SRU keeps faculty, staff and students connected – remotely – during pandemic

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a student watching an online class

Slippery Rock University’s Information and Administrative Technology Services has loaned more than 130 laptops to students, faculty and staff to accommodate people working from home and taking online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

April 21, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — When the coronavirus pandemic struck and college and universities were forced to move almost the entirety of their operations online, there are a lot of moving parts involved. At Slippery Rock University, faculty and students had to adapt to a distance learning modality while the majority of staff switched to remote work, all within a matter of days. Two departments in particular were instrumental in making that transition happen: Information and Administrative Technology Services and the Center for Teaching and Learning.

"The process has been a total team effort and we've been working through all the functional areas and we've done a lot behind the scenes (work) to make it all come together," said John Ziegler, associate provost for IATS, who leads a staff of 19 employees. "We've basically been running the campus electronically since the middle of March. When that happened, a lot of responsibility fell on a few people in a big hurry. (Making that kind of switch) is a whole different way of doing things."

The University announced March 11 that spring break would be extended two weeks and that classes would resume online only beginning March 30. Also, during those 18 days of preparation, employees that would be able, were directed to work from home beginning March 17.

While most of the 8,800-plus SRU students have computer and internet access at home, some do not. SRU President William Behre implemented an initiative leading up to the University's changeover to online exclusive classes called "Connectivity." Part of that initiative was to direct students who were faced with computer or internet access challenges to contact IATS for assistance.

Through the initiative, IATS loaned at least 30 laptops to students while nearly a dozen more received assistance with their internet connectivity. Students without internet were either reimbursed for expenses through their cell phone provider, turning their smartphone into a personal hotspot to gain wireless internet access for their computer, or for obtaining internet access through their cable or satellite television provider.

John Zeigler

   ZIEGLER

Faculty and staff who rely on desktop computer terminals in their offices also required accommodations. IATS loaned more than 100 laptops to faculty and staff and helped establish nearly 400 virtual private network connections, which is a way for people to access files and other digital assets on the University's private network.

"We had to make sure that people's computers worked effectively from home so that they could conduct their classes or, in some instances, a virtual lab that we created for them," Ziegler said. "We were able to get everything up and running so students could register for classes and the University could still process financial aid. It was a matter of doing what needed to be done in order for each office or department to be able to do their business. There was a lot of thing going on in a small amount of time. We basically moved the campus from being bricks and mortar to online in about two weeks."

Coincidentally, IATS had been preparing for such an event during the course of the last five years, although Ziegler admits he figured it would come in the form of a natural disaster, like a tornado, rather than a global pandemic. Earlier this year, IATS completed a transition of the University's student information systems and other enterprise systems from being stored on campus hardware to remote networks, otherwise known as "the cloud." While this transition increased the security of the campus network, it also helped streamline the transition for the University to operate remotely.

"This change prevented the physical campus from being a roadblock to our connectivity so that people could do business anywhere in the world and not miss a beat," Ziegler said.

The CTL is another area of campus that responded quickly. The CTL provides SRU faculty support for instructional design, educational technology and professional development for teaching strategies. The CTL staff, which consists of Brian Danielson, director; William Huber, learning systems administrator; and Mark Tarcy, information technology technician, communicated with faculty by packaging existing online training resources to help prepare them for remote teaching.

"It's not so much training everyone how to be a successful online teacher, it's finishing out the semester in a way that's meaningful for students and helps them meet their outcomes," Danielson said. "Authentic online teaching requires months and months of preparation, development and working with an instructional designer. The University has all the tools necessary to help faculty be successful online teachers, so really it was making sure all faculty knew what those technologies were, what problems they solve and how to access online tutorials."

Most faculty were already familiar with various aspects of online instruction. Danielson estimated that at least a third of SRU's faculty have already had some formal training for distance education. Also, about 85% of faculty use D2L, which is the University's online learning management system that provides an online component to face-to-face courses for posting lectures, homework assignments and exams, as well as conducting online discussions and more.

In addition to rolling out content to help faculty, Danielson conducted more than a dozen videoconferencing meetings with individual academic departments that were attended by more than 70 faculty members.

"We've made tremendous strides," Danielson said. "Everything we did to assist faculty and students to prepare to teach and learn in a remote way was completed by March 20, after that, it was more about supporting the faculty as they rolled out their instruction, troubleshooting things that were supposed to happen and correcting those issues."

For example, the CTL assists faculty who administer hardcopy exams and helps facilitate the conversion of those to online exams.

Faculty use Zoom, a videoconferencing application, to conduct live online classroom instruction, known as "synchronous" learning, while also providing course content for students to access on their own time, known as "asynchronous" learning. Not including the synchronous Zoom classes, SRU students are watching a combined 30,000 minutes of asynchronous video content per day. Prior to the pandemic-related conversion to online classes, students were averaging a combined 600 minutes per day.

"That's faculty created video lectures or a voiceover on a PowerPoint presentation and content like that," Danielson said of the asynchronous video content. "That's a representation of how hard our faculty are working at creating new forms of instructional content for their students. It's pretty impressive when you think about it."

For more information about student connectivity issues, email connectivity@sru.edu or view the "Technology" section of the COVID-19 Student Resources page on SRU's website by clicking here.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 | justin.zackal@sru.edu