When President Mark Schlissel announced last month that the balance of the winter semester would be conducted in alternate, virtual forms as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, all university units were quick to respond.

Information and Technology Services had been actively preparing for such a situation for almost a month, in partnership with university leadership and IT leaders across the university. ITS’ goal was to ensure that tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff could continue to learn, teach and work from anywhere in the world.

The response was swift but calculated and involved collaboration with multiple departments across campus. The result was a fairly seamless transition to a new normal that allows the university to fulfill its core mission in the most unusual of times.

“Very early on we started exploring ways of supporting our teachers and outstanding scholars to ensure their teaching and research would go on uninterrupted,” said Ravi Pendse, vice president for information technology and chief information officer. “We knew it would be different, but we wanted to be sure the community would still be supported.”

While the ITS team touched nearly every corner of the university involving dozens of initiatives, remote operations and technical support were at the heart of faculty and staff operations.

Remote Resource Guide

The ITS Remote Resource Guide was born March 5, the day university officials first issued restrictions on travel and recommended isolation for ill employees or those who had close contact with someone who has symptoms.

In less than 24 hours, the guide — a resource to help students, faculty, and staff who faced working exclusively from home for the first time be able to connect with the campus and each other — was ready for implementation.

“This was a dramatic shift for everyone, so our goal was to pull together the most relevant technology tools and training materials that the community would need as they transitioned to working remotely,” said Stefanie Horvath, assistant director of ITS communications. “We took an iterative approach to get the basic resources up quickly, and then refine and add to the guide as time went on.”

The guide has evolved to include new tools offered by ITS, such as Zoom and the Remote Office Hours Queue app for BlueJeans; short videos and training opportunities ITS created for remote work; and showing how resources can be used to support community and well-being, “something we felt was as important at this time as supporting teaching, learning, and working,” Horvath said.

It also includes links beyond ITS to technology-related resources created by other groups, such as the Center for Academic Innovation’s Keep Teaching website, and the guides created by LSA and College of Engineering.

More capacity

Remote work does not happen without network capacity, so the ITS infrastructure team worked with the university’s internet providers to make sure the campus had sufficient capacity and COVID-19 emergency plans in place to ensure service continuity.

Two-thirds of the university’s network is consumed by research activities in “normal” times, and with research utilization lowered, the network is more than capable of handling administrative and other needs.

Brian Antosh, data center technical support analyst lead at the Michigan Academic Computing Center, helps to monitor and maintain performance of servers that support administrative and research needs across campus. (Photo by Joel Iverson, ITS Communications)
Brian Antosh, data center technical support analyst lead at the Michigan Academic Computing Center, helps to monitor and maintain performance of servers that support administrative and research needs across campus. (Photo by Joel Iverson, ITS Communications)

A virtual private network enables a remote device to appear as though it is directly on the U-M network. To accommodate greater use, configuration changes to the VPN appliances were made to increase the number of connections available, and ITS added a 10-gigabyte connection between the VPNs and the network.

Another major consideration in a largely virtual and social-distancing world was how to conduct a Board of Regents meeting outside of a singular location. With the first meeting just more than two weeks from the March 11 announcement of classes moving off campus and events being canceled, time was short.

The meeting was set up through BlueJeans and conducted in more than four dozen locations using phones, computers and mobile devices. Coordination between Michigan Media, the Office of the Vice President and Secretary, and ITS were crucial to conducting the meeting effectively and securely.

“The meeting required us to capture in a seamless manner the various subcommittee meetings, presentations and public comments clearly and without disruptive delay,” said JD Jordan, desktop support manager for Fleming IT. “Michigan Media was an amazing partner to ITS in broadcasting the meeting on the internet.”

The May 21 regents meeting also will be conducted remotely, and ITS plans to use the March meeting as a template.

Videoconferencing

Among the ITS services that were most transformed were videoconferencing apps. And it might be what campus needed most — from remote meetings to virtual classrooms, to online yoga sessions.

ITS and unit IT partners rose to the challenge by enabling and supporting the most cutting-edge conferencing services available: BlueJeans, Zoom and Google Meet.

As U-M shifted to holding classes, programs and events in virtual formats, videoconferencing with professors and colleagues through Zoom and BlueJeans have become commonplace. (Photo by Joel Iverson, ITS Communications)
As U-M shifted to holding classes, programs and events in virtual formats, videoconferencing with professors and colleagues through Zoom and BlueJeans have become commonplace. (Photo by Joel Iverson, ITS Communications)

From March 16 to April 25, combined use of BlueJeans and Zoom skyrocketed, with 109 million minutes across all participants, or approximately 207 years.

With help from groups across ITS, LSA, and the School of Information, ITS negotiated an enterprise Zoom license and opened access on March 17, just one day after U-M began remote work.

Many new resources have become available since then, such as information about making Zoom meetings more secure, best practices for BlueJeans, and regular training. 

In addition, with help from the School of Dentistry and other key partners, ITS and Health Information Technology & Services announced Zoom for Health at U-M on April 2 — a HIPAA-aligned version of the tool that opens up use of videoconferencing and chat in more regulated clinical settings.

