As UVM, and most universities and colleges in the country, shifted to remote methods of learning for students and telecommuting for most faculty and staff during the global pandemic, it became abundantly clear that connectivity is key. With little time to prepare, IT professionals across campus have undertaken the herculean task of rapidly expanding the institutional systems required for a mass migration to distance learning and work.
“We are working around the clock to meet the critical needs of campus constituents, to ensure that we have the technical resources in place necessary to educate and support our students,” says UVM Chief Information Officer Simeon Ananou. “UVM is employing a small footprint of a digital backpack technology to allow our students to continue to study and to gain access to instructional materials.”
Students can receive and submit assignments online, access textbooks digitally, and even conduct complicated research projects from home. Enterprise Technology Services (ETS) has expanded the use of collaboration tools and “synchronous platforms” like Microsoft Teams to allow faculty to continue to engage their students. Thanks to this technology, as campus classrooms and residence and dining halls sit empty, the academic pursuits of UVM students and faculty continue from childhood bedrooms and makeshift home offices across the world.
These digital learning environments resemble traditional, face-to-face academic settings and allow students to have meaningful interactions and ask questions in real time. So, while students shelter in place from their respective remote outposts, they can still attend a lecture or collaborate on a group project in the comfort of their favorite sweatpants and a Catamount hoodie (ok, so not everything has changed).
Perhaps the most important technological advancement — one that will continue to pay dividends into the future, even as campus life returns to normal — has been the elaborate effort behind the scenes to virtualize many of the university’s tangible resources and make them available to students remotely. Through ETS’s expanded use of virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, students can connect from any device, anywhere in the world, to a high-end computer workstation here on campus and run software licensed to UVM.
VDI provides access to otherwise cost-prohibitive applications and enables students to run powerful software that requires processing capabilities beyond that of many laptops. “We have been able to virtualize so much so fast,” says Ananou. “This endeavor touches all disciplines. Students majoring in art history to environmental sciences to engineering are still gaining access to very complex and expensive instructional software packages that were weeks ago available only in a campus lab.”
Alongside the deployment of small-scale digital backpack technologies, ETS is making every effort to ensure that end users are able to make good use of it. They have worked with the Center for Academic Success to send refurbished campus laptops to a handful of students who cannot afford them, though they have not been able to accommodate everyone. A number of students still need help with internet access, and ETS hopes to find a means of providing hotspot devices. They have established a dedicated help desk and a help line, which thousands of calls have come through in the past few weeks. “We are using all the technical means at our disposal to support our students, faculty and staff who have been displaced by a global health crisis,” says Ananou. “We are confident that, come what may, the University of Vermont will continue to deliver world-class instruction to students.”