May 01 2020

How To Keep Cyber Shenanigans Out Of The Digital Classroom

Here’s a look at the trolls and other issues threatening remote learning — and tips on how to avoid them.

At Arizona State University, an online Introduction to Storytelling class is disrupted by participants posting offensive comments. At The Ohio State University, during an online class in engineering, an uninvited intruder drowns out the teacher by playing loud music and hijacking the chat room. And at the University of Iowa, as a professor prepares to teach her class — an online diversity and equity course on the Holocaust and genocide — three nonstudent attendees display racist and anti-Semitic symbols in the virtual backgrounds of their videoconferencing user profiles.

Welcome to the world of remote learning, newly populated by institutions forced online almost overnight in response to the growing crisis around COVID-19. Now, as they endeavor to establish a new normal, some schools are finding the systems they’ve adopted might be vulnerable to visitors exhibiting less-than-scrupulous behavior.

From students paying stand-ins to write their papers and take their classes to the “Zoom-bombing” targeting classes at universities like ASU and UI, there’s no shortage of potential hijinks and trouble that can pop up when instructors put distance learning systems into place. Here’s a look at some of the budding cheats, shenanigans and trolls that educators should be wary of when operating a remote classroom — and a few tips on how to avoid them.

The first rule of Zoom Club: Don’t give up control of your screen.

Zoom's Official Guidance on How to Keep Uninvited Guests Out of Your Zoom Event

Stay Protected from Zoom-Bombing of Classes

To be clear, Zoom-bombing is rare, and any videoconferencing tool — Zoom or otherwise — can be susceptible to hacks and trolling. “Zoom has just taken the brunt of the conversation simply because it’s being used the most,” says Brian Kelly, director of the cybersecurity program at EDUCAUSE. “It’s not that it’s necessarily inherently insecure. You just need to understand your settings and be careful when you change them.”

Zoom, for its part, has provided guidance on the subject, offering tips such as, “The first rule of Zoom Club: Don’t give up control of your screen.” The company also recently updated its default settings for screen sharing on education accounts to give a meeting’s host full control over which participants are permitted to share their screens.

The FBI has weighed in on Zoom-bombing as well. Among its recommendations: Never make meetings public (or publicize meetings on social media). Either use the app’s Waiting Room feature or require guests to log in with a meeting password, and always ensure you’re using the latest version of the software.

Many universities, including Northeastern University and the University of California, Berkeley, have published their own guidelines on how to securely use Zoom and best remove unwanted participants. The solution for that professor at Iowa University? She convinced the intruders to leave her class when she threatened to call the police.

Tech to Prevent Cheating and Plagiarism

While discouraging and preventing cheating has always been important in higher education, remote learning has added a new twist to the challenge. Again, it’s not common, but students can work the system, asking friends or hiring professionals to take their online tests and write their essays for them. In one recent case of so-called contract cheating, a mother paid a middleman $9,000 to get others to complete online courses on behalf of her son and to take his place during videoconferences with a professor. There’s also the issue of students taking online tests themselves but doing so while using prohibited resources like friends, family, textbooks and websites.

One survey found that 86 percent of students admitted to cheating in some way during their time in college, and that in all but a few cases, they managed to get away with it. So, what can teachers do to stop remote learning cheats?

MORE ON EDTECH: These are the 3 Remote Learning Technology Must-Haves for Higher Ed

Experts recommend a multipronged approach: First, establish strong classroom and institutional policies that clearly define what’s allowed and what is not. Next, strive to build a “culture of academic integrity” in which students commit to maintaining honesty and fairness. And finally, when appropriate, rely on technologies and services for student monitoring, whether it’s plagiarism detection software or an online proctoring company. Some professors, including several at Harvard University, have made their online exams entirely open-book. Others have decided to do the proctoring themselves, using videoconferencing platforms, for example, to observe students while they take their tests.

EDUCAUSE’s Brian Kelly says the various examples out there of egregious cyber infractions are mostly major exceptions to the rule. Consult with your university IT professionals about security and privacy, he suggests, and work to raise student and faculty awareness of the risks that may come with remote learning. “Follow best practices with the tools and platforms that you use and leverage the expert resources you have on campus,” he says. “Those are the most important things you can do.”

Chainarong Prasertthai/ iStock / Getty Images Plus