As Syracuse University students and faculty adjust to online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, many have become acquainted with video conferencing using software like Zoom and Blackboard. The exponential increase in the use of these services nationwide has led to some “zoom bombing” incidents at other universities—episodes in which strangers intrude on meetings and disrupt distance learning. With some easily implemented best practices, faculty and students can avoid such unnecessary distractions, says Shiu-Kai Chin, a computer security expert and professor in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science .
One easy way to safeguard the online learning environment is to double check who has access to the virtual classroom space, Chin explains. Faculty and students would immediately notice a stranger entering a physical classroom, but online interlopers may not be so easily recognized. “We just don't have that same level of awareness when we do things online, so we have to take precautions beforehand,” he says.
Chin attributes some disruptions to the increased access and the relative anonymity of video conferencing, rather than to individuals maliciously trying to break into courses. “The social norms aren't there in cyberspace because I can't see you,” says Chin. He learned this lesson when he experimented with a program that allowed his class to draw on and view a communal web-based whiteboard. The relative anonymity, even in a class taught by a cyber security expert, led to mixed results. “The students immediately started scribbling,” Chin said. “What I learned, particularly for large classes: you don't give everybody access to present to the students.”
For Chin, the move to distance learning has been largely positive. “My students have been great under really unprecedented circumstances,” he says.
My students have been great under really unprecedented circumstances.
Maintaining control over who has access to the online classroom is straightforward with settings in Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. The key is for professors to adjust settings so access is limited to students who are registered for the course and to maintain control of who can present to the group. As Chin notes, the right combination of preparation and planning can ensure a respectful and productive virtual learning space for students.