A Philosopher's Blog

Smart Classrooms & Infections

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 31, 2011
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While I have been integrating technology into my classes since graduate school (my first creation was a Supercard program that incorporated notes and tutorials into a self contained package) it was only the past fall that I was actually assigned to a smart classroom. Half of my classes are still in a dumb classroom. In fact, it is very dumb: it is a converted band room in the old high school associated with the campus (the high school students are now in a new, much nicer complex).

Using a smart classroom is easy enough-they typically just involve a PC serving as a “hub” for various media devices (VCR, DVD player, etc.) and that is also connected to a projector. Most people just use PowerPoint or show web sites via a browser. Of course, some people just like having the rooms and do not even use the “smart” features.

One obvious problem with the smart classrooms is the fact that the PCs have to be accessible to all the professors who use the room. So, for example, anyone can plug in a malware infested USB key or pickup various nasties from web sites. Interestingly enough, the PCs I have seen are lacking in security software, other than the Windows 7 firewall.  Not surprisingly, I have noticed that they have problems with malware.  Since I do not want to get malware on my well maintained PCs, I have worked out some strategies for dealing with the fact that the classroom PCs seem to be roughly the equivalent of a public urinal.

One obvious approach is to try to upgrade the security. However, most classroom PCs are password protected to keep people from installing software (well, in theory anyway). One easy way around this is to use Ophcrack-a free program that can be used to garner the passwords on a Windows machine. With enough time, it would be possible to get the password for the administrator account, log in and then install security software such as the free Avast software and the excellent free Comodo firewall.  Useful free software is also available at Ninite. Of course, the IT folks might frown on such behavior-although they should probably have taken steps to secure the PCs from the get go. If you don’t have the time to crack the password, one option is to use portable software to clean the PC. While this will not be an optimal solution, it can be better than nothing. PortableApps.com has some basic security programs that can be run without actually being installed. As such, you can run them from a CD, removable drive or by copying or by downloading them to the PC.

A second obvious approach is to keep the files you need on your own website. That way you can simply load a webpage or download the files to the PC without worrying about infections.  Obviously, you do not want to use a password protected online file storage (like Skydrive) from the PC-it might have a keylogger installed. However, sites that allow public access would be fine (keep in mind that folks will be able to get to your files).

There are also some online anti-virus programs, such as Panda ActiveScan, that can be run from a web browser. While an installed security suite or set of programs would be better, an online scan is better than nothing.

Of course, the PCs internet access might be down (or non-existent) or perhaps downloading is not an option. If so, another approach would be needed.

A third approach is to burn a CD with your files on it. Be sure that the disk is “closed” so that nothing more can be written to it. On the downside, you’ll have to buy a CD (although this is cheap) and create new ones when you change your files. However, this is a rather secure option.

A fourth approach is to get a USB drive that has a hardware write protect switch. All of my older drives have this but none of my newer drives do (although there are apparently some software write protect options). If you are buying one for this purpose, be sure to confirm that it has such a switch. This allows you to change or update files as needed, yet be reasonably safe from the perils of the smart classroom PC.

As a another option, if your smart classroom has a document camera, you can print your class material and use that camera. The only infections you have to worry about then are those you might pick up from touching the mouse.

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4 Responses

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  1. FRE said, on January 31, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    It looks as though all instructors and professors need to have a degree in computer science. I see that as unreasonable.

    The function of instructors and professors is to assist students to understand the subject being taught. The technical equipment to assist in doing so should be considered to be an appliance like a washing machine or food mixer. It should not be necessary for instructors and professors to waste their time learning how to use them and then having to relearn every time some change is made.

    I realize that this is utopian, but computer and software manufacturers should work towards that goal. Meanwhile, there should be expert technical assistance readily available to minimize the time that instructors and professors have to spend dealing with esoteric problems associated with computers.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 31, 2011 at 5:55 pm

      People can get by without knowing much about computers-I’ve shown people how to use the set up in a matter of minutes. Of course, actually being able to handle problems does require some extra skills. This is no big deal when there is solid and quick IT support, but it can be a problem when it is lacking.

  2. philosophyfactory said, on January 31, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    At my school we have a shared drive that can be accessed via the net — so all of my files are there and I just pull them up on the classroom computer. I also use files on our on-line course management software, which I can “hide” from my students. The advantage to the latter is that I can make them available as needed and appropriate after class.

    I have a much more human-centered problem with our smart classrooms, namely some bozo keeps turning the PC off. This can create a backlog of updates that would otherwise be pushed out by the IT people — and I’ve often had the in-classroom PC get so bogged down that it takes 20 minutes to boot. Of course, telling all the people who use the classroom what to do with the CPU is like telling faculty anywhere what to do — sigh. I’ve even had people reach around a post it ON the power switch to turn it off…

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 31, 2011 at 6:00 pm

      That is a problem. I am slightly surprised that there is not an OS designed entirely for presentation machines. Of course, Google won’t get in on that because people won’t use it to view ads. Apple, though, might consider something like that. All that is really needed is something that can serve as a “media hub”, surf the web, and handle presentations. Of course, some classes might need other software.

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