February 28, 2023

The Importance of Identity and Access Management (IAM) Systems for Schools

The way schools operate is changing. Students and teachers are relying on online learning resources to supplement education or educate remotely. Teachers and administrators are using online portals to communicate internally and externally. And parents are logging in to systems to read updates about the school and even make payments.

This digital transformation has brought about new opportunities and challenges for schools. Everyone from daycare centers to higher education is building and supporting web apps and/or mobile apps. A key challenge many schools face is trying to figure out how to manage access to digital tools while maintaining strict security measures and not overburdening the often already stretched developer teams of the schools. Identity and Access Management (IAM) and authentication (auth) systems have emerged as essential tools for schools growing their online presence.

What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

IAM is a set of technologies and policies implemented into a framework that facilitates the management of digital identities. In other words, it is a  system to manage users and their identity—including their roles and access privileges.

For example, a school might have a system that allows students to log in to access course materials and view their grades. The system must also allow teachers to log in, upload new course materials, and edit grades. Additionally, parents must access the system to communicate with teachers and pay their bill. All parties — students, teachers, and parents — need access to different functionalities. The system must also include the ability to add, edit, and remove users. All these services must be kept secure and made available to only those people who have the right access permission.

Why Do Schools Need Secure IAM Solutions?

Now, let's focus on why schools specifically need IAM solutions.

Increased Digital Dependency

Firstly, schools are becoming increasingly dependent on digital technologies. Modern schools use learning management systems, communication tools, and payment portals to improve the learning experience while automating previously manual administrative tasks.

Better Engagement with Students, Teachers, and Families

Schools that do a good job with digital resources can significantly increase the school's engagement across a range of stakeholders including students, teachers, family members, and other people supporting students. By making resources digitally available they can get them to the right people when those people need the resources resulting in better engagement.

Sensitive Information

Secondly, schools possess a lot of sensitive information, including personal identifiable information (PII) like home addresses and social security numbers to staff payroll data, health records, and academic records. Unauthorized access to this information could result in severe consequences for all parties involved.

Compliance with Regulations

Thirdly, schools are subject to regulations that dictate how student data should be handled and protected. Laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in the United States or similar laws being legislated in many countries enforce strict rules about who can access student records, and non-compliance can result in severe penalties.

The Unique Cybersecurity Concerns of Schools

Schools face unique challenges when it comes to cybersecurity. Here are some of the specific concerns:

Varied User Base

Schools have diverse users accessing their systems, including students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Each group has different needs and requires different levels of access to the school’s resources. An effective IAM system must be flexible enough to accommodate these varying needs while maintaining security.

High Turnover

Schools also have high turnover rates, with students graduating and new students enrolling each year, new teachers and substitutes, and new parents. This constant change requires an IAM system that can easily and securely manage the addition and removal of users.

Limited Resources

Schools often operate with limited resources and budget constraints. This makes it challenging for them to implement and manage a robust IAM system. However, the cost of not having a secure IAM system can be catastrophic, as a single data breach can lead to significant financial and reputational damage.

Stretched Dev Teams

Many schools across the globe have been building out their developer teams over the past few years. Often, schools are viewed as excellent employers and are successful in attracting top-quality engineering talent. Even with this top talent, a school's dev team is often stretched across multiple high-priority projects. Some IAM systems require complex learning and setup that can overburden these stretched teams.

Emerging Threats

Schools like most online businesses are susceptible to cyber-attacks like ransomware. These types of attacks can be very costly for schools to resolve. Properly implemented and secure IAM is a key pillar in how schools can stop such emerging threats.

The Benefits of a Centralized IAM Platform for Schools

As schools adopt more digital tools and resources, managing access and identities for students, teachers, and staff can become increasingly complex. By consolidating all user data and access control mechanisms into one system, schools can enjoy several key benefits:

Reduced Complexity

IAM and auth can get real complex very fast. Some modern IAM systems can remove this complexity by providing devs with a simplified abstraction that both easy to deploy and manage while being hardened in security.

Simplified User Management

A centralized auth platform streamlines user management by providing a single source of truth for user identities. This means that when a student moves from one grade to another or a teacher switches roles, their access permissions can be updated in one place (and auto-propagated to other appropriate systems). This reduces administrative overhead and minimizes the risk of errors and security breaches that can occur when managing user identities across multiple systems.

Enhanced Security

With all user identities and access controls managed in one place, a centralized IAM platform provides a holistic view of who has access to what. This transparency makes detecting and responding to unusual activity easier, enhancing overall security. Plus, many IAM platforms, including Userfront, offer advanced features like multi-factor authentication (MFA), which provides additional layers of protection.

Improved User Experience

A centralized IAM platform can offer a seamless user experience by enabling single sign-on (SSO). With SSO, users can log in once to access multiple applications, eliminating the need to remember multiple usernames and passwords. This improves usability and reduces the likelihood of password-related security issues.

Regulatory Compliance

For schools subject to data privacy and security regulations, a centralized IAM platform can make compliance easier. By controlling and monitoring access to sensitive data from a central point, schools can more easily demonstrate that they are taking the necessary steps to protect student and staff information.

Cost Efficiency

Lastly, a centralized IAM platform can result in significant cost savings by reducing administrative overhead and improving security. Schools can avoid the costs of managing multiple user databases, responding to security incidents, and addressing regulatory compliance issues.

Implementing an IAM System

For understaffed and underfunded school districts, implementing an IAM system may seem daunting. However, the process doesn't have to be complex or expensive.

The first step is determining if your organization needs to build a custom auth and IAM solution or if an off-the-shelf solution can do the job. Building a custom solution can be quite a complex project while being costly and time-consuming. Custom solutions also require future developer resources to maintain and update.

At Userfront, we offer a full-featured IAM and auth solution that removes most of the complexity involved while providing a hardened and secure platform.

Userfront streamlines authentication & access control so engineers can focus on their core business. Userfront is also highly cost-effective compared to customer solutions (or more complex off-the-shelf solutions). Our platform is free to start with a generous free tier that will always be free.

To explore Userfront, check out our guides and docs.

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