No IT leadership job is quite like leading IT at a major university, which must accommodate the technology needs of thousands of new students each fall. The cornonavirus pandemic has compounded the challenges for this fall semester, as collegiate IT departments must support students who elect to attend classes physically and those who choose to learn virtually.
Ensuring enough concurrent connections to support virtual classrooms is only part of the technical jiu-jitsu. IT must also implement new software that further facilitates the learning and collaborative experience from afar, in accordance with social distancing guidelines, for both faculty and students.
Arizona State University CIO Lev Gonick has accepted that challenge by implementing technologies to support a hybrid learning model that, he hopes, eased the transition for 20,000 freshmen, including those living in residence halls and international students taking classes from all over the world.
“On any given year, it’s enough to give a CIO gray hair, but in the fall of 2020 it’s gotten more complicated,” Gonick tells CIO.com.
The pandemic poses unprecedented hurdles for universities, which are under an intense socio-political microscope to operate responsibly and safely. Early results have been checkered, as many schools have weathered withering criticism over their handling of COVID-19 outbreaks that cropped up as students flouted best practices for social distancing. Meanwhile, students quarantined on campuses are agonizing over substandard fare.
The always-on network
ASU has thus far been spared such outbreak-colored drama, but Gonick’s IT department has staged some technical theater in recent months as it scrambled to support more than 125,000 students and thousands of faculty members. University IT leaders typically spend their summers maintaining and upgrading systems, but ASU pivoted this season, equipping 1,000 classrooms with new cameras, microphones and consoles so that teachers could broadcast instruction via Zoom in high definition — and with a single click. More than 3,000 faculty were trained to use these technologies, Gonick says.
ASU also boosted its network capacity to account for higher than normal internet traffic across the campus and residence halls. Traditionally, ASU would “bias the network availability during the workday to the campus,” while shifting that availability to residence halls, where traffic is higher in the evening as students consume Netflix, Hulu and Zoom, among other apps, Gonick says. But when the fall semester kicked off in August, traffic was high at all hours, as students Zoomed from their dorm rooms to attend classes and streamed video in between.
ASU also invested more in cybersecurity tools to ensure that the network was protected from perpetrators looking to capitalize on imprudent behavior from students and faculty alike. “It is very much a contact sport to protect the overall environment,” Gonick says.
ASU’s tech team also upgraded or added several collaboration apps to keep faculty and students connected and productive:
Picking up Slack. ASU has expanded its consumption of Slack to incorporate new channels where 140,000 faculty and students can seek critical information in real-time chat sessions. Students check in with their classmates, communicate with their teachers, manage their academic careers and seek information about anything from financial aid to campus rules regarding social distancing. ASU also trained faculty to use Slack to connect with colleagues and students on classes and curriculum, among other educational issues.
Digital Backpack. Originally launched with Google’s GSuite, Zoom and Slack, this suite of apps has been upgraded to include Adobe Creative Suite visual design software and Dropbox file storage. Gonick says it’s incumbent on ASU to offer these technologies because it will better prepare today’s students to work in most corporations, where such apps are prominent, when they matriculate.
Health check-ins via mobile app. ASU upgraded the ASU Mobile app, which for the past few years has helped students navigate life on campus, to include questions that prompt students and employees to participate in mandatory health check-ins, in which students answer a series of questions and record their temperature each day before coming to class, Gonick says. Those who fail to comply may lose access to ASU systems until they complete the health check.
Gonick offers the following tips for IT leaders navigating transitions regardless of whether they govern technology in a university or an enterprise.
Foster a can-do culture. Gonick’s staff has pivoted dozens of times since March 16, when the outbreak pushed ASU faculty and students to remote teaching and learning. IT could have buckled under pressure, but Gonick’s team has made the necessary adjustments to meet the challenges of the new conditions. “CIOs need to expect the unexpected and be able to respond in an agile fashion,” Gonick says. In IT, there’s little room for those stuck in old ways.
Use the pandemic to galvanize change. A lot of digital transformations are conceived in five- or even 10-year plans. With the pandemic compressing the timeframe, CIOs should seize the opportunity for change rather than shrink from it. “If not now, when?” Gonick says of his team’s attitude in crafting smart classroom solutions.
Flaunt your new political cachet. The pandemic has shifted the conversation about IT in the executive boardroom, says Gonick. CIOs who can deliver on digital transformation will burnish their reputations and get out from under the perception that IT is a cost center. “The CIO will be viewed more as a business partner and steward of the of the organization mission,” Gonick says.