It was, depending on who’s talking, a tumble into the deep end. A triage driven by exhaustive planning and exhausting, sleep-deprived days. A severing from the face-to-face culture that energizes teachers and learners.
In just over three weeks, more than 10,000 UC Merced students, faculty and staff were forced off campus by the novel coronavirus outbreak. By the end of March, when instruction resumed after spring break, the immersion was complete. Staff, faculty and students came face-to-laptop with applications designed to connect, organize and sustain from a distance: Kaltura, SpeedGrader and Respondus; Slack, Teams and Airtable. And Zoom. So much Zoom.
As the weeks have turned to months and California and UC leaders watch the data for signs it’s safe to come together again, think on this: How much of this compressed exposure to digital tools will follow the campus community into a post-pandemic world?
“This has given everyone on campus a lived experience of the potential advantages technology gives us,” said university Chief Information Officer Ann Kovalchick, who worked at Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. “Sometimes you have to learn how to tame technology. It just means you have to play with it a little bit.”
The university will have some tools it didn’t have before. An example: In mid-March, students and faculty learned they needed remote access to special software on lab computers. Rachel Peters, Learning Technologies manager in the Office of Information Technology (OIT), beat the bushes and found a possible solution online. But the open-source code from the University of Syracuse needed serious updating. Peters and an OIT team dove in.
“We got a working service that was mostly reliable in a week,” she said. “I can’t believe we pulled it off.”
Weeks earlier, OIT staff began building out a webpage that described software faculty could use for remote instruction, and when and how to use them. Peters approached Kovalchick about posting the content in late February. The first iteration of the page went up March 4 – two weeks before Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Californians to shelter in place.
“We were all seeing the writing on the wall,” said Jodon Bellofatto, OIT lead analyst for Technology Enhanced Spaces. “There was so much inertia toward shutting down (the campus), then the governor decreed it.”
OIT has a similar webpage devoted to Zoom, the online meeting tool that seemingly overnight became the campus community’s proxy for in-person contact. Before the health crisis, there only were a few hundred staff or faculty members with Zoom licenses. Normally, OIT would order licenses in batches of 100 or 200. When the crisis arrived and campus leadership determined students needed Zoom, too, OIT secured a campus-wide license in late March. That meant anyone with a university Single Sign-On account had access to the full capabilities of the application. Eventually, about 9,700 users were added.
“We knew the campus was going to move to remote instruction,” said Edson Gonzales, OIT videoconferencing and media streaming specialist. “It was all hands on deck. I pretty much didn’t sleep for two or three weeks because there was so much going on.”
The webpage will remain after the pandemic is over, as will an OIT newsletter launched in April. Information Officer Christy Snyder said the pandemic changed how OIT communicates with the campus about technology.
“We’re much more purposeful,” she said. “More broadly, it’s made us a better partner.”
OIT’s Service Desk team was at the center of the transformation, handling huge spikes in service tickets and taking over an empty classroom to spread out laptops that would be prepared for students’ use. Two team members stayed on campus while the remaining six switched to remote work.
Director of Service Management Kent Carpenter said he and Service Desk Manager Alex Hernandez-Perez mapped scenarios of how the campus might respond to the pandemic. By the week of March 8, “it became very clear what was going to happen,” Carpenter said.