Quietly but effectively, Yale’s IT staff keeps us connected
It was still February when John Barden, Yale’s chief information officer, began preparing for the disruption to normal campus life that the coronavirus crisis would soon cause. South Korea and Japan had just closed schools in response to COVID-19 outbreaks, and the news seemed a harbinger of challenges ahead.
“We wanted to get ahead of it as best we could,” said Barden, who directs Information Technology Services (ITS).
He and his team reviewed the university’s information technology (IT) readiness — teaching and learning applications, network capacity, laptops and cameras for remote use, preparations for remote help desk service, for example — identifying and addressing potential problems should Yale initiate remote operations.
Just weeks later, it did, shifting teaching and learning online, closing many facilities, and requiring most staff to work from home.
“We executed an order early to obtain additional equipment to increase our network and virtual private network (VPN) capacity,” Barden said. “We were also fortunate to be the in process of placing orders for additional laptops prior to the scarcity that arose as the crisis intensified.”
His team also contacted key vendors, such as Instructure, which provides the Canvas course management system, and Zoom Video Communications, the teleconferencing company that has become a household name, to learn about their own preparations for what emerged by mid-March as an official pandemic.
ITS consulted with the IT teams at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning and in Yale’s professional schools about the challenges transitioning to remote instruction would raise, such as the need to design high-volume support services for faculty and to help provide students and instructors necessary software and hardware.
In early March, Yale leadership began taking aggressive public measures to safeguard the campus community and maintain core campus functions and facilities. On March 14, President Peter Salovey announced that all classes would move online for the duration of the spring semester. A work-from-home mandate took effect for most employees.
Yale’s IT professionals have played a crucial role in ensuring that this unprecedented transition to digital operations went as smoothly as possible, said Provost Scott Strobel.
“The Yale community is fortunate to have the support of great IT staff,” Strobel said. “Very early on, Yale ITS and its partners around campus mobilized to ensure that faculty, students, and staff had the tools they needed, whether a laptop or a teleconferencing app, to continue their work under very trying circumstances. We owe them a debt of thanks for their expertise, dedication, and resilience.”
Educational technology specialists at the Poorvu Center leapt into action when remote instruction became inevitable. Working with colleagues at the Yale University Library, ITS, and the professional schools, they began holding workshops to help faculty prepare for a new mode of delivering education. Between March 9 and March 30, the center and professional schools engaged with 1,711 faculty members about how to use digital platforms like Zoom and Canvas to serve their students well. Canvas allows faculty to post assignments and facilitates communication with students.
Working closely with ITS, the Poorvu Center launched an “academic continuity” website in four days, offering a trove of information for faculty and students about how to teach and learn remotely. The site received 36,000 page views in the two weeks between March 9 and March 30.
“We were fortunate in that we had the infrastructure and the expertise in place to succeed,” said Lucas Swineford, executive director of digital education at the Poorvu Center. “We have a top-notch educational technology team that has been supporting Canvas for a few years now. We have a team supporting Zoom from a teaching and learning perspective. And we have excellent relationships among the complementary units, like ITS and the library. Most importantly, the faculty has shown incredible patience, determination, and flexibility.”
ITS dispatched members of its desktop support team to help the Poorvu Center facilitate remote teaching. It also had members of its helpdesk attend the workshops so they would be prepared to troubleshoot problems faculty and students might encounter.
“The front-line teams across all of the university’s IT units have done an impressive job remaining well-coordinated and sharing resources freely to assure the best possible support,” Barden said. “The faculty and students have done remarkable work adapting to a very challenging situation. This is not the way anyone wanted to have spring semester unfold, and I am grateful that the entire university has leaned in to make the best use of the technology resources available.”
Zoom has become an important resource as the Yale community teaches, studies, and works from home — there were more than 77,000 individual participations in Zoom meetings on April 2 alone, Barden said, adding that the university averaged about 2,500 Zoom participations daily before the crisis. On the same day, there were 8,000 connections to Yale’s VPN — a critical infrastructure component that allows faculty, staff, and students to connect remotely and securely to Yale’s private network — dwarfing the pre-pandemic high of about 3,000 connections. The volume of requests to the ITS helpdesk is double what it was this time last year.
ITS has also had a role in establishing the field hospital at the Lanman Center and in preparing hundreds of Yale dormitory rooms for New Haven health care workers and local first responders, ensuring strong network and cellular coverage.
Barden has consulted with Yale College Dean Marvin Chun and Dean Burgie Howard on providing students — now scattered worldwide — the hardware they need for studying remotely and helping them with connectivity issues.
“This event has made some aspects of inequity more pointed,” Barden said. “On the technology front, some students do not have good access to broadband connectivity or equipment, and may have less than ideal settings for conducting remote learning. While there is a lot of that we can’t help with, where possible, we have been providing some equipment to the dean’s office to help support students in need.“
There has been little disruption to computationally based faculty research — the kind of work that can involve analyzing large amounts of data through high performance computing, Barden said, crediting the Yale Center for Research Computing for supporting faculty conducting research remotely.
For Barden, the fact that there have been no critical IT emergencies or mishaps demonstrates his staff’s commitment and ability. While the IT community’s efforts might go unnoticed by most beneficiaries of uninterrupted Zoom, cloud, and VPN services, Barden made sure to recognize his staff’s good work during a — yes — Zoom conference on April 3.
“We’re not hearing much about the technology needs and problems at the university,” he told participants. “That didn’t happen on its own. It happened because of you, and your work, and your dedication to what we do as an institution.”