Thousands of online college students in Utah recently logged in to see more than their classes. Due to a programming error, they had full access to grades from every member of their classes and could even edit and input grades for any of their peers. For a two hour period, only 78 students out of over 5,000 active users made changes.
As an online learner, you have easy access to your grades, information, and course materials. But, you may also be at risk for security breaches. The national Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) makes it illegal for colleges to share information about your grades and enrollment with others. But, external learning management systems and the need for technical support puts a lot more eyes on your information and makes it easier for security breaches to occur.
You can’t be immune to all security issues, but you can understand the risks and take steps to protect yourself as an online learner. Take a look at the three major security issues online college students face and find out what you can do to protect yourself.
Problem: Bugs in the Learning Management System
A software glitch (like the one previously discussed) can open up access to the wrong people. Most colleges contract with a third-party software service to provide the learning management system that handles online courses. Although major issues are rare, they do happen. Be aware that a software problem may make your enrollment, grades, and submitted assignments accessible to other teachers, peers, or outside users.
What You Can Do: Inform Your IT Department and Sit Tight
There’s no way to anticipate or protect your data from software problems. But, you can know what actions to take. Make sure that you give your college’s IT department a call and let them know what you are seeing. Don’t mess around with the system or experiment with changing grades. Remember, almost all systems are tracking user changes in real-time. When this has happened in the past, students were called in to explain why they made changes. After the issue is resolved, you may want to change your login password.
Problem: Virus-Ridden File Transfers
When you upload or download a file within your online class, there’s a chance that you may be giving or receiving a virus. Downloading files for peer review or collaborative work can be risky because the same virus can spread throughout an entire online section.
What You Can Do: Download a Solid Security Program. Now.
This is a problem that you can (and should) address today. If you don’t already have an anti-virus program, download one now. Programs like McAffee can find and isolate viruses before they affect your computer. Make sure that you set up the program to run consistently or run manual checks yourself on a regular basis. Remember, antivirus programs are like a vaccine and don’t work as well once your computer is already affected. Don’t wait until you have a problem to download the necessary software.
Problem: Unclear Understanding of Internal and External Websites
While learning management programs tend to be private, an increasing number of professors are sending students to complete work on external websites. If you are assigned to create a blog, post to a Flickr account, or upload files to Pinterest, keep in mind that this work is likely public and accessible through search engines.
What You Can Do: Be Aware of Your Online Persona
The best thing that you can do is just be aware of the information you are making available to the public. Keep in mind that if your name (or your email address or any identifying information) is attached to a publicly-available website, people will likely be able to find it when they search for your name. In some cases, you may want to change the way you approach an assignment knowing that future employers, family members, and friends will be able to see it. Don’t rely on the idea that you can just remove an assignment from the web after the class ends – even if you do, several sites such as the Way Back Machine store archived versions of webpages for an indefinite period.