The University of Michigan-Flint is helping its campus community work and learn remotely in a wide variety of ways. Office of Extended Learning director Nicholas Gaspar and Information Technology Services director Scott Arnst shared an update on support services in this Q&A with University Communications & Marketing.
What resources are available to help people work from home?
Gaspar: The Office of Extended Learning (OEL), in conjunction with the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching, created a checklist to help faculty and staff know what resources are available and those things with which they should familiarize themselves. Some of the items on this list include BlueJeans, Gmail, G-Suite Tools, and Office 365. The checklist also encourages people to familiarize themselves with new technology like Adobe Creative Cloud and Google Hangouts/Meet.
Arnst: Information Technology Services (ITS) developed a remote resource guide, with material from OEL and the ITS Support Center. Beyond the guide, there are these technologies to help, including Virtual Private Networking (VPN) tools such as Direct Access and VPN Pulse Secure, video conferencing tools, including BlueJeans, Zoom, Google Meet, and Google Chat for instant messaging. You can find this and more information in our knowledge base at https://support.umflint.edu.
How have support staff been leveraged to best help faculty, staff, and students from working from home?
Gaspar: OEL has created different subgroups within our overall team to support the campus. Our team is working remotely, with only essential staff working on campus while practicing social distancing. The groups include a dedicated support group that has a mix of our support personnel and instructional designers, a dedicated instructional design group, and a group of administrators to keep our local servers running smoothly. These groups are fielding questions and teaching live workshops for our campus community.
Arnst: The ITS Help Desk is still fully staffed, and we are continuing normal operations in support of those that need to work, teach, and learn remotely. Other ITS staff are actively monitoring our systems utilization levels and applying changes as needed to ensure a seamless transition from on-campus to off-campus computing. While not in response to this crisis directly, one big change has been moving to Google mail, calendar, and docs. The Google transition has made these tools available via the web, making access much easier than before.
Beyond the remote resource guide, what should the UM-Flint community know about how they can get assistance, and what ITS and OEL are doing to respond?
Gaspar: OEL has several channels the UM-Flint community can use to get support from our department, all available from OEL's home page. We are asking the campus to start with our work ticket system and our email support system since the call volume is very high. We also created an open drop-in session and BlueJeans room that is continually monitored throughout the week, plus a series of daily remote workshops. Finally, during business hours, the essential staff in the office are answering the phone, with our ticketing system alerting us to missed calls.
Arnst: The ITS Helpdesk can be reached at 810-762-3123, Option #1, and at firstname.lastname@example.org. ITS and OEL have technicians working on-campus and remotely and are actively responding to all requests as they come in both via phone and email. We are providing video conferencing training and remote access support.
What have been the most common requests and questions?
Gaspar: With respect to online education, the common requests include how to set up live/synchronous class sessions using our virtual classroom tools, as well as requests for assistance in setting up tests/exams. When it comes to synchronous learning, our support team has been helping both faculty and students set up and attend sessions.
The instructional design team has been helping faculty with pedagogy and advising on the best way to set up those sessions to improve the learning experience for students. Our team has also been working hard to make sure testing is available and secure for our campus community. We've had to be creative, in some regards, to get more complex exams online in such a short amount of time.
Arnst: Questions about how to gain access to on-campus resources remotely, or remotely login to their office computer from off-campus, have been common. Requests for laptops to take off-campus has also been a very common request.
What support is there for those with internet-related challenges at home?
Arnst: The most up-to-date details about what options internet and cellular service providers have made available can be found on the COVID-19 FAQ page, under the "learning and working remotely" section.
What thoughts of encouragement can you share for those that may feel overwhelmed at working remotely?
Gaspar: I'd ask all members of our campus community to strive for patience and remember that, while there will be bumps along the way, we are all in this together and working toward the same goals. It's important we don't forget that this is not an existential threat to our teaching, learning, or our campus existence and that we will get through this. While it may seem painful, we will grow and learn new skills along the way, which will only strengthen and improve the academic experience for all of us. The Office of Extended Learning is dedicated to the success of everyone, and we will continue to be there with expertise, knowledge, and resources for our campus.
Arnst: This is an unprecedented situation for the university and the world. However, I am very confident that our faculty, staff, and students are up to the challenge. We in ITS are here to help in any way that we can, and will continue to strive to make this change to working, teaching, and learning remotely as fulfilling and seamless as possible. It is important to remember that we are all in this together and it is through that unity as the University of Michigan-Flint that we will persevere.