Friday, June 19, 2020

IT Ops during a Pandemic – view from the technology trenches

In a “normal” summer, we would be busy getting existing classroom information technology (IT) and audio-visual (AV) systems upgraded, we would be installing new AV equipment that had been planned and purchased over the past year, and probably performing a ton of faculty and staff computer upgrades, all in preparation for a busy fall semester.  But as we all know, things are far from normal this year – and probably every year going forward.

Summer this year does offer us a bit of a breather as we assess how best to begin our fall semester of teaching at the University of Utah SJ Quinney College of Law.  Our goal is to hold in-person classes, but in a much different environment than we ever have before.  We can also take a look at what was in place that helped us get through the last few weeks of this past spring semester, how we have transitioned into an fully online summer semester, and what things are missing as fall semester looms in the not-so-distant future.

What was in place and worked well?
Back when we were facing the last pandemic scare -- remember H1N1 back in 2009? -- our law school decided to take steps to leverage the crisis and implement changes that would make the law school more nimble.

Lecture capture video.  First, we implemented a lecture capture (LC) video solution.  This was no easy undertaking, and the technology and processes to support this service have gone through numerous changes over the decade since we first implemented it.  But through careful change, we have made this service an expected amenity at the law school.  Both students and professors alike have come to depend on the availability of daily recorded lectures to deliver information for absent students and for review purposes.  Initially, our pre-COVID LC solution process was highly dependent upon physically teaching in the law school building. As we transitioned to fully online teaching and learning via Zoom, whether our professors consciously thought about it or not, they were accustomed to being recorded and having their lectures available for students in their classes.  And students expected that they could access these materials asynchronously to review and prepare for the next class or for an exam.  Just having this mindset in place was a huge advantage as we went to online classes literally overnight in March 2020.

Aggressive computer replacement/move to laptops.  Second, we began an aggressive computer replacement plan that sought to place a laptop in every faculty and staff office.  The goals of this project were to:

·      Create a completely mobile workforce for the College of Law – support for a possible remote work initiative.
·      Develop computer savvy workers, as people took their computer equipment home and learned more about how to use it out of necessity.
·      Develop a more connected workforce – just due to the fact that they have their work computer with them at night or over the weekend, they check-in to “work” things more often.
·      Eliminate the dual computer assignments and the management overhead associated with someone having a desktop (primary) and a laptop (secondary).
·      Have a person’s computer become an unnoticed amenity. The fact that everyone has the same “level” of computer makes it no more unique than the light switch in your office – it’s simply a necessary utility.
·      Support energy efficiency plans of our then-future new law school building (which is now platinum LEED certified).

This laptop standard has been in place for so long at our law school, that I do not even remember when we last evaluated or purchased a desktop computer.  Since all faculty and staff were completely familiar with their own assigned laptop, all 100+ faculty and staff members simply took their assigned work technology home and began working with familiar technology the very same day they were booted from campus and our law school building due to Covid-19.  This proved to be one of the most successful technology plans implemented at our college.  We always planned for the privilege of working remotely, not necessarily the reality of being required to work in a social distanced environment.  Of course we have everything in place on college owned computers to make this remote work solution manageable; e.g. inventory management agents, active antivirus and malware solutions, and remote support agents all give IT services a complete view of where our machines are, who is using them, whether the software on them is up-to-date, and the ability to get to the equipment and assist with repairs of problems.

Move to cloud-based solutions.  Last, and probably the least noticeable by non-IT focused individuals, we worked over the last decade to move all law school information services to cloud-based solutions. We didn’t want any system or information needed to “run” the law school dependent upon a piece of physical equipment that was located at the law school.  Email was moved to large hosted campus solutions, data storage to a campus-approved cloud environment, Learning Management System (LMS) needs moved online to a campus-supported platform, and exam solutions to an online cloud provider.  All faculty and staff have been trained to leverage all of these services over the past decade, and as we moved off campus to perform our daily work efforts during Covid-19 shelter-in-place, access to information was never a concern.

What was lacking and what were we missing?
For all the things that simply worked and that went unnoticed for the most part, there were some things that we, like many teaching institutions, had to advance rather rapidly.

