Strategic Investments, Collegial Spirit Help IT Staff Rise to Unprecedented Challenge

A student works on a laptop while sitting on the floor Image by Lee Asher
With students finishing the spring semester from home because of the coronavirus, the Information Technology office worked quickly to move 2,700 on-campus courses online.

By Ed Brennen

A meteorite striking the university’s data center. That’s the kind of disaster for which the Information Technology office had a contingency plan.

But a global pandemic that would force UML to suddenly close the campus and move all courses and business operations online in a matter of days?

“I wish I could say we’d thought that through, but that was never a scenario we’d considered,” says Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Information Technology Michael Cipriano, the university’s chief information officer.

Fortunately, when the coronavirus forced UML to transition to online learning and remote work in mid-March, the IT infrastructure was prepared — thanks largely, Cipriano says, to strategic planning and investments by the university in technology such as the Blackboard learning management system, the vLabs virtual desktop environment and the Skype for Business unified communications solution.

“We’ve been very fortunate with how this technology has come into play in this emergency,” Cipriano says. “If there was a more prepared university than UMass Lowell, I’d like to know who it was.” 

But technology alone couldn’t ensure a smooth transition to online learning when UML flipped the switch on the morning of March 18. It also took a universitywide spirit of collaboration, camaraderie and support, as faculty, staff and students helped one another quickly adapt during a time of incredible upheaval.
“Given how much has been asked of all of us in so short a period of time, I am amazed, but not surprised, by how our UML community has successfully tackled this unprecedented situation,” says Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who visited the IT technical support center at O’Leary Library on the morning of the online move to thank the dozen staff members answering help calls.

‘Herculean Effort’

By the time Provost Joseph Hartman announced on March 11 that classes would be moving online, preparations were already well underway in the IT department, which manages everything from academic technology and information security to UML email and phone services.

“We were paying attention to the coronavirus like everyone else, but when Harvard announced that it was going online, we all started thinking this could happen in Lowell,” says Cipriano, whose team had 10 days to move 2,700 courses from on-campus to online.
A student works on a laptop Image by Lee Asher
Three days into the move to all-online courses, 98 percent of students had logged in to the Blackboard learning management system. Those who didn't were quickly contacted by academic advisors.

About 70 percent of those on-campus courses were already leveraging Blackboard, the online tool that allows faculty to share readings and recorded lectures, host discussions and post assignments and exams. First used to deliver online courses offered by the Division of Graduate, Online and Professional Studies (GPS), Blackboard has been available to complement on-campus instruction since 2016.

The challenge for IT was to get that remaining 30 percent of courses up and running quickly on the learning management system. First, they created 802 Blackboard “shells,” where faculty could begin adding their course content. Then, the Academic and Instructional Technology team got to work on faculty outreach.

They created a Continuity of Learning webpage that outlines a four-step process to move courses online. They promoted a teaching excellence listserv where faculty could ask questions and share strategies for remote learning. They began hosting five webinars a day on how to use not only Blackboard, but also Zoom video conferencing, Lecture Capture and Gradescope.

And to help answer the deluge of faculty questions, IT extended its remote support hours — with backup help from members of the GPS team. In the week leading up to the March 18 online launch, about 30 IT and academic technology staff members answered more than 1,200 virtual learning tool questions.

“We know that many faculty are working outside of their comfort zones, but the outpouring of support has been overwhelming,” says Assoc. Director of Academic Technology Donna Mellen, whose team at one point was fielding close to 50 help tickets an hour.

“Being able to handle that tsunami of new users over a two-week period, that was a Herculean effort that I’m incredibly proud of,” Cipriano adds.

Within each college, meanwhile, faculty stepped up to support one another. In the Manning School of Business, for instance, 21 faculty members offered to mentor colleagues and host webinars when Dean Sandra Richtermeyer put out the call.

The hard work and preparation paid off. Three days into all-online learning, 98 percent of students had logged in to Blackboard. 

To make sure the remaining 2 percent didn’t fall through the cracks, Dean of Academic Services Kerry Donohoe asked IT to use its customer relationship management software, Salesforce, to help academic advisors connect with those students who hadn’t logged in to Blackboard. 

“I was pleased our team could quickly deploy the functionality to help with student outreach during this unprecedented time,” says Assoc. CIO Lori Dembowitz, whose team configured new Salesforce dashboards to share Blackboard login data with advisors in a matter of days.

For at-risk students who needed a computer for remote learning, the IT department worked with the Provost’s Office to reconfigure and make available more than 100 Chromebooks. In a single day, they also reclaimed more than 100 laptops from across campus and got them ready as loaners for faculty — “an incredible feat,” says Assoc. CIO for System Architecture Steve Athanas.

Virtual Environment

Another critical component of online learning is vLabs, technology the university introduced in 2013 that allows students to run university-owned software via a virtual desktop on any internet-connected device from anywhere in the world.

With vLabs usage already on the rise, Cipriano says IT was planning a server upgrade this summer that would boost virtual capacity by 50 percent. But with a surge in use expected as every class moved online, IT needed to accelerate the upgrade timeline — at a time when supply chains were stretched thin and back orders were extending for months.
“I couldn’t be more proud of everybody at the university for how they’ve responded.” -CIO Michael Cipriano

Fortunately, UML has some connections. Athanas, who serves as president of the global VMware User Group and as an advisor to the Dell Technologies User Communities, was able to use some of his connections to expedite the university’s order of servers, which are now up and running at the UMass system’s data center in Shrewsbury (which also serves as UML’s backup should a meteorite ever strike its data center on campus).

“The performance of these new servers is more than twice as good as the existing systems, according to our tests, so some engineering students in particular should see a big bump in performance,” says Athanas, who credits the work of Systems Engineering Manager Nick Siakotos and his team for the rapid upgrade.

With Zoom quickly becoming the video conferencing platform of choice for both online classes and business meetings, Senior Director of Instructional Technology Support Michael Lucas was able to increase the number of UML licenses to 2,400.

For faculty and staff who need remote access to university-based resources not available via the internet, Assoc. CIO and Information Security Officer James Packard increased the virtual private network (VPN) capacity from 250 users to 2,500 users.

Packard’s team, which has seen an increase in phishing and malware campaigns that exploit coronavirus fears, has also maintained systems and data security protocols as faculty and staff seek to access campus networks and resources from home.

“We are not lowering our defenses in order to facilitate people working from home,” says Cipriano, who adds that this has required patience and cooperation from users. “I think they understand it.”

And Skype for Business, the web-based communication tool that the university rolled out three years ago to replace its telephone system, has enabled more than 2,000 faculty and staff members to seamlessly use their office number to make and take calls at home.

“We weren’t looking for a phone system that could work during a pandemic, but lo and behold that’s one of the benefits of Skype,” Cipriano says. “Who would have thought that?”

While there’s still much work to be done — including final exams and the start of summer courses — Cipriano says the university has already shown that it can rise to the challenge.

“It’s a terrible thing that’s happened, we all know that. You can go through an entire career and not be faced with something like this,” Cipriano says. “But I couldn’t be more proud of everybody at the university for how they’ve responded.”