UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ryan Wellar made a solo trip to campus last month for work purposes and walked toward the libraries with only squirrels along his path. Once he made his way through the circular doors that should’ve been constantly spinning this time of day, he was alone again, and it was quiet.
There were no sneakers squeaking across tile floors. No chatter emanating from coffee lines. No dings or hums from always-in-motion elevators. Books sat unread. The computers he was there for idled on desks, patiently waiting for their users who wouldn’t return this semester.
Wellar, operations manager for Penn State's IT Service Desk, made this trip to campus where he'd eventually meet up with co-worker Tim Arnold and a small team of volunteers from Penn State IT. They were there to procure computers for Penn Staters who would now be working from home was just one of many efforts hundreds of Penn State IT professionals took in a short timeframe to help the University continue to deliver on its missions.
While silence has settled over the University Park and Commonwealth Campuses during the coronavirus outbreak, an all-hands-on-deck effort from Information Technology units across the University has helped students, faculty and staff adapt to learning, teaching and working from remote locations across the world.
“Communication and collaboration have been critical to help maintain continuity of our services and the well-being of our students, faculty and staff,” Interim Vice President for IT and Chief Information Officer Don Welch said. “Some of the work that we accomplished quickly because of the pandemic response had been planned to be taken on later in our IT modernization efforts. The dedication and creativity of our staff made it look seamless, even though it took a lot of effort on their part.”
Key among these were improving and expanding existing online infrastructure, maintaining security and helping thousands of students and faculty suddenly shift to online teaching and learning on a massive scale.
'In case of a snow day'
A training resource specifically designed to teach faculty members how to continue classes remotely during a global pandemic didn’t exist.
But a tutorial for using IT resources to move class material online in the wake of a snow day was a pretty good start.
The course, available through IT Learning and Development and the Learning Resource Network (LRN), became the jumping off point for learning and instructional designers across the University to help hundreds of professors, who had only ever taught in-person, to leverage Canvas, Kaltura and Zoom to now reach students online. And they were pressed for time, with only five days from the time it was announced that classes would continue online and their continuation that following Monday.
“I could imagine being a faculty member checking their email on a Sunday night and seeing that they’re not coming back physically the next day, it’s like, ‘Uh oh, what do I do?’” Bart Pursel, Teaching and Learning with Technology’s (TLT) interim director of innovation, said.
So nearly everyone within TLT was brought onboard to help — from programmers to communications professionals.
“This has been a whole new thing for faculty and students, taking resident-instruction classes and going to remote, synchronous teaching,” said Terry O’Heron, director of operations for TLT. “Having to do this while our staff is working from home with other units, required collaboration, and flexibility was the key.”
That Sunday, learning designers from multiple campuses coordinated from their homes to run virtual office hours throughout the day.
For 11 straight hours, Zoom rooms were full of fresh usernames as hundreds of faculty members learned to move course material into Canvas, host Zoom sessions or utilize Kaltura to prerecord lectures.
Since then, nearly 711 faculty, staff and graduate students have completed some LRN training with nearly 300 of them taking courses specifically designed to aid remote instruction. Of them, 280 were faculty, up from 34 faculty members who took similar training at this time last year.
Angie Dick, manager of TLT’s Instructional Design and Development group, has been in on many of those sessions.
“A big part of what a learning designer does is to work collaboratively with faculty to think about what the learning outcomes are and how they would like to achieve them with their students,” Dick said. “We discuss what might be the best ways to approach these outcomes by designing a meaningful experience whether that would be thinking through teaching approaches or promote the alignment of technology tools."
Quickly, a host of other resources were created as units across different IT departments collaborated.
TLT’s Digital Learning Environments group teamed with the Office of Information Security to create WebLabs, a service for students that provides remote connections to Penn State desktop computers from anywhere.
Remote teaching and learning websites were produced to consolidate all the online resources that were taking shape, and pretty soon, learning designers and course liaisons began expanding the LRN resources to include more in-depth lessons for using each of Penn State’s online teaching tools. Online training sessions have continued to be well-attended by faculty.
“Each time they came back to virtual office hours, their questions were more focused on teaching and learning,” Pursel said. “At first, faculty wanted to understand the basics of Zoom and Canvas. Once they felt comfortable with the technology, they quickly began asking about how to leverage the technology to support things like team activities and collaboration.”
In some cases, the student-teacher dynamics have even been flipped.
TLT has also collaborated with in-house student groups like the Tech Tutors who have continued to help faculty who had never taught online before. That pool of student mentors has grown as computer lab consultants – who are no longer able to report to labs – have helped faculty adapt via 1-on-1 tutorials.
"The goal was to have the Tech TAs act as 'Zoom gurus’ and allow faculty to focus on the academic content," ITLD Interim Manager Lindsey Kiraly said. “After a Tech TA and faculty were paired, they consulted before synchronous sessions to determine which settings to apply in Zoom and talk about their role during the live class. The Tech TAs now attend online classes with the faculty to manage chat, mute microphones, run break out rooms and help with anything tech-related.”
'All hands on deck'
A few years ago, a pipe froze, burst and took down the Greater Allegheny campus’ server room for a few hours.
Although that plumbing issue may seem rather innocuous now, Enterprise Networking and Communication Services (ENCS) Director Tim Shortall remembers it was an all-hands-on-deck effort to get that smaller portion of the University community back up and running again.
Pandemic mitigation would be a bit more intensive and Shortall knew nearly everyone affiliated with the University would be affected by the stay-at-home order.
In late January, his team began to ponder how to keep the Penn State community connected should remote-only instruction be mandated. From an infrastructure standpoint, that meant maintaining secure, off-site internet connections through access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), providing work phone lines outside of offices and setting up call forwarding.
It would take long hours that included negotiating new contracts with vendors, physically installing new hardware while adhering to social distancing in the early hours of the mornings and troubleshooting problems along the way.