Expanded use of Zoom Meetings.  We already had Zoom Meetings in our IT toolset, and we used it weekly for conducting interviews or including remote participants into large meetings.  We even employed Zoom Meetings when faculty needed to teach remotely, although this was a rare need.  Nonetheless we were familiar with this platform pre-Covid, and benefited from its end-user ease of use and understood how to manage Zoom meetings (host vs attendee).  As we moved online in March 2020, we rapidly ramped up Zoom user licenses to manage the number of classes being offered and the number of professors who needed to host those meetings.  At first, faculty support staff handled all of the scheduling and hosting of class meetings, but as staff also needed to attend coordination meetings using Zoom, and professors became much more comfortable with the Zoom meeting management requirements, Zoom license needs exploded.

To handle this mass transition to Zoom-based instruction, we implemented group and 1:1 Zoom training – via Zoom.  Professors would attend a group session via Zoom to learn how to manage the basic aspects of a Zoom meeting. They could then schedule a 1:1 session to cover more detailed uses of the platform.  The fact that the college has its own AV support team fully trained in video conferencing solutions, and well versed in Zoom specifically, turned out to be our ace in the hole.

Increased use of online scheduling tools.  Due to the increased need to schedule Zoom training support, we increased our use of online scheduling tools.  We have employed the use of Acuity Scheduling for years in support of admissions visits, office hours for students, and community legal clinic assignments; but now we needed to leverage this online approach for scheduling support resources for efforts where people had been used to simply walking into a support person’s office. Now we had to make resource availability visible and schedulable.  We turned to Calendly to advance this need.  Again, we already had these concepts in mind, and the necessity of the situation simply advanced the process.  This is a difficult change for people used to concierge type service, and some people still desire an immediate video conference connection akin to a virtual office walk-in.

Move to virtual events coordination.  Events!  Oh, this is an ever-changing target.  The law school hosts over 500 events each year, both big and small.  We use the Zoom Webinar platform, but this had been used only a couple of times in the past 2 years and we had not developed standards for how we produce events in this manner.  Now, starting in March,  suddenly all of our events are virtual events and we have been scrambling to develop improved processes for producing them properly to add value to the participant and viewers.  We can certainly host more events due to the availability of the platform and people (they don’t have to travel and our virtual space is always available); but it is a daily challenge to figure out how to brand the event, add value for the law school, and manage the “overload” of virtual event requests coming in daily .  We have shifted our events staff personnel assignments and combined them with the AV staff to create a new virtual events coordination team.  People who are used to coordinating onsite logistics, such as caterers and setup staff, are being retrained to work directly with session presenters to take them through Zoom trainings in preparation for participating in virtual panels.  This is an ongoing process for certain.

Improved work coordination.  Lastly, we have had to find a better way to coordinate our work on a minute-by-minute basis.  IT teams have always leveraged team chat tools; at our law school, the IT and AV staff heavily depend on the Slack team collaboration platform to coordinate and communicate our every effort.  But the rest of the staff and faculty are entrenched in the “fire and wait” email process for coordinating and collaborating.  Not only is email too slow, but it wastes a ton of time and is very disruptive to the workflow process in a remote work environment.  In the first few days of coordinating the online Zoom classes efforts, we quickly adopted and moved communications to the Microsoft Teams platform. This system was easy for people to learn and made cross-team coordinating efforts a breeze.  IT has tried to implement collaboration efforts using these types of tools in the past, but without a good crisis, there is little appetite among non-IT personnel for adopting such change. Now many faculty and staff have Teams up, and communicate more in this manner (and with better results) than we do with email.

What are we still missing?
Additional camera equipment.  We are still adding equipment to classrooms in preparation for a hybrid approach to synchronous teaching this fall.  These include the addition of cameras in the front of the room, so that remote lecturers can be provided with a view of the in-person class participants that they are presenting to.

We are also working to route the existing back of the room camera view, currently used only for lecture capture, and provide this view for class participants who choose to watch and participate in class remotely.  This effort is also an attempt to give the remote students equal opportunity to participate in class by being seen by the presenter and in-person students alike.

These are not easy technology changes and will require much advanced coordination to make the experience work for all involved.

There are many things that we cannot achieve in education by just deploying more technology, no matter how much effort and money we put into it.  We are working hard at improving the current situation by focusing on our student experiences, along with their wellbeing and safety.  All the while working to attend to individual faculty and staff, and implementing new processes to support our college’s mission and goals for our students and the broader community at large.

Guest blog author Mark Beekhuizen has been managing Information Technology (IT) and Audio Visual (AV) services for the SJ Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah for a bit over a decade.  Before venturing into IT support for an academic unit, he managed a rather large team responsible for IT operations and support for the University of Utah Health Sciences Center (hospitals and clinics), and before that, 15 years working Department of Defense contracts, and before that, his first professional job was as a member of the US military.

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