This past Spring term, the entire US:IT team worked together to launch a number of new tools and services designed to support the shift to remote teaching, learning and work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students, faculty and staff across the University were forced to become even more reliant upon technologies to facilitate instruction and maintain business operations and providing such tools has become the top priority for the IT team this year. Examples of these tools included:
- Remote access Virtual Private Network
- Remote Lab/Remote Desktop access
- Study-from-car WiFi Access catalog
- Online exam proctoring
- Virtual Laboratory Simulation catalog
The following sections describe these, and other, services in more depth.
IT SUPPORT SERVICES RALLIES IN RESPONSE TO COVID-19 | WEB TECHNOLOGIES COMMUNICATION EFFORTS | NETWORKMAINE VPN AND WI-FI EFFORTS | END USER TECHNOLOGY REMOTELAB ACCESS | REMOTE TEACHING AND LEARNING WITH ZOOM, KALTURA AND BLACKBOARD
IT SUPPORT SERVICES RALLIES IN RESPONSE TO COVID-19
IT Support Services (ITSS) created a COVID-19 Contingency Team to work on unifying IT support services to support anyone from anywhere. ITSS unified its scheduling, support hours, and roles to ensure that IT support continued under reduced staffing, loss of most student workers, and the move to remote work. While adjusting the help desk phone system to allow help desk agents to work from home, ITSS quickly launched the new live chat support tool and continued to take client requests through email to email@example.com, and voicemails on our help desk phone 800-696-HELP. During the summer we were able to relaunch live help desk phone service using remote agents.
In late summer ITSS support staff returned to their campuses, as able, to prepare to safely support faculty, students and staff teaching, learning or working from campus spaces. Support staff also contributed to implementing remote teaching improvements in classrooms around the system.
The volume of issues logged in the IT Help Desk tracking system increased to date in 2020 (~54,000) compared to the same period in 2019 (~48,000). The increase is reflective of our increased reliance on technology for teaching, learning and working, as well as the launch of our new LMS, Brightspace.
ITSS regularly updates the IT Support Site including new content to help clients deal with changes. Support services staff and managers continue to meet regularly to coordinate activities. We want to thank all those IT support staff who contributed to this extraordinary effort to support our teaching, learning and working, and to help keep our clients safe with remote support during the COVID-19 response.
WEB TECHNOLOGIES COMMUNICATION EFFORTS
The Web Technology team (Web Tech) was called upon to help stand up the Health Advisory site. The site was initially developed to be a simple, one page subsite for COVID-19 health advisories and guidance links to resources. As the need for development quickly escalated, considerable collaboration occurred between campuses and system-wide services departments. Banners were added to extend to all campus websites and portals. New subsections, ease-of-use functionality, and banner time stamps were added. During this time, Web Tech also completed the design of the Presidential Tour Site at values.maine.edu and began developing a new subsite, servingu.maine.edu, to demonstrate UMS’s contributions to the State of Maine’s effort to combat COVID-19. Web Tech also assisted with the IT Help Desk roll out of Live Chat. Web Tech staff kept late hours during weekdays and weekends, as needed.
NETWORKMAINE VPN AND WI-FI EFFORTS
Having a remote access VPN solution was determined to be a critical necessity for supporting COVID-19 work from home efforts. Planning discussions began on March 4th and progressed very quickly. An easy to use and scalable solution that also did not create a huge support lift for help desk and support services staff would be required to make it happen. New licenses were acquired by March 12th, internal testing was completed by March 14th and an announcement of availability was made on March 19th. It took only ten days to set it up! There are currently 1,750 device profiles created with over 1,460 unique users. Peak usage hits about 500 concurrent clients daily, which is roughly a 24% utilization level. As of today, there have been no problems and the system is performing as expected. A support dashboard has also been created to help the teams taking support calls/emails/chats. Very few tickets have needed to be escalated indicating that the remote access VPN service has delivered on all the identified requirements.
For students of all ages and grade levels, K-20, moving to remote learning can pose significant challenges if they do not have internet access at home. The Maine Department of Education estimates some 30,000 K-12 students do not have internet access in their homes. In response, Networkmaine proposed a stop gap solution that has become to be known as the “study from car” initiative.
Unlike the University, most K-12 schools do not have guest Wi-Fi networks. With Networkmaine operating the Wi-Fi networks for 136 K-12 schools across the state as part of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), it was in a position to offer to create guest Wi-Fi networks for these schools. The concept is that Wi-Fi signals often bleed outside of buildings which can be leveraged to provide internet access to anyone parked near the buildings thereby allowing them to participate in remote learning from their cars.
In addition, Networkmaine has reached out to all its members asking that they make guest Wi-Fi available outside of their buildings. To track participation and as a way to advertise the availability of these guest Wi-Fi networks, Networkmaine created a Google map of all participating locations. There are currently 216 locations across the state represented on the map. These locations include 119 K-12 schools, 24 higher education institutions, 69 libraries and 4 “other” locations.
END USER TECHNOLOGY REMOTELAB ACCESS
To support remote access to computer labs on campuses, End User Technology (EUT) made the determination to broker connections to lab machines and their special software. A decision was made on March 13th to find a product that would allow this access. A list of needed software was developed and product reviews took place. RemoteLab was selected as a workable option, and the service was put in place by March 27th. The software available through RemoteLab continues to be built upon and has been transitioned for the Fall semester to support both in person and remote access. EUT had help from many teams during this collaborative process.
REMOTE TEACHING AND LEARNING WITH ZOOM, KALTURA AND BLACKBOARD
Zoom usage increased significantly during Spring 2020. Service had been stable overall as Zoom added capacity daily to meet demand. Meeting minutes and participant numbers also significantly increased. To support Zoom usage and in response to reported issues of Zoombombing and other security issues, US:IT made continuous updates to its Zoom Resources & Support page.
Kaltura usage grew and US:IT added capacity to assist with increased traffic. There were some issues with slowness and availability, but no real problems overall. Spikes observed over several weeks hit over 8,000 plays. Minutes viewed also went up.
Blackboard use also increased with no reported service issues. Usage spikes reflected double the activity seen prior to spring break. Labster (virtual science laboratory simulation) and Respondus (remote proctor) were added for faculty use. Both of these software applications were integrated with Blackboard.