All Hands On Deck: Penn State IT keeps University connected during remote period

By Travis Johnson
April 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ryan Wellar made a solo trip to campus last month for work purposes and walked toward the libraries with only squirrels along his path. Once he made his way through the circular doors that should’ve been constantly spinning this time of day, he was alone again, and it was quiet.   

There were no sneakers squeaking across tile floors. No chatter emanating from coffee lines. No dings or hums from always-in-motion elevators. Books sat unread. The computers he was there for idled on desks, patiently waiting for their users who wouldn’t return this semester. 

Wellar, operations manager for Penn State's IT Service Desk, made this trip to campus where he'd eventually meet up with co-worker Tim Arnold and a small team of volunteers from Penn State IT. They were there to procure computers for Penn Staters who would now be working from home was just one of many efforts hundreds of Penn State IT professionals took in a short timeframe to help the University continue to deliver on its missions.

While silence has settled over the University Park and Commonwealth Campuses during the coronavirus outbreak, an all-hands-on-deck effort from Information Technology units across the University has helped students, faculty and staff adapt to learning, teaching and working from remote locations across the world. 

“Communication and collaboration have been critical to help maintain continuity of our services and the well-being of our students, faculty and staff,” Interim Vice President for IT and Chief Information Officer Don Welch said. “Some of the work that we accomplished quickly because of the pandemic response had been planned to be taken on later in our IT modernization efforts. The dedication and creativity of our staff made it look seamless, even though it took a lot of effort on their part.” 

Key among these were improving and expanding existing online infrastructure, maintaining security and helping thousands of students and faculty suddenly shift to online teaching and learning on a massive scale.  

'In case of a snow day'

A training resource specifically designed to teach faculty members how to continue classes remotely during a global pandemic didn’t exist. 

But a tutorial for using IT resources to move class material online in the wake of a snow day was a pretty good start.  

The course, available through IT Learning and Development and the Learning Resource Network (LRN), became the jumping off point for learning and instructional designers across the University to help hundreds of professors, who had only ever taught in-person, to leverage Canvas, Kaltura and Zoom to now reach students online. And they were pressed for time, with only five days from the time it was announced that classes would continue online and their continuation that following Monday.  

“I could imagine being a faculty member checking their email on a Sunday night and seeing that they’re not coming back physically the next day, it’s like, ‘Uh oh, what do I do?’” Bart Pursel, Teaching and Learning with Technology’s (TLT) interim director of innovation, said.   

So nearly everyone within TLT was brought onboard to help — from programmers to communications professionals.  

“This has been a whole new thing for faculty and students, taking resident-instruction classes and going to remote, synchronous teaching,” said Terry O’Heron, director of operations for TLT. “Having to do this while our staff is working from home with other units, required collaboration, and flexibility was the key.” 

That Sunday, learning designers from multiple campuses coordinated from their homes to run virtual office hours throughout the day.  

For 11 straight hours, Zoom rooms were full of fresh usernames as hundreds of faculty members learned to move course material into Canvas, host Zoom sessions or utilize Kaltura to prerecord lectures. 

Since then, nearly 711 faculty, staff and graduate students have completed some LRN training with nearly 300 of them taking courses specifically designed to aid remote instruction. Of them, 280 were faculty, up from 34 faculty members who took similar training at this time last year. 

Angie Dick, manager of TLT’s Instructional Design and Development group, has been in on many of those sessions. 

 “A big part of what a learning designer does is to work collaboratively with faculty to think about what the learning outcomes are and how they would like to achieve them with their students,” Dick said. “We discuss what might be the best ways to approach these outcomes by designing a meaningful experience whether that would be thinking through teaching approaches or promote the alignment of technology tools." 

Quickly, a host of other resources were created as units across different IT departments collaborated.  

 TLT’s Digital Learning Environments group teamed with the Office of Information Security to create WebLabs, a service for students that provides remote connections to Penn State desktop computers from anywhere. 

Remote teaching and learning websites were produced to consolidate all the online resources that were taking shape, and pretty soon, learning designers and course liaisons began expanding the LRN resources to include more in-depth lessons for using each of Penn State’s online teaching tools. Online training sessions have continued to be well-attended by faculty. 

“Each time they came back to virtual office hours, their questions were more focused on teaching and learning,” Pursel said. “At first, faculty wanted to understand the basics of Zoom and Canvas. Once they felt comfortable with the technology, they quickly began asking about how to leverage the technology to support things like team activities and collaboration.”  

In some cases, the student-teacher dynamics have even been flipped.  

TLT has also collaborated with in-house student groups like the Tech Tutors who have continued to help faculty who had never taught online before. That pool of student mentors has grown as computer lab consultants – who are no longer able to report to labs – have helped faculty adapt via 1-on-1 tutorials.  

"The goal was to have the Tech TAs act as 'Zoom gurus’ and allow faculty to focus on the academic content," ITLD Interim Manager Lindsey Kiraly said. “After a Tech TA and faculty were paired, they consulted before synchronous sessions to determine which settings to apply in Zoom and talk about their role during the live class. The Tech TAs now attend online classes with the faculty to manage chat, mute microphones, run break out rooms and help with anything tech-related.” 

 'All hands on deck'

A few years ago, a pipe froze, burst and took down the Greater Allegheny campus’ server room for a few hours.   

