By Tj Houston, Cyber Security Instructor, Ashland County-West Holmes Career Center
Let’s face it, as a society, we are spending more time than ever before connected to our devices. The big tech companies are doubling down on this experience with products like the Oculus and Apple’s Vision Pro to take us even further into the “Metaverse.” Recently, while I was at the National Cyber Summit in Huntsville, AL, I sat in on a session by Winn Schwartau (Winn Schwartau – Wikipedia) about the history of the metaverse and the ramifications it has on society. My knee-jerk reaction was that we as a society are doomed, but then I took a step back and realized that I take a vital role in these attacks in that I can help teach and train the next generation to protect our society from reality distortion, misinformation warfare, and dangerous threat actors.
As we navigate this new frontier, we must equip ourselves with the tools and knowledge to defend against a myriad of threat actors from around the physical world and now, the metaverse. High school cyber security education, because of its focus on hands-on learning, is a key tenant in building the next generation of cyber defenders.
The Growing Threat Landscape
The digital landscape has evolved into an expansive and complex ecosystem, with threat actors constantly seeking to exploit vulnerabilities. These threat actors have different motivations. Whether they are nation-state hackers, criminal organizations, or even hacktivists, the threat landscape is changing day by day. As the metaverse continues to develop, this landscape extends into new virtual realms, bringing with it new opportunities and challenges for cyber defenders.
High school students are at the forefront of this technological revolution, spending more time online and in virtual environments than any previous generation. With this increased exposure comes a greater risk of cyber threats. Therefore, it is imperative that we support the high schools and vocational schools in our area so we can empower students to become defenders of the digital realm.
Hands-On Education: The Key to Cyber Defense
Traditional classroom education can only go so far in preparing students for the real-world challenges of cybersecurity. In my classroom, each and every day, the students are doing some kind of lab or hands-on exercise to prepare them for the cyber world. The dynamic nature of cyber threats demands a more practical, hands-on approach to education.
Here’s why hands-on cyber education is essential for high schools:
- Real-World Skills Development
Hands-on learning allows students to develop practical, real-world skills that are directly applicable to the fight against cyber threats. By working on actual cybersecurity challenges, students gain a deeper understanding of the tactics and techniques used by threat actors. This firsthand experience is invaluable when it comes to defending against cyberattacks.
- Active Engagement
Hands-on education keeps students actively engaged in the learning process. Instead of passively absorbing information, they are encouraged to think critically, problem-solve, and collaborate with peers. These skills are essential in the fast-paced world of cybersecurity, where quick thinking and adaptability are key.
- Cybersecurity Tools Mastery
In the field of cybersecurity, familiarity with tools and technologies is paramount. Hands-on education provides students with the opportunity to explore and master cybersecurity tools, such as penetration testing frameworks, network analyzers, and intrusion detection systems. This practical experience gives them a competitive edge in the job market and in the fight against threat actors.
- Ethical Hacking Training
Ethical hacking, or penetration testing, is a critical aspect of cybersecurity. High school cyber education programs that incorporate hands-on training in ethical hacking provide students with the skills to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in systems before malicious hackers can exploit them. This proactive approach is a cornerstone of cyber defense.
Bridging the Gap: High School Cyber Programs
To effectively defend against threat actors in both the real world and the metaverse, high schools must invest in comprehensive cyber education programs. Here are some key components of a successful high school cyber program:
- Curriculum Development
High schools should develop a cybersecurity curriculum that covers a wide range of topics, from basic concepts to advanced threat detection and response techniques. The curriculum should be regularly updated to reflect the evolving threat landscape and the latest technologies. There is a plethora of resources out there and my favorites are cyber.org as well as TestOut.
- Certified Instructors
Qualified and certified instructors are essential for delivering high-quality cyber education. They should have real-world experience in cybersecurity and the ability to engage and inspire students.
- Hands-On Labs
Hands-on labs and exercises should be an integral part of the curriculum. These labs allow students to apply theoretical knowledge in practical scenarios, reinforcing their understanding and skills.
- Capture the Flag (CTF) Competitions
Organizing CTF competitions within the school or with other institutions is an excellent way to challenge students and foster healthy competition. CTFs simulate real-world cyber challenges and encourage students to collaborate and solve complex problems.
- Partnerships with Industry
Collaborations with local businesses, cybersecurity firms, and government agencies can provide students with access to real-world projects, internships, and mentorship opportunities. These partnerships bridge the gap between education and industry.
- Cybersecurity Clubs
Establishing cybersecurity clubs or extracurricular activities can help students further develop their skills and passion for cybersecurity. These clubs can organize events, workshops, and guest lectures by cybersecurity professionals. This year, we are working with cyber.org to teach the teachers from our different feeder schools about IT and Cybersecurity so we can start this education at a much younger age.
High school cyber programs should prepare students for industry-recognized certifications, such as the CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ and the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). These certifications enhance students’ employability and credibility when entering the cybersecurity field.
Preparing for the Metaverse
As we look toward the future, the metaverse is poised to become a central part of our digital lives. High school cyber education programs must adapt to prepare students for the unique challenges of this virtual realm. Here are some considerations for metaverse-focused education:
- Metaverse Security
Teaching students about metaverse security is crucial, as it introduces new layers of complexity and potential vulnerabilities. Understanding the unique aspects of metaverse platforms, such as virtual economies and digital identities, is essential for effective defense.
- Digital Ethics and Privacy
Metaverse education should also include discussions on digital ethics and privacy. Students need to learn how to navigate virtual spaces while respecting the rights and boundaries of others.
- Virtual Cybercrime
Prepare students to address virtual cybercrime within the metaverse, such as scams, fraud, and virtual property theft. Knowledge of these threats is essential for both personal protection and societal well-being.
- Metaverse Collaboration
Encourage students to explore opportunities for collaboration and innovation within the metaverse. The metaverse is not only a source of potential threats but also a platform for positive change and creativity.
Over the last 4 years as a CyberSecurity instructor, I can say that I didn’t really think my job was that important compared to the cool hackers that you see on TV. But now, after a few years, I see that I do have an important role and the earlier we can get students learning about cybersecurity, the better off we will be as a society. How can you help? Volunteer at your local high school or career center and ask how you can be involved. Ask them if they have a program and if they don’t, ask them how to help! I am here to help in any way that I can, so please don’t hesitate to reach out! As we continue to embrace the digital frontier, the next generation of cyber defenders must be well-prepared, proactive, and ready to face the challenges of the ever-evolving cyber landscape.