Systems Down: The Struggle Against Cyber Attacks
Be it learning platforms, email systems or even campus Wi-Fi, our university systems are at the heart of our universities. In the wake of the cyberattack on NUI Galway in recent months Kate Molloy, NUIG Project Lead, gives an update from the ground and our IUA student intern Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich considers the threat we face from cyberattacks on our universities
On the morning of Thursday, 30th September, staff and students at NUI Galway started their day only to find that they couldn’t access most of our campus systems, with access to the wider internet was unavailable on campus. The university had suffered a cyberattack and most systems were rendered inaccessible. Given that this was so early in the semester, the situation was particularly sobering. After supporting our staff to return to campus teaching, with many trying to adopt a hybrid approach, we found ourselves pivoting yet again. Fortunately, systems like email and Microsoft Teams were unaffected and became a crucial lifeline for communication more so than ever. Our ISS team worked tirelessly to offer solutions to access critical systems, like our virtual learning environment, Blackboard. Though access to the wider internet wasn’t available on campus straight away, workarounds to access Blackboard off campus were provided, and therefore vital learning materials and lectures, were soon available to students.
The process to restore access to different platforms and systems was painstaking. The approach that the university took was careful and cautious. However, without access to the wired network, or Eduroam Wi-Fi, teaching and learning did have to adapt quickly once again. Some staff opted to teach face to face and make learning materials available asynchronously for students offsite. Others attempted to stream and record lectures using mobile data. Students made do with temporary Wi-Fi brought in to support the situation.
While the cyberattack only added an extra layer of complexity to an already challenging semester, the situation served to remind us of our reliance on connectivity, and the essential role that our systems provide. It has certainly prompted the university community to become more conscious about online safety. This isn’t the first such instance of an attempted attack in Ireland, and hopefully the wider higher education community can learn from our experience.
This attack on NUIG may be the first on such a scale to hit an Irish university, but previous attacks on Technological University Dublin and the National College of Ireland show that the issue is not isolated to a single institution. Digital tools and technology are being increasingly integrated into teaching and learning in Ireland, and the pedagogical benefits are immeasurable, but with that integration comes an emphasis on the importance of cyber security. The resilience shown by staff and students in NUIG is admirable in a situation that is far from ideal, but becoming increasingly common.
Microsoft reports that the threat faced by the education sector from malware globally outstrips any other industry by far, making up over 65% of the reported malware attacks in the period between 15th of November 2021 and 15th of December 2021. There has never been a greater emphasis on the importance of keeping systems up to date and secure, and insuring IT staff have the resources necessary to maintain cybersecurity for our systems, to avoid leaving staff and students logged out in the cold.
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