Coronavirus-related school closures are skyrocketing, leaving parents scrambling to educate their children while still juggling their jobs. It’s a challenging and confusing time — and Jonathan Slater and Lorna Armitage think they have something that might hold kids’ interest: a free online learning platform that teaches them about cybersecurity.
The virtual “Cyber School,” slated to launch next Monday, plans to host daily 45-minute livestreams focused on topics including an introduction to coding and algorithms, online safety, ethical hacking and social engineering.
Armitage and Slater are part of a growing cohort of cybersecurity professionals who, in addition to their day jobs, are volunteering to share their cybersecurity expertise during the coronavirus pandemic.
“What can we do to help and care? Kids are going to be out of school, why don’t we try to put something together and get them interested in computer science and cybersecurity and tech in general?” Armitage, a co-founder of the Academy of Cybersecurity, told CyberScoop. “The number one priority for me is getting some content out there for the kids and the parents to alleviate some of this stress and this pressure, and get them interested in tech.”
The school comes as other cybersecurity professionals are chipping in where they can: hunting down malware used in coronavirus-related hacking, sharing threat data with the health sector, or helping hospitals affected by cyberattacks.
The school has thousands enrolled, with requests from three schools in the U.K. to enroll nearly their entire student bodies, Slater, who is also a co-founder of the Academy of Cybersecurity, told CyberScoop.
Possible U.K. government involvement
The timing could not be better, with tens of millions of children in the U.S. out of school right now. And the urgency for parents in the U.K., where Slater and Armitage are based, just ramped up a notch this week with Prime Minster Boris Johnson imposing a three-week nationwide lockdown.
The Cyber School team has been in touch with the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre about possible partnerships or support, but for now, they are not working as partners, according to the NCSC.
“The NCSC is not acting as a partner with this initiative but did have some early engagement as it was being established,” an NCSC spokesperson told CyberScoop.
The U.K. has been proactive about getting the younger set engaged in cybersecurity with proper legal context — just last year, law enforcement in the U.K. rolled out a program that redirects teenagers from illegal hacking activities to ethical hacking groups and career mentoring.
And although partnering with the U.K. government could require the school to restrict its reach to just U.K. citizens, the U.K. government has green-lighted the Cyber School to offer its classes globally.
“We want to cater to as many people as possible,” Slater said.
Some of the lessons may also involve lab activities through EC-Council, an information security certification organization with partnerships with the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security. Although it’s not finalized yet, EC-Council is having conversations with the school about providing several hours’ worth of labs to learn hands-on about offensive and defensive cybersecurity, European Regional Director for EC-Council Philip Blake tells CyberScoop.
“We’re having conversations around providing lab environments for the students to have them play around,” Blake told CyberScoop. “There could be an element of red teaming, ethical hacking, blue teaming, and network defense in the labs.”
‘Homework’ and the talent pipeline
The Cyber School may offer a welcome reprieve for parents, as they aren’t necessarily required to get involved in the cybersecurity courses, Armitage said. But they’re welcome to follow along if their curiosity is piqued.
“It’s as little or as much as they want,” Armitage said. “When you get to subjects for the older children, they might even just start wanting to get involved and start experimenting and engaging with it themselves.”
Some younger children may need guidance on the technologies they are using, Armitage notes, although the courses are being designed so that students can complete them on a variety of technologies from phones to tablets to laptops.
And while there’s no set end date, the program will go on “as long as people are quarantined and isolated,” Slater says.
In that same vein, there’s no “final exam,” But each day students will be expected to complete assignments called “cyber projects.”
Armitage said the programs will heavily lean on gamification tactics: noting there may be badges, leadership boards, and other kinds of recognition for students in order to keep them motivated. Generally, Armitage and Slater said the goal is to tailor the lessons to be age appropriate, fun, imaginative, and analytical all at once.
“We’re trying to do some really fun projects and lessons that potentially schools can’t do because it’s not really part of a structured curriculum,” Armitage said.
Although participants may one day return to regular school, the founders hope the program’s lessons will make a dent in the global cybersecurity talent shortage once things return to normal.
“In terms of tightening the skills gap, there’s so much you can do at the higher level in terms of retraining the adult population, but it all starts from an early age at school,” Slater said.