How Can Industry Leaders and Academia Help Improve Cybersecurity Education?

Just as the field of cybersecurity grew out of information technology, cybersecurity education is evolving as an offshoot of the computer science field. The current state of cybersecurity course offerings as an underdeveloped computer science footnote is allowing the skills gap to grow. To change this, higher education has to address the theoretical and hands-on skills students need to do their jobs post-graduation.

Without sufficient expert staffing, security teams lack the resources necessary to do their jobs effectively; in this way, the skills gap itself is a significant security risk. How, then, can the industry educate the next generation at scale? While there is no one answer, let’s take a look at what’s going on in classrooms across colleges and universities to see how higher education can evolve to meet the needs of the industry.

How to Recognize Shortcomings in Cybersecurity Education

By taking a closer look at the actual cybersecurity training programs higher education currently provides, industry leaders can help draw the road map of where it needs to go. How can they improve its offerings without bankrupting students who are already spending tens of thousands of dollars on degrees that fail to prepare them for the real-world problems they will face?

Bo Yuan, professor and chair of the Department of Computing Security at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), acknowledged that many undergraduate degree programs in cybersecurity start out with common introductory courses in computing and mathematics, such as Computer Science I and II and Calculus, eventually ramping up to more specialized training.

“As they get further into the program, students at RIT take more cybersecurity-focused courses, including Introduction to Cryptography and Cyber Security Policy and Law,” Yuan said. “In master’s degree programs, courses often focus on the theoretical foundations of computing security and how to become leaders in the implementation of computing security and information assurance policies and practices.”

To ensure that graduates are able to successfully transition from the classroom to the security operations center (SOC), cybersecurity education leaders should expand and more deeply integrate their hands-on learning opportunities.

Why Student Outreach Is Crucial

With the hefty price tag on degrees these days, students need to be judicious in the programs they choose. But it’s also up to industry leaders to reach out to their future recruits and help connect them with opportunities. Although one-to-one engagement across school districts is impossible, any role security professionals can play is a significant investment in long-term cybersecurity strategy.

Steering students cybersecurity training programs that offer them the chance to detect, identify and respond to existing threats in a simulated environment will yield the best returns. Unfortunately, those opportunities are not equally available to all students, and many won’t have the exposure they need to recognize their specialized interests within computer science early enough to plan effectively to get there.

Collaborate to Offer Experiential Learning

Hands-on learning opportunities are essential for cybersecurity students, and many academic institutions, including RIT, enable students to gain experience through simulated real-world exercises. But the students need to know what’s out there before making career-defining decisions to specialize one way over another.

To that end, some security companies have already parterned with educational organizations to extend opportunities for such immersive training.

“We have a heavy hands-on component to the degree programs with labs and project assignments,” Yuan explained. “Additionally, RIT computing security students are required to do two terms of co-ops (paid internships) before graduation.”

Yuan noted that RIT students have engaged in cooperative educational experiences with organizations such as IBM, Eaton Corporation and government agencies. These experiences often lead to job offers before graduation; both students and recruiters are reaping the benefits of these arrangements.

Why It’s Important to Make Connections Early

Through internships and co-ops, students can develop strong cybersecurity skills in the field, which hiring organizations desperately need to keep up with the evolving threat landscape. The Advanced Cyber Security Center (ACSC) and the University of Massachusetts created the Cybersecurity Education and Training Consortium (CETC) to bring industry leaders and students together. According to a press release, “The CETC will connect higher education leaders with business leaders to promote academic programming in cybersecurity that aligns with the needs of Massachusetts employers.”

Higher education programs around the world should partner with the cybersecurity industry to learn more about the needs of students and professionals. Through these innovations, students and enterprises can gain efficient access to both learning opportunities and talent. By working together with institutions of higher learning, businesses can ensure that students come out of learning programs armed with an understanding of the existing threat landscape and how to monitor its constant change so that they are fully equipped to do their jobs.

Zurkus is an influential writer covering a range of security topics with a focus on mitigating risks to businesses. Her...