 Although that plumbing issue may seem rather innocuous now, Enterprise Networking and Communication Services (ENCS) Director Tim Shortall remembers it was an all-hands-on-deck effort to get that smaller portion of the University community back up and running again. 

Pandemic mitigation would be a bit more intensive and Shortall knew nearly everyone affiliated with the University would be affected by the stay-at-home order. 

In late January, his team began to ponder how to keep the Penn State community connected should remote-only instruction be mandated. From an infrastructure standpoint, that meant maintaining secure, off-site internet connections through access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), providing work phone lines outside of offices and setting up call forwarding.  

It would take long hours that included negotiating new contracts with vendors, physically installing new hardware while adhering to social distancing in the early hours of the mornings and troubleshooting problems along the way.  

“Communication and collaboration have been critical to help maintain continuity of our services and the well-being of our students, faculty and staff."

-Interim Vice President for IT and Chief Information Officer Don Welch

Working with teams from the Office of Information Security and purchasing units, Penn State expanded its capacity to provide VPN connections from 2,500 users to 10,000, more than doubled its number of Cisco Jabber users and forwarded nearly 3,500 office phone lines to offsite locations.  

Meanwhile, maintaining network stability has been an ongoing effort with the number of Zoom video conferences jumping from 2,000 sessions per day to 18,000 on average.  

“We leveraged everything that was already in place, we just amped it up,” Shortall said. “We followed all our processes and procedures, and the teams just stepped up, were very diligent, and maintained processes and control. That was probably a big part of it, following the discipline of what we already established.”   

Security, security, security

For a few days, a map claiming to be Johns Hopkins’ COVID-19 tracker made its way through email inboxes across the country.  

“It had malware in it,” Kyle Crain, an information security architect in the Office of Information Security (OIS), said. “It’s easier to try and phish people when they’re working from home because you don’t have that safety net of a coworker beside you, ‘Hey, I got this weird email.’ And then they say, ‘Well I didn’t get anything like that from the help desk about resetting a password or anything like that.’” 

This is part of everyday work for Crain and other information security experts usually tucked away in an off-campus basement location. But in the days leading up to Penn State’s announcement that classes would take place remotely, things were a little different for a team whose work touches every aspect of the University.   

Service enhancements like additional access to VPNs? They must be secure. The University’s research network that will now be accessed by more faculty remotely? It must be protected. Student, faculty and staff who will rely increasingly on email? They need to be made aware of increased cyber threats.  

As for those computers Wellar was rounding up, they have since been sanitized and shipped out to Penn State health care workers with Counseling and Psychological Services in order for them to practice telemedicine. First, their security settings had to be reconfigured to meet HIPAA requirements.

“It’s easy enough to say, ‘We’ve got clinics online so they can do telehealth,’” Crain said. “There’s a lot that goes into making sure that you can do it in a secure fashion. If we put the security in place and nobody can use it, it doesn’t do the University any good. So, a lot of times we have to understand actually what do doctors need to click and process on the screen? What data do they need to get out of the system and what data are they putting in in order to drive some of the controls that we need to put in place? How can we do a better job of wrapping security around something and not directly impacting it?”   

Continuing the hunt

Beefing up service capacity as soon as possible was critical, but there were more hurdles to overcome and little time to do so.  

Many students left devices on campus, assuming they’d pick up where they left off after Spring Break. Not every faculty or staff member has a home office either, and those quarantined in more rural communities might not have access to high-speed internet at all.  

Wellar’s trip to the libraries was a continuation of a plan hatched a week before to remedy that.  

The previous weekend, he and what he described as “a small army” of volunteers from various IT units including  TLT and OIS spent two days repurposing 500 laptops to be shipped out to students, faculty and staff who had requested them.      

"To see that type of willingness and collaboration is really sort of inspiring for me.” 

-Ryan Wellar, operations manager for Penn State's IT Service Desk

It didn’t take long for the assembly line of about 40 volunteers to attain a level of efficiency. Wellar estimated it took only 35 to 40 minutes for them to unbox a new machine, set it up with the proper software and security measures, inventory it, box it back up and prepare it to be shipped out.  

“By mid-morning, it had become a well-oiled machine,” Wellar said of the group that also tapped into University vendors to obtain hundreds of refurbished iPhones to distribute them as hot spots to those working from rural areas. 

By the next week, with social distancing guidelines imposed,  Wellar headed to the libraries to snag as many desktop computers as he could, brought them back to the Shields Building where the team sanitized them and passed them off to OIS workers who reconfigured them with security measures that allow the University’s health professionals to continue seeing patients via Zoom.  

“It feels weird to say that there’s good that could come out of something like this,” Wellar said. “But to see that type of willingness and collaboration is really sort of inspiring for me.” 

Stay home, keep learning

More than a month has passed since Wellar walked through the libraries alone. Campus is still empty and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

But when Penn State announced on April 15 that all summer classes would also take place online, those on the front lines of the University’s IT response felt a different sense of preparedness.

Before, they were ready to respond. Now, they feel like they can progress.  

Classes will remain in session, online and behind the scenes.

“We’re already thinking about the faculty who have explored tools this spring,” Dick said. “We’re going to be wanting to re-engage with them and have deeper conversations around those tools as they have ideas and innovative approaches that they want to try for their courses.”

'We Are' stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories. 

Visit news.psu.edu/WeAre to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. We are! 

 

Last Updated April 28, 2020