Not Now I'm IM-ing

Students ‘converse’ under the radar during class, and now disabling bot-borne viruses threaten entire campuses.

In late September, the University of Maryland was hit hard by one of the worst computer virus infections to hit higher education in recent memory. What made the outbreak more devastating than usual was the fact that it arrived on the back of an insidious little carrier known as the SDbot, quickly disabling student computers by posing as a friendly AIM message link (“LOL, ha, check this out”) from an IM-ing buddy. Campus CIOs across the country got the news within hours, and shuddered: With the expansion of mobility and converged networks and devices (laptops, PDAs, and cell phones) their work had simultaneously become transcendent and a descent into campus security hell.

Yet, campus faculty have been grappling with other serious IM-related issues for some time now, not the least of which is the challenge of teaching a class while, under the radar, instantand text messages fly low like stealth bombers. In recent months, we have reported on various methods used by aggravated teachers, professors, and technologists to thwart the silent chatter during class time. Some of those approaches have included a) creating wireless “dead zones” (students attempting to surf the Net or IM a friend find that—drat!—their wireless capability is mysteriously disabled every time they head to Don’t Try That Here 101), or b) simply ruling that cell phones be turned off and laptops be closed.

The problems with the latter approach are obvious: Cell phones can still vibrate, and forcing students to shut their electronic notebooks sends them back to the archaic kind (and then what’s the good of having a laptop?). The problem with the more sophisticated dead zone approach is also clear: Must we now confound our ubiquitous mobility efforts (and add to the sizable dollar and man-hour investment) by disabling them everywhere kids can’t stop passing electronic notes to each other?

Possibly the most creative approach is the one I heard recently (though it takes me back to memories of my thirdgrade teacher rapping me on the knuckles with a ruler when she caught me whispering to a classmate): At one institution of higher learning, a fed-up professor has become savvy enough to use the classroom WLAN to access various students’ laptop screens during class. He now surreptitiously “flashes” random desktops (complete with any IM activity) onto the bigger screen in front of the room, for all to see. One can only imagine the chagrin of Mary, in row 3, seat F, as she spies her instant message to her buddy two seats down—“r u as bored as i am?”—displayed to all.

The message here is twofold. One: campus technologists will have to become increasingly adept at not only thwarting but preventing the spread of viruses that move through AIM and the networks that connect wireless and cellular devices. And two: higher ed faculty— whether they like it or not—are going to have to get wireless-savvy fast, if they are going to have any hope of keeping up with a worldwide student population that just can’t stop yakking across the ethersphere.

About the Author

Katherine Grayson is is a Los Angeles based freelance writer covering technology, education, and business issues.

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