Students attending class sessions in person this semester will continue to haul backpacks containing the usual accessories – books, water bottles, laptops, snacks, charging devices and other necessities.
The student backpack has a different meaning for Chief Information Officer Simeon Ananou and his UVM colleagues in Enterprise Technology Services (ETS).
“We’re providing a ‘digital backpack’ for students that gives them the technological resources they need to be productive and that goes with the user regardless of location,” he said.
This spring, Ananou and his staff accelerated the process of providing online tools when it became clear that COVID-19 would make the digital backpack a front-burner need. But the origin of that rapid pivot dates back two years ago, when UVM introduced its IT strategic plan “Information Technology Strategic Imperatives.”
Number one on the document’s list is: “Helping develop the teaching and learning environment of the future.”
For UVM President Suresh Garimella, it also aligns with the strategic vision for the University, Amplifying Our Impact. “Ensuring student success and fulfilling our land grant mission are core elements of the vision,” he says. “Increasing access to technology resources enhances our work in both areas.”
While the plan didn’t specifically identify a potential pandemic as a motivating factor, it put UVM ahead of the curve when COVID-19 hit.
“Normally this transition would take 1.5-2 years,” said Ananou. “But we’ve been in the planning stages for quite some time. With COVID-19 we’ve been able to roll out this project effectively, efficiently and expeditiously by building a small-scale digital backpack at the beginning of pandemic back in the March and April time frame. In preparation for the fall, we have a more elaborate digital backpack environment . . . one that is very close to the vision we had two years ago.”
A key part of the digital backpack is a software distribution platform providing a one-stop hub for students and faculty looking for necessary software.
In a recent Teams meeting, Ananou navigated to AppsAnywhere (available at software.uvm.edu) and then shared his screen. Neat rows of icons appear on the screen including GIS, SPSS (a statistical analysis tool) and dozens of others.
“These are many software packages that are now being delivered to you on a cellphone, an iPad or a laptop, and the list of available software will continue to grow this semester,” Ananou said. “The goal of this service is that any student or faculty member can go here and access whatever they need.”
Creating a healthier academic environment
The health advantages of online learning became especially important in the midst of COVID-19 where success at prevention depends not just on social distancing protocols, like wearing masks, but also on minimizing opportunities for the virus to spread. A busy computer lab on campus can host dozens or even hundreds of students a day, with many “touchpoints”—the term Ananou uses for things that multiple students might handle, like a computer mouse or a keyboard.
“Under normal circumstances many members of the UVM community have to visit some computer labs or another physical space in order to make use of a number of very expensive software packages. That’s no longer the case."
ETS continues to introduce new tools. Last week, the office launched a new and more user-friendly platform that allows student or faculty researchers to develop surveys and collect and analyze data. The campus-wide license for Qualtrics is now available for everyone.
Over the summer, ETS integrated Blackboard and Microsoft Teams to make sure each course section in Blackboard has a Teams space for the faculty and the enrolled students to collaborate. “This integration adds a high efficiency while providing a cybersecurity layer to the virtual classroom space,” according to Ananou.
UVM has also developed custom-made tools promoting campus health including the COVID-19 daily health screening tool which is now being utilized by faculty and staff who are returning to campus.
Ananou sees another benefit to the rapid deployment of these new technologies, which have the potential to improve the quality of experience for students studying online, in-person, or in a combination of the two.
“Increasing access to online academic resources was part of our strategy push years ago,” he said. “We want to make sure students who elected the at-home option will have access to the same technology they would have if they were on campus.”