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The Real Threat to Online Learning

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I am currently writing this on a sticker covered, eight-year-old laptop running Ubuntu that my 10 year old uses for surfing the web, writing poetry, and entertaining her younger brother. My one year old, 18.4”, HD, dual core, i5 laptop sits to my left, absolutely useless.

“What’s the problem?” you might ask.

Yesterday, I ran headfirst into the biggest danger of the Internet and one that should not be overlooked by the online learner or educator – VIRUSES. You thought you were safe from them because you don’t have to directly interact on a college campus – no sneezing, coughing, or runny noses. Wrong, if you spend any amount of time online, you are at risk.

Somewhere between posting a link to my latest blog entry on Twitter and Facebook and researching for a new piece at the Seattle Sun Times and the Huffington Post sites, I contracted the "System Fix" virus.

A little research on my iPod showed that this is a very recent addition to the world of online threats and seems to be circumventing most of the usual protections. The evil creature is a “hijacker” or “ransomware” which takes over your system and makes everything go haywire – files and icons vanish, dozens of windows pop up warning of everything from corrupt hard drives to the end of the world, and it prevents you from doing anything to get rid of it. In short, between the virus itself and my stubbornness in trying to fix it, I made my computer unusable until I pay some “Geek” $200 to fix it for me.

It Can Happen To You

I’m a pretty safe surfer, I have a robust antivirus program installed, generally only go to sites that I know are reputable, and never, ever open an attachment or file I’m unsure of. I was absolutely sure that my computer would never get infected and, if it did, I was confident that I could fix the problem.

But I got infected nonetheless, and it has cost me two days of work, countless tears, a whopper of a headache, who knows how many documents, pictures, and videos, and probably a decent chunk of change. It really doesn’t matter how careful you are: if you spend enough time on the Web, eventually you will run afoul of something wicked. This does not mean that you should stop using the Internet or just throw caution to the wind and embrace your fate. What you need to do is to be smart about where you go and how you protect yourself, and back up your files someplace safe.

Mad EyeMoody had it Right: Constant Vigilance is the Answer.

I had never really had a computer virus, so I got lazy and careless. That is lesson number one: you must be constantly vigilant against all threats, known, unknown, and imagined. There are three things you must do on a constant basis in order to protect your computer and ensure that, if you do get infected, the damage will be minimal:

  • Back up your work
  • Update your antivirus, antimalware, antispyware software
  • Keep your computer’s operating system up-to-date

Have a Back Up Plan

I didn’t do this and this crisis would be far less stressful if I had. There are two main options for backing up your files: an external hard drive and online (or both). There are many great and inexpensive hard drives available. You should look for one with a large capacity (1 Terabyte should be enough for years of data) and an automatic backup feature. CNET offers a list of the best available external hard drives.

In terms of online backup there are several paid services which will allow you to back up your information to the cloud. This has the added advantage of making your data accessible from any computer and keeping it safe even if your house gets picked up by a tornado and dropped in OZ. Here are a few of the top rated ones:

For the cash-strapped student, there are a couple of free options that you can begin using right now to secure your files online – Windows Skydrive and Google Docs. Both of these are free with a limited amount of storage (25GB for Skydrive and 1GB for Google Docs). Skydrive has the capability to sync files and folders automatically. Google Docs currently requires you to upload each file individually or use third-party applications (Read Write Web) to sync them automatically. Using any or all of these tools for backing up your data is a wise investment of time and money and one that you will be happy you made if you ever get bitten by a computer bug.

Viruses Change Very QuicklyKeep Up With Them

One thing that I learned about computer viruses from this episode is that they are constantly evolving and new ones pop up daily. That seems to be what got me – a brand new virus that wasn’t yet in the virus definition of my antivirus software because I hadn’t updated the definitions in several weeks to a month. You need to make sure that your antivirus software’s auto update feature is enabled and set to check for new virus definitions at least weekly. Even if it seems a bit confusing to adjust the settings, it is worth the time and effort to figure it out and make it happen.

If you don’t already have antivirus software, get some right now. No seriously, stop reading, and download and install one of these options RIGHT NOW:

Patch the Holes in Your Software and System

By failing to patch security holes in your operating system or installed programs, you are not only allowing wandering bugs in, you are inviting in the ones that are looking for a particular hole. That’s right, many computer viruses are designed to search for specific vulnerabilities in your computer. Just like updating your virus definitions, you need to make sure that your computer’s auto update feature is enabled and that it is checking for system updates on a weekly basis. Both Microsoft and Apple put out regular updates as security vulnerabilities are discovered. Sometimes they are too late, but the odds of you being the first to discover a new virus are slim, so this should keep you covered. The same thing holds true for the other software on your machine. Make sure that you have auto updates turned on, particularly for programs that access the Internet (and they basically all do at this point) such as your web browser, office suite, Adobe products, email programs, etc. Doing this and keeping your virus definitions up-to-date will greatly decrease the likelihood of contracting a crippling computer virus. But what should you do if you get infected?

Help, I’ve Got a Virus!

Again, anything you can do before you get a virus is better than anything you can do after you get one. That said, there are several things that you can do to prepare for the inevitable.

  • If you get a virus, don’t immediately click on any windows that pop up asking you to take action. You should become familiar with the interface of your real antivirus software so you will be able to spot a fraud. Once you suspect that something is amiss, do a search online for help. For example, during my recent crisis a window labeled “System Fix” with the Microsoft logo popped up. I knew that Microsoft never labels something so mundanely, so I immediately did a search for “System Fix” and found out that it was a virus.
  • Have your system restore discs handy. If these discs didn’t come with your computer (they would be labeled something like “System Restore”) then you should create them immediately. Here is a handy guide telling you how.
  • Create a Windows Repair Disc. This will allow you to bypass your operating system and repair some damage that might be done by a virus. Here’s how to create one.
  • Download and burn a Kaspersky Rescue Disk. This is a great free tool by antivirus company Kaspersky, which allows you to boot your computer from the disc and search and destroy any viruses that may be lurking on your system.

If you end up with a virus it may seem like the end of the world – all of your hard work up in smoke in a matter of seconds. It really isn’t though, especially if you take the proper preventative steps that I’ve discussed above. If you have planned for the inevitable you’ll be ready for it when it happens and getting back on track will only be a matter of minutes or hours, not a matter of life and death.