Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Director of the National Council for Online Education

Our Greatest Strength Is Our Greatest Vulnerability

The greatest strength of online learning is the anytime and anywhere characteristic, but the online aspect is also our greatest vulnerability.

We tend to think often about the worldwide reach and impact of online learning. Through online, we have the power to change lives and societies. However, we are seriously vulnerable, more so, one might argue, than our campus-based colleagues. The online digital nature of our field is such that we are subject to outages and cyberattacks. One might be able to convene a campus-based class without the network, without an LMS, without asynchronous communication features. But without these capabilities, our online classes would be crippled.

In the early days of online learning — the mid and late 1990s — I recall setting up a telephone bridge with bulletin board software to enable a rudimentary backup to a potential disruption of the internet. Contingency plans included contacting students via phone or snail mail with instructions on how to connect through dial-up modem connections. As enrollments grew larger, we obtained high-speed DVD copying devices so that copies of courseware could be distributed via snail mail in case of network disruption. This involved altering the course display so that it was not dependent on the LMS system. We then implemented VM server solutions at remote locations to provide backup emulation and virtualization. And much of our software moved to the cloud with relatively robust backups in place. All of these actions are part of the historical record of attempts to assure continuity of the online learning programs. Yet today, despite our ever more sophisticated backups and hardened security, we remain vulnerable to network disruption at the user side, software corruption, personal identity theft, intellectual property theft and a host of other vulnerabilities through nefarious actors and actions.

On the geopolitical front, on Nov. 1, Russia implemented its sovereign internet law, effectively enabling the government to cut off all outside internet sources to the country. Russia is only the latest; a number of other countries have put similar measures in place. Even more recently, Iran blocked the entire net, not just foreign sites, but for nearly all of the country. Our international students are left to struggle with such interruptions.

As we move toward the integration of more “smart” AI applications such as neural networks, other concerning strategies are emerging. Intelligent chat boxes, “smart” assistant programs and learner face- or voice-recognition programs all carry vulnerabilities due to the emergence of adversarial machine learning, creating another approach to compromising our online learning programs. Matthew Harris does an excellent job of introducing the principles of adversarial machine learning in his article in Towards Data Science: “Essentially, attacks on neural networks involve the introduction of strategically placed noise designed to fool the network by falsely stimulating activation potentials that are important to produce certain outcomes.” These approaches can enable altering the artificial intelligence perception of inputs and sources without directly breaking into the computer or coding.

How do we prepare for such incursions in the 2020s? The first step may be to identify the problem. I serve on a systemwide cybersecurity task force for my university. We are looking at vulnerabilities, impacts and solutions. It is unlikely that any single task force will be able to anticipate every single potential eventuality. Certainly, this is a moving target with technologies, networks and applications constantly evolving. As Dan Carfagno reports in his enlightening article “Why Is Higher Education the Target for Cyber Attacks?” “Cyber-attacks will not happen the same way in the future. Hackers have learned over time to adapt to changes in security methods. Some more pressing problems today faced by IT departments will include hackers using their entry for creating severe disruptions to university operations and affect more than just data.”

Taking action to protect the university is not a single simple action. It takes a multiprong approach that is constantly assessed and reassessed, as hackers are constantly evolving their methods in higher education attacks.

Ongoing proactive vigilance is necessary to assure that we are meeting the challenge. The consequences of failing to create an effective comprehensive program put students, faculty and the credibility of the university at risk. It is important that all parts of the university are engaged in this process so that all interests and vulnerabilities are represented.

What are you doing to advance cybersecurity at your university? Have you begun benchmarking your practices against other universities? What practices have you targeted? I plan to continue to follow and write on this topic, so let me know what you and your peers are doing to lead in this field.

This article originally was published in Inside Higher Ed’s Inside Digital Learning blog.

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

Other UPCEA Updates + Blogs

Special Edition Policy Matters | Major Covid-19 Stimulus Bill Passed + ED Releases Substantial Draft Regulations on Distance Ed, CBE, Credit Hour + More (April 2020)

Major Updates Major Coronavirus Relief Bill (CARES Act) Passes | Provides Financial Aid Relief, $30B+ Stabilization Fund for Education After temporarily stalled negotiations, Congress has passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus package in response to the Covid-19 crisis, the CARES Act, the largest package of its kind ever passed into law. Higher education advocates, including UPCEA,…

Read More

2020 UPCEA Benchmarking Research Agenda

Did you know that each year, UPCEA members receive benchmarking data from the Center for Research and Strategy, directed by Jim Fong? UPCEA benchmarking research is not just the industry standard—it is also a nonprofit service designed for institutions like yours. Look out for these forthcoming studies to benchmark your unit to others in the…

Read More

A Glimpse into the Future Economy after the Pandemic

COVID-19 has certainly changed our world, with more suffering yet to come. Many tragedies have reshaped society and the world economy. After the destruction and loss of life from 9/11, the financial markets and economy suffered in the short-term, but certain industries experienced longer lasting effects, primarily the airline, insurance, food and energy sectors. This…

Read More

UPCEA Welcomes Seven New Board Members

WASHINGTON, April 2, 2020 – UPCEA, the Washington, D.C.-based association for college and university leaders in professional, continuing, and online education, welcomed two new officers and five new directors to serve on the UPCEA Board of Directors during a virtual Board meeting on March 18. “On behalf of the Board Development committee and the entire…

Read More

Wellesley College Associate Provost and Founding Director of Strategic Growth Initiatives Nancy Coleman Serve as UPCEA Board President-Elect

WASHINGTON, April 2, 2020 – UPCEA, the Washington, D.C.-based association for university leaders in professional, continuing, and online education, welcomed Dr. Nancy Coleman as the association’s 2020-21 Board President-Elect during a virtual Board of Directors Meeting on March 18. Coleman is Associate Provost and Founding Director of Strategic Growth Initiatives at Wellesley College.  As UPCEA…

Read More

University of Washington Continuum College Vice Provost Rovy Branon to Serve as UPCEA Board President

WASHINGTON, April 2, 2020 – UPCEA, the Washington, D.C.-based association for university leaders in professional, continuing, and online education, welcomed Dr. Rovy Branon as the association’s 2020-21 Board President during a virtual Board of Directors meeting on March 18. Branon is vice provost for the University of Washington Continuum College. Branon notes that the timing…

Read More

Whether you need benchmarking studies, or market research for a new program, UPCEA Consulting is the right choice.

We know you. We know the challenges you face and we have the solutions you need. We speak your language and have been serving leaders like you for more than 100 years. UPCEA consultants are current or former continuing and online higher education professionals who are experts in the industry—put our expertise to work for you.

UPCEA is dedicated to advancing quality online learning at the institutional level. UPCEA is uniquely focused on excellence at the highest levels – leadership, administration, strategy – applying a macro lens to the online teaching and learning enterprise. Its engaged members include the stewards of online learning at most of the leading universities in the nation.

We offers a variety of custom research options through a variable pricing model.

Click here to learn more.

The Nation's Top Universities Choose UPCEA Consulting

Informed decisions. Ideas that work. The data you need. Trusted by the top universities in the nation.