The audience for the presentation is graduate-level faculty, most of whom have earned terminal degrees in their areas of professional specialization. Averaging more than twice the median age of the student body, the typical faculty member completed his or her formal education a decade or more before the onset of the computer revolution. Unlike the typical student who has grown up in the digital age, the faculty are largely unaware of, or under-impressed by, the challenges and threats facing an educational institution in 2007.
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Complicating the instructional context is the nature of the institution. As a seminary training men and women for ministry at the masters and doctoral level, the underlying heart-felt presumption is that students and faculty will act honorably and ethically in public and in private. There is a persistent sense of trust that makes it more difficult to put in place the security measures needed to safeguard against those who would do harm.
This topic would be ideal for a campus-wide, half-day interactive workshop where issues could be introduced and discussed, with sufficient time for participants to understand seriousness of the threat and the need for a personal and institutional response.
Threat Situations and Responses
One does not have to own a computer for very long to become aware of the threat posed by computer viruses. These malicious, self-replicating software programs are designed to infect individual computers and networks by invisibly attaching themselves to executable software programs (Computer Virus, n.d.). Some viruses are little more than a nuisance; others are incredibly destructive, potentially and irredeemably damaging hardware, software and data. While the Internet is often blamed for encouraging the development and dissemination of computer viruses, the first viruses were in fact created in the mid 1980s – almost a full decade before the Internet was born (The History, n.d.).
Every computer user, regardless of whether they are connected to the Internet, must invest in virus-checking software to monitor for the presence of these hidden threats, trap them before they are able to do damage, and clean them from the system. Popular anti-virus programs include products from market-leaders McAfee Incorporated, Symantec Corporation, and Microsoft . Of equal importance to the installation of virus software is a continuing commitment to keep the software up to date. Virus developers continue to try to outwit system defenses, and virus software must be able to respond to the most current threats.
A second very real challenge to network integrity is posed by the too-often-romanticized computer hacker. For clarity, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission defines a computer hacker as “a malicious or inquisitive meddler who tries to discover information by poking around” (Glossary, 2001). Educational institutions are often vulnerable to hacking since many dismiss the threat. They neglect to institute the necessary security measures until they have fallen victim to hackers who may desire little more than to make you aware of the fact they defeated your security measures, or to others who may seek illicit and illegal access to critical academic or financial records. The unfortunate reality is that no school, no organization is safe from hackers simply because of their size or relative obscurity.
It is critical that everyone who connects to the Internet secure their computer or network through correctly-configured and maintained firewall protection. Firewalls restrict access to your systems to authorized personnel, and then only to the specific areas of their responsibility. Educators who are legally bound by federal statute to safeguard the privacy interests of their students, and who face serious liability problems should donor and other records be hacked, must recognize and respond to the threat hackers pose. This is one area where the in-house skills of the IT department should be buttressed by computer security specialists who focus exclusively on network protection.
Of great importance, too, in the on-going battle against hackers is a commitment to apply software patches as they are released by technology providers. These patches, and full software upgrades, often include security upgrades that close system holes that had been identified as points of system vulnerability. Even though no one welcomes the task of upgrading potentially hundreds of computers, or the licensing costs of a new software version, a realistic cost-benefit analysis almost always favors the investment. The risk that results from not responding appropriately again places a school in a position of potential liability.
An often overlooked, but very real, threat to electronic resources results from either a lack of employee awareness or a lack of personal discipline. Although there is perhaps greater cachet to external threats, the reality is that systems are most frequently accessed inappropriately from within the organization. Workstations left unattended and unlocked, passwords shared with other users or written in conspicuous locations, leave critical data and electronic resources vulnerable to unauthorized access. A system that is professionally secured from external threats is often vulnerable to a casual visitor passing by an unattended computer station. In this day of lap-top computing, resources and data that once was contained within the walls of the institution, now leave with the employee for business trips, for work at home, or even on vacation.
From the first day on the job until the last, employees must be trained to conduct personal security audits, reviewing their protocols and practices for ensuring that resources in their care and control are secure. Frequent unannounced walk-throughs by members of the IT department to monitor desk-level activity, and verification that off-site resources are maintained securely, are critical elements in an institution’s response to home-bred threats.
Safe Practices in the Use of Technology Tools
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Safe practices require at lest two levels of engagement. First, there must be a diligent effort to protect educational systems from threats internal and external. Not only must administration erect security barriers to ensure that only appropriate personnel have access to vital systems and informational resources, but they must also protect against the mundane but very real threats of system failure. Data loss that results from failed hardware or software can be catastrophic. Student records, financial information, and educational resources that are essential to the effective operation and mission of the school can be lost in an instant. Before any data is captured, before a record is maintained, there must be a data backup and recovery plan in place and tested. Students, teachers and donors are placing their trust in the ability of the institution to maintain and safeguard records from all threats, both malignant and benign.
Second, educational leaders must take great care to safeguard those who use technologies. As important as hardware and software are, they do not take priority over people. Internet filters must be considered, if not implemented, to protect personnel against the flood of pornographic images and text that can appear unbidden on the desktop to assault the end-user. Equally, administrators must establish appropriate use policies for internal email, while setting in place the filters and rules to eliminate as much of the bilious spam that fills employee in-boxes as possible.
Although unthinkable a generation ago, educational institutions today cannot – must not – minimize the need to protect students, women, and other vulnerable constituencies against online predators. The social networking that the Internet can do so well, and to laudable purposes, can also place individuals of any age in jeopardy. Any school or organization that does not diligently protect its people against online predators not only risks the well-being of the individuals in its care, but also the continuance of its mission.
Establishing Learner Behavioral Expectations
Accidents do indeed happen, but a school cannot create a safe technology environment that supports teaching and learning by accident. It must be an intentional effort, a team effort, and a long-term effort. Intentionality means that leadership sounds the call to action and leads the effort by establishing clearly-stated goals and strategies, and by releasing the personnel and financial resources needed to grow the program.
In addition, the effort must involve everyone from the board room to the cafeteria. In the realm of technology, and especially the development of a safe, effective and supportive technological environment, it is true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Any unattended desktop can be a weak link that gives unauthorized access to critical data and resources. Any unprotected desktop can be a point of personal or professional attack against faculty, staff or students. The only way to create a safe, nurturing technological environment in which people and processes prosper is to ensure that everyone understands what it takes to achieve the goal, and that everyone is committed to the effort.
Finally, the effort must not just be for a season, but for the long term. It must be part of a school’s ethos, of its ethic. It must be cultural, a shared trait, that is valued, taught and rewarded from an individual’s job application to his or her retirement party.
- Computer Virus. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2007, from
- Glossary. (2001). Hacker. Retrieved September 10, 2007, from
- The History of Computer Viruses. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2007,
- from http://www.exn.ca/nerds/20000504-55.cfm
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