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Bridging the disconnect with Discord

Boise State University’s cyber operations and resilience program is finding new ways to connect with its growing number of online students. This time, it’s taking a different approach to building a community—Discord.

Discord is an instant messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) social platform that allows its users to communicate via voice calls, video calls, instant text messaging and various media files. This type of communication can be made privately over a direct message or in a virtual community-like setting called a “server.” Within a server, different “channels” or topics are created and contain a vast amount of information regarding that topic. Boise State has launched a server to unite the cyber operations and resilience students, alumni and faculty, whether they frequent the physical campus or find themselves in a time zone on the other side of the world.

The server hosts nearly 400 members at last count, growing daily. Each member can access various resources that have been made available: TA helplines, job postings, scholarship opportunities, memes and even channels directly related to each of the undergraduate and graduate courses. One of the key highlights of this server is it allows any student to access a channel for any course within the program, ask for help and receive assistance in real time without the pressure to write a formal email to the instructor. Students are seen asking various questions related to their current courses; from questions about required reading materials to troubleshooting the tech they use to complete coursework, someone somewhere seems to have an answer.

Outside of almost on-demand-help, the server has grown and includes current news in cyber, discussions on virtual training platforms outside of coursework and a new segment conducted live each Friday called “Engineering Fridays” that has included topics such as cross-site-scripting (XXS) attacks and how to create a DIY home lab, even if you are a beginner.

Peer support

Cameron White, Tyler Dibble and Mark Tachick are the student engineers and masterminds behind the server. All three are students in the cyber operations and resilience program who sought to make connections outside the weekly discussion prompts with those in the program. Through their dedication, any student in the program can find the support they need, whether related to specific courses, career development or personal growth.

“One of the biggest benefits of this server is the support other students offer. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a sense of community, but a sense of unity. Students can rally together to solve coding problems for the programming classes or ask questions that their peers can answer, or they can participate in a few of our off-topic channels,” explains White.

Tachick believes this to be a digital gathering place of sorts. Tachick and the other students view the server as “a place to relax, share news and information, laugh at memes or ask questions about specific class content that is confusing them. This is especially useful since we have TAs also available in Discord to help our students from prior class times that can help explain the content.”

At any time, you can find someone seeking assistance — and receive it in minutes. At a glance, you can catch students from CPS 401 utilizing the TA helpline channel for guidance with their current module’s labs. Frustration at a stuck point becomes an opportunity for someone to share how they got past that part. Tucked inside the channel for CORE 460/560, students collaborate on answering questions about their current module’s PowerPoint project. Encouragement is passed around and a consensus is reached on how to stay within the time constraints.

Bolstering knowledge

In addition to the available resources, the engineers behind the scenes take on more personal responsibility for ensuring students from any background can find space within Boise State’s cyber community.

“I am very active in the discord and try to help answer questions as much as possible. We have many people coming into this program without a technical background, and they have a lot of questions. I try to make myself as available as possible.” Dibble shared.

“Because of our diverse backgrounds and after witnessing other students struggling, we decided to share our experiences. We help the students develop their understanding and potentially grow their skills by working with us or later viewing videos we make on said subjects,” Tachick explained.

Because of their experiences, this platform has allowed students to find resources necessary for success in and out of the classroom. Many students wanted more ways to grow their technical skills, so Engineering Fridays were created to fill that need.

“Welcome to building a home lab! I am Ashley Sequeira,” exclaims the adjunct professor of CORE 100 and 101, “I recognize a couple of these discord names, believe it or not…”
Sequeira was the host of the week’s Engineering Fridays segment on how to build your home lab, her enthusiasm directly aligned with how exciting of a topic it can be for anyone in cyber.

The stream consisted of nearly an hour-long walkthrough and took the viewers through a step-by-step process from installation to deployment. One of the most beneficial aspects of this segment is that it truly did not matter if you knew these concepts before joining the stream, because every topic discussed was explained in a way that removed the pressure of needing prior knowledge: an obstacle prominent for newbies in cyber circles.

The vibe within the stream is casual–almost as if sitting amongst your friends. Sequeira leads with her reasons for needing a home lab, “I got a malware sample and ran it on my computer and destroyed that entire box. So having a home lab is great for malware research because you can contain it. And if you tear up your VM, you just spin up another one.”

Viewers could talk about why they want home labs and the reasons range from beginners wanting experience to experienced users being able to use their knowledge to their advantage during professional interviews.

Following a brief tour of Sequeira’s set-up (featuring multiple Raspberry Pi’s, a Pi-hole, an Ubuntu server, a VM server and two Flipper Zeros), she begins the detailed process of building a home lab from scratch.

Creating community

Despite this being a server initially made for specific aspects of the cyber operations and resilience program…it continues expanding to include anything related to cyber that its members might find relatable or even enjoyable.

“We’ve always had a list of all the cyber operations and resilience and cyber-physical systems security classes and their related channels, but we’ve had a variety of other categories pop up. We have some now for articles about the cyber operations and resilience program , student success stories, ebooks, cyber-news, resources and events like DEFCON. We have a channel for students’ self-published blogs and one for other themes like AI and ethical hacking. One of our more popular channels is #meme, for obvious reasons,” White added.

On any given week, classmates plan to meet for cybersecurity conferences or share resources that helped sharpen a red team skill or blue team skill. Students and alumni are willing to discuss their struggles with completing their degrees and ask for study tips. It is impressive to see students lean on each other and celebrate together in the discord server.

Boise State’s cyber operations and resilience program is innovative

Regardless of someone’s reasoning for joining the cyber operations and resilience programs’ discord server, the immense dedication to curating this space guarantees nothing less than a uniquely beneficial experience.

According to Dibble, other universities could learn from this, “When students have a common community where they can share interesting ideas, help each other troubleshoot problems and ask for help on homework, the morale of the students is generally better. I firmly believe it helps students succeed.”

Group morale plays an important role in developing a space like the cyber operations and resilience program discord server, but to truly find success, Tachick explains that who you select in building and maintaining these environments is even more integral to their growth, “Success comes from those who wish to see the best of people, without the drive to lord over people.”

Luckily for past, present and future members of the cyber operations and resilience program, the team behind the server hopes to continue to watch the server prosper alongside its members until it’s time to pass the torch to the next cohort.

“It’s made by students for students. Its greatest contributions and limitations are set by us,” said Tachick.

Whether the cyber world is entirely new to you or already plays a prominent role, the cyber operations and resilience program at Boise State University ensures that each member—students or staff—finds inclusivity within its vast community.

If you are ready to grow with the cyber operations and resilience program, learn more by making an appointment with an advisor today.

Story written by Lindsey Lancaster