Division of Information Technology embraces essential role during pandemic
Virginia Tech’s Division of IT has successfully supported faculty members’ teaching efforts and the university’s workforce productivity over the past 18 months in the most trying of circumstances
The COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for everyone in higher education — from students to professors, those who work in housekeeping and dining facilities, researchers who spend an inordinate number of hours in labs, and many others.
But at Virginia Tech, arguably the people who have found themselves under the brightest spotlight over the past 18 months work in the Division of Information Technology and other IT units at the university.
In mid-March of last year, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and his administrative staff made the decision to move classes to an online format to conclude the spring semester and later decided to go to a hybrid approach over the past academic year. That meant a huge increase in the use of technological platforms, and in return, it meant a significant rise in the workload for those who work in IT—along with an upsurge in scrutiny.
Now, 18 months after that initial decision, nearly everyone has come to the same conclusion about Virginia Tech’s IT staff — this group handled a difficult situation extremely well.
The efforts of those in the Division of IT and other IT units are just a few examples of the countless Virginia Tech faculty and staff whose service during the COVID-19 pandemic is celebrated in Hokie Highlights.
After some self-analysis of his division, Scott Midkiff, the vice president for information technology at Virginia Tech, agreed that his group performed admirably during the pandemic.
“I think we actually did exceptionally well in most areas,” Midkiff said.
IT provides a wide range of services throughout the university — too many to mention in one story — but Midkiff and his staff centered their focus on four areas. They wanted to get professors up to speed to be able to teach in an online format, and they had to assist employees who worked from home. In addition, IT staff members had to be efficient and productive while working from home themselves. They possessed a lot of what they needed to accomplish their tasks, though not everything.
The final focus was keeping people safe and healthy. This one trumped all the others for the division’s leader.
“Not just COVID itself, but the stresses that everyone was under,” Midkiff said. “People were stressed out for various reasons. We just wanted to make sure our employees didn’t burn out. We were worried about all our employees and making sure that everyone was safe and healthy, and in the interests of the university, productive.”
TLOS STANDS TALL
While many students were challenged by new styles for learning, most adapted quickly to changes in technology. There was concern among administrators about how the faculty would cope, since many of them had little experience with teaching remotely. But the Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS) unit of IT excelled at preparing professors for online instruction.
TLOS offers an array of tools and platforms designed to support learning in this format. Faculty and staff members, though, need to know how to use those tools to take advantage of what they offer.
“The tools themselves are insufficient to solve all the problems and challenges, so we’re also charged with helping faculty develop the skills and competence that’s necessary to implement those tools in meaningful ways,” said Dale Pike, executive director of TLOS.
Virginia Tech has been ahead of the curve in this area. Two decades ago, the university implemented an innovative training program to help faculty members explore how to use technology in their teaching. The program’s creative value is based on its incentive model, with professors and instructors getting a new computer every four years provided they complete a professional development program to enhance their skills.
The innovation of implementing such a program paid dividends during the pandemic. Faculty members already possessed a base knowledge of skills, and that made things a little easier for the TLOS staff, as they taught those faculty members how to take advantage of all that TLOS’ online teaching platforms offered.
“That’s [the incentive program] something that’s just taken for granted at Virginia Tech, but it’s really rather unique in the higher education community,” Pike said. “There are not many places where units like ours have an opportunity to develop a relationship with every single faculty member, and I think that’s the keystone of a lot of the success that we’ve been able to have during the pandemic. It’s things that we did now, but we were relying on a network of relationships that we developed over time.”
TLOS staff held numerous workshops over the past 18 months, and faculty participation skyrocketed. The staff also held one-on-one consultations and department consultations.
Just as important, though, the TLOS team created a community. Every area of Virginia Tech experienced issues exclusive to that area during the pandemic, so TLOS recruited many others from across the campus community, including academic support, faculty, graduate students, and distributed IT professionals to help with planning, attend workshops, and participate in consultations. The forming of what Pike called the “continuity partners group” facilitated a lot of important and productive conversations, with TLOS serving as the umbrella.
“I’m super proud of how my team came together in response to these challenges,” Pike said. “I would be remiss in trying claim credit for all the important work that happened as a part of these conversations that we just happened to convene. We utilized our networks in multiple ways to bring people together and allowed the flexibility for them to go in the directions that were most appropriate to them. Once the work was done, we gathered the information to tell the story.
“I think it’s easy to feel alone when you’re working in a crisis, and I think that hearing what you’re doing is similar to what they’re doing, then that also fostered a sense of community and a confidence that we’re doing everything we can do.”
HELPING THOSE WORKING FROM HOME
To help stop the spread of the coronavirus, Virginia Tech officials decided to allow employees to work from home during the pandemic. Most employees are given laptops once they begin working at the university, and this gives them the capability to be productive and accessible when unavailable to be in the office.
For the most part, things went smoothly, but a few issues came to the forefront. Many of Virginia Tech’s employees work in outlying areas — places like Giles, Floyd, Craig, and Pulaski counties — and many of those areas lack strong broadband capabilities. Without consistent access to the internet, many employees expressed frustration at being able to provide their best efforts to Virginia Tech.
Many of those employees relied on IT staff for guidance in managing their broadband issues, and those staff members were able to provide best practices. But broadband access in rural areas needs to be addressed on a much bigger scale.
