The last month or so has been a blur for Sharon Pitt, chief information officer at the University of Delaware.
It's understandable why. On her team's plate: Helping with contact tracing for a person associated with the university who was presumed to test positive for the coronavirus. Setting up call centers to field questions about the university's response to the pandemic. Keeping pace with changing security protocols for videoconferencing platform Zoom.
And that's just the shortlist.
U of Delaware's situation isn't unlike that at scores of colleges across the country. It shows how pervasive technology is on campuses — even where officials have sought to keep the focus on in-person interactions.
"That's become crystal clear," said Raechelle Clemmons, who spent a decade as a higher education CIO before joining analyst firm The Tambellini Group as vice president of industry relations earlier this year.
Looking ahead to the summer and fall terms, college technology support teams are helping their institutions prepare for a range of instructional and operational scenarios. They are also hoping to improve online learning. Yet much of it is uncharted territory, though earlier investments in infrastructure helped some schools adapt.
"Nobody has a playbook for a pandemic," said Keith McIntosh, CIO at the University of Richmond, a private institution in Virginia.
Getting ready for Zoom
When the virus hit the U.S., McIntosh's team knew they'd have to get faculty and staff up to speed on how to work virtually.
To do that, they partnered with the university's Teaching and Scholarship Hub, a faculty development center, to host instructional sessions through Zoom about how to use the videoconferencing software. "If you've never used (Zoom), you're going to have to use it just to connect to get your learning done," he said.
His team included information shared during the sessions in reference materials they created to help faculty and staff work and teach remotely.
In Delaware, Pitt's team set up a virtual technical support center on Zoom that faculty could attend as walk-in guests, just like they could on campus. "We're trying to keep the service perspective as much like it was before we all had to go virtual," she said.
One challenge for tech support teams has been monitoring security issues with Zoom, which has caught flak for being vulnerable to rogue actors interrupting video sessions with illicit imagery. That includes updating documentation on the fly and keeping campus apprised of new security protocol, Pitt said.
Expanding the tech footprint
Some schools needed to expand software licenses, such as for videoconferencing and virtual desktop applications.
McIntosh had to increase the number of Zoom licenses his school had from 40 to more than 2,700 — one for every student, faculty and staff member.
Ensuring the campus can work and learn online required many schools to provide computers and help with internet access.
They may field more requests for hardware as the term winds down. For instance, students who have been relying on a smartphone to access their courses may realize they can't use it to complete a 10-page research paper, said Stephen diFilipo, chief technology officer at Millersville University, a public institution in Pennsylvania.
His team ordered 50 laptops, with a focus on making them available for students. They are awaiting the delivery of 30 hotspots.
The tech support team at Davidson College set up a socially distant exchange to get laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other technology tools into the hands of students, faculty and staff. It gave the people it was assisting controlled access to one of two computer labs and remotely helped them set up their devices.
"Being able to tell the faculty or staff member or one of the small but significant number of students that are on campus, 'We have a way to help you, we can get you what you need even though our staff are remote,' was a big help," said Kevin Davis, CIO at the private North Carolina institution. However, he added, the college's small size helped them pull it off. Davidson enrolls about 1,800 students.
Helping with internet access
Technology teams have had to get creative to guide their campuses through the abrupt move to remote work and instruction.
Davis said his team is spending more time than expected helping students and employees troubleshoot their home networks. "Hundreds of people, all trying to go from a campus-managed network on premises to having to run their own home IT," took a lot of work, he said, "but it also worked because ... people pulled together."
Because internet access in rural Delaware can be spotty, Pitt's team is working with school districts and public libraries statewide to offer free wireless internet access in their parking lots through Wi-Fi roaming service Eduroam. Students can drive there to complete coursework.
"We really wanted students as much as possible, no matter what their situation was, to be able to complete their semester and continue towards their four-year degree," she said.
The move online was a mammoth feat, if in part because of how swiftly it had to happen. Still, technology teams acknowledge it wasn't perfect. DiFilipo's team and others are now asking, "How do we sustain the practices that we built hastily to make it work better?"
Another big challenge faces them: helping their schools plan for a range of instruction and operational scenarios this fall. While some schools plan to start the term online, others have said they will open in-person if public health officials allow it. Few proposals are set in stone.
"Right now, I think we're all across the industry looking at how do we help IT support moments of uncertainty? How do we help with decision support?" Davis said.