Many of us have experienced stress as we shift to learning and working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students have had to adjust to online learning, and some have lacked access to laptops or the internet. More broadly, the outbreak’s disruption to daily life has included an uncertain financial picture, logistical hurdles of homeschooling and supervising young children, and the strain of learning new routines.
Members of the Syracuse University community have worked tirelessly to ease each other’s burden. Academic coaching and individual tutoring through the Center for Learning and Student Success have been moved online. The University has established the Syracuse Responds Fund to encourage our community to support students who have remote-learning technology needs, as well as those who have lost jobs and wages or were burdened by travel, room, board and living expenses. The financial aid office also is working with students to cover costs of computers for remote access. The Office of Disability Services remains available to discuss additional accommodation requests from students. Academic departments have been supporting faculty in the transition to online instruction. And Information Technology Services (ITS) is making the transition online as smooth as possible.
Even with the entire community coming together, no one is immune from stresses. “I have staff with small children whose schools have gone to remote learning,” says IT manager Dan Jeski. “I also have two small children myself and a wife who, unfortunately, is unable to work from home.” Jeski and his staff answer emails and calls from 8 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. “I think a lot of students and faculty and staff are probably dealing with similar challenges.”
Requests for assistance have poured into the ITS Service Center via email ( email@example.com ) and phone (315.443.2677), mainly from students and faculty seeking help with online courses. The Service Center also provides support via live chat available on Blackboard, Answers and the ITS website . “I think ITS to a certain extent was prepared for this,” says Jeski. Support hours were extended until midnight back in January 2019 because of the expansion of the University College online programs. “From a support perspective, we’re acclimated to distance learners and professors teaching online.”
When Syracuse University canceled residential classes in March 2020 and the ITS Academic Services unit needed to develop a plan, they reached out to Martha Diede, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence , and University College dean Michael Frasciello G’15. Diede brought a perspective on pedagogy, and Frasciello offered his experience with putting courses online. “It was a collaborative effort to find the right materials and content, to set up faculty and get them started,” says associate chief information officer (CIO) Jenny Gluck. While this shift couldn’t follow the usual eight- to nine-month development schedule, Gluck says her collaboration with Diede and Frasciello identified effective ways to support faculty and students during the transition. Using best practices developed for the University College programs, ITS is delivering hybrid courses that have both scheduled, real-time components and on-demand components that are completed on a student’s own time. Michael Morrison, associate director of academic service centers in ITS, says the hybrid model mitigates the challenges of students spread across time zones.
Morrison says faculty have been able to turn to more than 200 colleagues who have attended ITS’s annual Summer Institute for Technology-Enhanced Teaching and Learning. “In the program, we talk about lots of different technologies and ways of teaching,” says Morrison. Gluck says program alumni have been an indispensable resource. “They have stepped up in many ways to help with that transition, because they had skills in their back pocket and they’re great faculty members,” she says. “ITS is always here to help them, but sometimes it’s nicer to turn to your friend or the colleague you work with day in, day out and say, ‘How did you do that?’”
ITS is always here to help [faculty and staff], but sometimes it’s nicer to turn to your friend or the colleague you work with day in, day out and say, ‘How did you do that?’—Jenny Gluck
Since the switch online, some service demands have increased by 200 to 400 percent, says Eric Sedore, chief technology officer at Syracuse University. Sedore says the exponential increase has been managed. “I’m pleased people have been able to transition to working from home without having to think about technology challenges during the pandemic, which is one thing less on their minds,” he says. “Due to scalable technology choices, over 1,300 people went home with a laptop and are working with very similar access and capabilities to what they had in the office. For many people, the comment I’ve received is, from a technology perspective, ‘Nothing changed.’ I’ve been thrilled with how seamless and smoothly it’s gone, a testament to not only IT infrastructure, but to all IT staff on campus.”
In mid- to late February, ITS increased capacity to allow remote laptops to connect securely to the institution and also established remote desktop services. “We have anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 people securely connected to the institution every day.”
There also have been unexpected benefits. For example, some researchers are taking advantage of this time of social distancing to get more work done. “Essentially, the research computing apparatus continues operating at 100 percent,” Sedore says. “In fact, it would appear that people have more time to focus on their areas of research, as we’ve seen increased activity."
The switch to online courses has increased the ITS Service Center’s workload, and Jeski embraces that responsibility. “Obviously, we’re very important right now for our active students, staff and faculty,” he says. The only real challenge has been striking a work-life balance. “It’s important not only for the people calling, but for my staff too. I want to make sure those working from home aren’t working 24/7.” Student employee Bridgit O’Donnell ’20 has worked at ITS for two years and appreciates Jeski’s concern. “He’s probably the best boss I've ever had,” says O’Donnell, a finance major . “He’s always very understanding about the need to balance being both a student and an employee.” O’Donnell also thinks the crisis is bringing out the best in people. “Everyone is working together and willing to make sure classes continue uninterrupted,” she says. “It shows how Syracuse is such a strong community.”
Everyone is working together and willing to make sure classes continue uninterrupted. It shows how Syracuse is such a strong community.—Bridgit O’Donnell
With over 30 years of experience working on and leading IT teams, CIO and vice president for IT Samuel Scozzafava Jr. G’12 says he’s never been prouder. “The way we have all come together to help ensure the University can achieve its mission is inspiring.”