of IT Leaders as they seek solutions to the problem, but they also highlight the degree to which the responsibilities of IT Leaders have expanded, now even beyond school walls," the report says.

Many IT leaders have significant control over district purchasing. Slightly more than two-fifths of survey respondents said they either have final decision-making power or a "heavy" or "key" influence over spending on digital content. The CoSN report says IT leaders' involvement in those negotiations "enables more fully informed decisions and enables IT departments to plan accordingly should an educational product with known back-end technical challenges be adopted."

There's still more work to do. Overall, the report says results reflect optimism among IT leaders about the potential for their work to improve and support the educational experience. But challenges remain. One respondent commented that his or her district is "still in the Stone Age" compared with wealthier districts elsewhere, and the report notes that "budgets and resources are still insufficient."

"From the lack of common use of agreed-upon data and content technical standards to relentless pressure of cybersecurity threats, issues IT Leaders face have never been more complex or difficult," the report says.


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