“Campus benefits from our agreements with both BlueJeans Network and now Zoom,” said Bob Jones, executive director of ITS support services. “Michigan data is protected, even for use with some types of sensitive data, like including Protected Health Information.” 

More information can be found in the Sensitive Data Guide entries for Zoom for Health as well as for BlueJeans. Visit safecomputing.umich.edu/dataguide/ to view the entries.

Google services have also been on the rise at U-M. ITS recently opened Google Chat to the U-M community to better accommodate the need for team-based chat and collaboration. Chat will eventually replace the classic Hangouts experience currently available in U-M Gmail.

Remote Office Hours Queue app

Interactions between faculty, advisers and students outside of class became an immediate need in this new environment, where supporting remote learning involves more than providing resources for online lectures and classes. 

When Atul Prakash, a College of Engineering faculty member, requested an office hours tool that could integrate with BlueJeans videoconferencing, the teaching and learning, infrastructure development and digital user experience teams within ITS collaborated to develop the Remote Office Hours Queue app. 

“The app mimics the experience of waiting to meet with someone, like one would wait sitting outside an office,” said Kris Steinhoff, software architect lead in ITS and adjunct lecturer in the School of Information.

“During the hosts’ scheduled office hours, an ‘attendee’ can see how many people are ahead of them in line to meet with the ‘host.’ The attendee joins the line and is provided a link to a private BlueJeans meeting. When it’s their turn, the attendee enters the meeting and waits for the host to come in and meet with them.”

Feedback from end users has been essential to launching the app and has played a big part in its success. 

Prakash regularly tests new iterations of the app, while academic advisers from CoE, LSA and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business provide time-sensitive insight through end-user acceptance testing.

“At its inception, a remote office hours ‘host’ could have only one queue at a time,” said Maggie Davidson, teaching and learning service manager in ITS. “They could not name their queue or collaborate with others.”

The app evolved quickly when academic advisors and instructional teams expressed a need to collaborate with other hosts on the same queue.

“We’ve been using the Remote Office Hours Queue within Ross undergrad advising and have managed to transition our drop-ins to a shared queue managed by all eight advisers,” said Andrea Clark, academic adviser in the Ross School. “Students receive a welcome explanation on the landing page letting them know when the queue will be attended to.

“ITS has been quick to adapt and support us.”

Computer Showcase

U-M employees and students know the Computer Showcase provides sales, service and support to the university. They do not always recognize that it is part of ITS.

Even though ITS Computer Showcase stores are not busy with walk-in traffic, staff have been working with U-M employees and departments to make technology purchases through the Computer Showcase online catalog. (Photo by Joel Iverson, ITS communications)
Even though ITS Computer Showcase stores are not busy with walk-in traffic, staff have been working with U-M employees and departments to make technology purchases through the Computer Showcase online catalog. (Photo by Joel Iverson, ITS communications)

Once the announcement was made that faculty and staff needed to work from home wherever possible, Computer Showcase staff began making plans to continue serving the U-M community and in a whole new way.

“Although faculty and staff are away from their offices, they still require access to technology and tools that allow them to do their jobs,” said Justin Day, manager of the Computer Showcase. 

The Computer Showcase partnered with Procurement Services to help U-M employees and departments make technology purchases without having to walk into one of the department’s physical locations.

“We are communicating regularly with our customers about what they need and working to expand our existing product selection or to find alternatives,” Day said. 

Softphones and Emergency Contact Centers

As operations moved off campus, and work phones remained in offices, ITS installed applications that allow faculty and staff to use their laptop or mobile device to place and receive phone calls to their U-M number.

These softphones allowed contact center staff to socially distance and work remotely while still operate as a team to support business needs.

“It’s typically not possible to take the desktop phone home and have it work, so the functionality of it had to be replaced by a softphone that can work anywhere,” said Karen Winston-Brown, ITS infrastructure service order manager.

Many critical U-M offices and clinics are using softphones for daily work. ITS deployed several hundred softphones as part of the remote work effort and the ITS Telecommunications Analyst team processed an additional 200 requests in April.

In addition, the U-M Emergency Contact Center, designed in 2012 as part of U-M’s H1N1 pandemic planning effort, was activated for the first time.

The UMECC is designed to combine existing contact center agents in the U-M Shared Service Center and ITS Service Center to address public calls about an emergency or epidemic, Winston-Brown said.

ITS temporarily expanded the hours of its own service center in the days leading up to the university’s announcement, adding an average of three support hours each week day as well as Saturdays. The Service Center is back to its normal hours, but will expand again when needed.

“If we are nearing closing time and there is still a queue of people needing help, our staff members will stay on until everyone is taken care of,” Pendse said. “We are here to support the university community, who have all been doing such incredible work at this time.”

— Ken Caldwell, Dana Fair, Patty Giorgio, Lindsay Hendricks and Joel Iverson from ITS Communications contributed to this story.

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