Planning for an Adaptable Campus Environment

Posted on July 21st, 2020 by

Fall is coming and Technology Services is working hard to ensure that we’re prepared for whatever your teaching, learning, and working experience may be. Our months-long planning effort started in earnest last spring. We collected your feedback, looking particularly for successes—tools and systems that were reliable and working well for a broad group of community members—and opportunities for improvement—issues that directly impacted a user’s overall experience. Our goals are to preserve or expand the technology that served us well, and identify gaps where new solutions and ideas are warranted. With those basic thoughts in mind, we were prepared to establish the framework that would help to guide us through a tumultuous and uncertain summer. 

Background

In late spring a few things were already crystal clear. All higher education institutions were struggling to respond to the same technology challenges, and many critical pieces of hardware were already in short supply. Thanks to strong leadership from the executive team, we were able to explore solutions with the assumption that there would be additional technology funding to cover a variety of scenarios. The other reality, however, would prove more difficult to control. Supply chain issues were problematic early on, and distributors were not optimistic about the prospects for fulfillment over summer. Key decisions needed to be made quickly for us to have any hope of taking delivery before September. Discussions occurred within Technology Services that allowed us to roughly sketch out some initial thoughts for fall, but we needed more information to ensure that our perceptions of spring semester aligned with the rest of the campus community. Also, our informal dialogues and inquiries needed to be funneled into a more efficient and productive effort that could facilitate the dispersal of the workload and allow us to keep a multitude of projects moving forward. All of this needed to be handled transparently, in conjunction with our many wonderful campus partners. Enter P.A.C.E., the Plan for an Adaptable Campus Environment. 

Process Outline

  • Examination of lessons learned from spring
  • Collaboration with academic and administrative technology committees and Kendall Center
  • Information gathering and collection of community perceptions
  • Generation of recommendations via working groups
  • Implementation of acquired equipment and solutions
  • Communication, education, and support

Setting the P.A.C.E. 

The Plan for an Adaptable Campus Environment is, in simple terms, our effort to  wrangle the chaos in a way that would allow us to make smart, proactive decisions to address a variety of technology issues in a short period of time. Beyond ascertaining, acquiring, and implementing new solutions, we wanted to make sure we were engaging with the community—all of you—and basing our work on the actual needs of students, faculty, and staff. Before starting this process, we admittedly made several assumptions. The first being that staff time would be a precious commodity–with numerous preparations to make and the Nobel Hall opening on the horizon–so we had to be very selective with our projects. The second assumption was that we would be competing with everyone else for the same hardware and services, so we had to stay nimble. Late decisions may equate with no decisions, so moving fast was permissible and encouraged. The third assumption involved the fact that our vision for fall would remain nebulous at best. Disruption, on some level, was the only guarantee. Finally, we felt it was best to assume that should our fall begin to look like our previous spring, the expectations would be higher. Having learned from our prior experiences, we had to make sure that we were better prepared this time around. So, to begin, we created separate surveys for students, faculty, and staff to assess their feelings about our department’s performance during the abruptly altered spring semester, and to gauge their satisfaction with the technology they utilized to teach, learn, and work. We then created smaller working groups within Technology Services to address three broad areas that included: flexible teaching and working, software and systems, and service and support.  

Flexible Teaching and Working 

This group focused on the hardware to support teaching, learning, and working in a fluid situation that could include increased work from home and hybrid, hyflex, in-person, and online instruction. Classroom equipment, as well as individual hardware allocations were areas of primary concern. 

Software and Systems 

This team worked on assessing, upgrading, and expanding the key systems that support the various remote working and learning scenarios. 

Service and Support 

This group looked at a variety of products to enhance the College’s ability to safely and effectively support students, faculty, and staff from a distance. 

Working Group Results

While the end of June was identified as the deadline for the completion of these decisions, it was clear that some hard-to-find equipment needed to be ordered sooner. Basic necessities were highlighted for immediate purchase, including webcams, headsets, bluetooth speakers, iPads, and tripods. Other products—those we felt had been sufficiently vetted—were also quickly pushed forward. Zoom, for example, was often identified by faculty and staff (anecdotally and in the survey responses) as a more robust and appealing alternative to Google Meet. Similarly, an online document signing solution was made necessary in spring, and summer provided the opportunity to revisit the previously chosen vendor, so that too moved on with additional emphasis on making it available to other areas of campus. 

Throughout all of this, the approach that offered the most versatility seemed to be favored. The largest example of this may involve lecture capture, which is expensive and of limited usefulness in a majority of the scenarios we experienced and envisioned, so the relevant working group determined that offering a variety of individually allocated devices would accommodate more teaching styles and fulfill more needs. So, accordingly, our emphasis this fall switched from costly and somewhat restrictive room installations that would also serve to monopolize staff time, to personal hardware allocations that are more adaptable to individual preferences and changing circumstances.

All of the items that rose to the top were given a recommendation or priority level based on benefit, feasibility, and cost.  These were then shared with the Provost’s office for further discussion, and approvals were relayed back to the working groups. Dozens of decisions were made this way–everything from classroom upgrades to an expanded loaner laptop program, and the purchase of Adobe Creative Cloud licenses. All of which should position us to quickly adapt to whatever situation comes our way this September and beyond.

Next Steps

While we have a lot of implementation work ahead of us, we will also be endeavoring to bolster our documentation for these systems and tools. In that same vein, communicating what’s new will be a primary focus in the next phase of the planning process. In fact, faculty should soon be receiving an online questionnaire that briefly outlines the new hardware and software options that will be available to aid with instruction. A Gustavus-issued laptop is a powerful tool that comes complete with a camera, microphone, and speakers. In most cases, it should be the only device necessary, but specific circumstances may warrant an additional option that better supports a chosen class format or particular pedagogical needs. Whatever the decision, please know that this is just one of many steps being taken to better prepare us for fall. Technology Services will be standing by to offer support to the best of our ability.

Thank You

To everyone who attended an online training session, submitted feedback, or contributed by just being there for others, we thank you. Under extreme duress, we have witnessed firsthand the truly inspiring and unbreakable spirit of this community. With that fresh in our minds, we hope all of our work helps to lighten your burden this fall. To our friends and partners around campus who have worked with us over the summer to demonstrate, test, and discuss an enormous variety of products, tools, and techniques, we sincerely appreciate your time and effort. To all of Gustavus from all of us, thank you for being a part of our community.

 

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