“Yes, we did deal with that,” Midkiff said. “In our region, much of Blacksburg, we have pretty good broadband. Is it too expensive or not? You can argue that, but you can get decent broadband in Blacksburg.
“But we have employees who don’t get good cell service where they live, much less internet connectivity. We’ve had a lot of folks that have been really challenged there, so how do we help? We’ve worked with some people. How do you remain productive, but working over a slower connection? Longer term, it’s pointed out to the region how important it is to improve broadband for economic viability.”
Another issue revolved around the significant increase in email usage. Collaborative Computing Solutions, another division of IT unit, had started a refactor of how email works at the university before the pandemic hit, as employees worked from home and used email more to communicate. Other universities, businesses, organizations, etc., were doing the same thing, thus putting pressure on email systems.
“We were getting about 1.5-2 million emails per day. That’s people emailing to vt.edu addresses,” said Marc DeBonis, director of Collaborative Computing Solutions. “Our people were sending out 70,000-80,000 outbound emails per day.
“We had taken on service ownership of email at the university. We said, ‘There has to be a better way to do this,’ and we were in the middle of upgrading the infrastructure when the pandemic hit. Ultimately, we were successful, and we were successful in a way that minimized impact to the users.”
DeBonis and his staff also saw increased usage in other collaborative tools offered by the university. Department heads, supervisors, and others started holding meetings through Zoom, Google hangouts, and Microsoft Teams, and they started communicating through messaging platforms like Slack.
“Right around the March timeframe, the usage went from 5,000 direct messages per day to upwards of 15,000,” DeBonis said. “It was a three-to-four times bump. People were still communicating through email, but they were no longer going to each other’s cubicles to talk stuff out. They were using these tools, and it was a huge surge.
“They were kind of niche tools. Only people who knew about them were using them pre-March 2020. Suddenly, everybody told everybody, ‘Our team is using this. Go there,’ or, ‘Our team is using this. Go here.’ We were trying to put forward our best practices along with everybody else … we increased our training quite a bit, so people could get used to these tools.”
And then, of course, there was the never-ending issue of security and making sure people protected both themselves and their devices from nefarious characters in the internet underworld. IT personnel find that challenging in “normal” times, but the task became tougher during the pandemic with employees working from home.
Resolving security issues requires vision, and Virginia Tech’s IT personnel fully know that.
“Everyone in IT worries about security these days,” Midkiff said. “That was obviously a concern.
“We had a few problems, but overall, not a lot. As we look at longer-term support for flexible work and having more of our employees at the university being remote at least some of the time, it’s an area that we have to pay attention to and take some steps to up our game in securing those devices.”
WHAT’S THE FUTURE?
In looking toward the future, DeBonis jokingly told Midkiff, to whom he reports, that he planned to work from Costa Rica as part of his transition to this new work-from-home model.
“He’s a little skeptical,” DeBonis said, laughing.
But the example certainly is one of many questions facing Virginia Tech. What does the future of learning look like? What does the future of the workforce look like? And what will the role be for the IT personnel in these environments?
The answers will be found in the days and weeks ahead. Fall classes start Aug. 23.
“We’ve learned a lot over the past 16-18 months, and we’re going to learn a lot over the next year,” Midkiff said.
From an educational perspective, Midkiff sees opportunities. The technology exists to offer classes and master’s degrees to those with families and jobs and who live in different states or countries. Or perhaps undergraduates can do internships for companies in California or Europe or Northern Virginia during a semester while taking classes online in pursuit of a degree.
Virginia Tech knows how best to use its technology to offer more beyond the traditional classroom settings.
“We’re doing some things now that we’re better equipped to do,” Midkiff said. “I hope that we’re going to see some increased emphasis on some of these things.”
As for the workforce, numerous departments already are planning for a hybrid approach this fall — employees mostly working from home, but also coming in on certain days. DeBonis and his staff, for example, are reconfiguring their workspaces.
“We’re going to say, ‘Look, if you work less than three days a week on site, you don’t get an office anymore,’” DeBonis said. “Maybe you get hoteling space or a hot desk. But you come in first come, first serve, and we’ll give you a locker. You coordinate with other people if you all want to be on the site at the same time … You’re doing your work. It’s just being more flexible.”
Midkiff agreed flexibility is key. Flexibility makes for a happier, more engaged workforce and an important perk when trying to recruit talent to the university.
“I really do think we have an opportunity to create a much more flexible work environment for employees that makes sense because of their roles,” he said. “Obviously, we have positions where you have to be physically on site some or all of the time. But we have a lot of positions where our workforce can very effectively do their jobs remotely. We’ve shown that we can do that.
“And I do think it’s going to be important in recruiting talent. Can we recruit an employee whose spouse is tied to a specific geographic location, or an employee who is just a city person and not ready to move to Blacksburg? How do we retain an employee who may have some pressures to be elsewhere for whatever reason? The lessons of the pandemic are enabling us to look at that.
“We have to make sure that people can do their jobs effectively for the university, but also be able to give flexibility within those constraints. Those universities and other employers that embrace flexible work schedules are going to be the winners, and those that don’t are going to find themselves losing out on the competition for workforce.”
Overall, a lot remains unknown. But the Division of IT feels ready for the fall and the future, whatever both come to look like.
This group knows everything will not go smoothly, and yet these staff members know how to learn and adapt. After all, over the past 18 months, they’ve certainly proven that.