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UMass Amherst

The secret to making info security fun: selfies

When University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst IT asked students to help improve their information security messaging, the students had a ready answer. In focus groups, they said: “Stop giving us the same old posters. Stop giving us campaigns that you created. We’re a generation that wants to build with you and you need to make it fun.”

But how do you make info security fun?

For that, UMass IT hosted student-led brainstorming sessions, and the students started throwing out ideas. They told UMass IT: We want an app. We want it in the app store. We want to put our own photos in, and can we include our pets because we miss them?

“Within minutes, they came up with a list that seemed like an impossible hurdle but the feeling in the room was, ‘Yes, we should be able to do this,’” says Julie Buehler, vice chancellor for IT and chief information officer. “Nothing was deemed impossible.”

umass amherst

That conversation launched the UMass Amherst IT “My name is not a good password!” campaign, which reminds people to avoid simple passwords that include their names, names of family members or pets—all of which can be easily guessed.

Now, through the UMass Amherst Info Security Poster app, available in both the Apple Store and Google Play, anyone on the UMass campus and beyond can take a photo and add a branded “My name is not a good password!” filter over it. (See details at https://www.umass.edu/it/security/poster.)

Although this initiative started with the students, it quickly spread to faculty, staff and others on campus. They created digital posters featuring pets, student selfies, band member groups, Sam the Minuteman Mascot and dining services team members.

Before IT could celebrate the early success, campus users shared the apps beyond the physical boundaries of UMass Amherst with siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins and friends. The information security campaign broadened to a global level; selfie submissions arrived from as far away as Finland.

This isn’t just about successfully launching an app or a new info security campaign. What this really speaks to, Buehler says, is larger trends like a generation that wants to collaborate and their desire to use technology for more personalized education.

Embracing the ‘maker’ generation

Each year, incoming students bring new ideas.

“And what’s really exciting about this group of students we’re seeing now is they don’t want us to finish materials and hand them over to them,” Buehler says. “They really want to co-create with us. It’s this maker generation, even on info security. That’s something very different for IT administrators to consider.”

In the classrooms, technology has allowed for increased collaboration and engagement. For instance, team-based learning environments now allow students to share interactive screens with instructors and peers. They can take part in e-exams, which provide video content and generate immediate feedback for both the students and faculty. That way, if everyone missed question four, the faculty and students can address that topic during their next class. If everyone got number nine correct, they might move on to the next topic.

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It’s a more flexible approach to curriculum, and Buehler says UMass IT, which serves 29,000 students—in essence, a small city— is adapting.

“It has nothing to do with the size of your environment,” she says. “It’s your ability to listen and then to try to get ahead of the curve a little bit and be bold.”

Unique curriculum for unique students

As students demand more of a say in their curriculum, they’re pushing for more personalized curriculum, too.

To explain the shift, Buehler uses the example of cellphones. Give 10 people cellphones, she says, and a week later, they’ll each be using those same phones in vastly different ways. No two phones would have the same apps or be exactly alike.

umass amherst

“Our students are the same way,” she says. “Even ones taking the same class in the same major, they learn differently, and they have different gifts and talents to offer each other, the campus and the world.”

To allow for more personalized services, UMass IT is increasing the number of classroom devices it supports, making it easier for students to use their own devices, offering lessons in multiple forms, like video and text, and making it easier to offer classes at different times of day, both onsite and online.

Committed, through and through, to education

“Everything we do is about learning and the learning must come before the technology,” Buehler says, so she encourages her team to listen to people, embrace change and always remember that, in the end, it’s all about the students’ education.

All of this is, of course, changing rapidly.

“You can look at it in one of two ways,” Buehler says. “You can either curl yourself up in a ball and be afraid of it, or you can say, you know, this could be really good, this could be really wonderful.”

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