Penn State IT supports continued online, remote and hybrid learning efforts

Travis Johnson
September 04, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Normally, Dave Test and his team of classroom IT technicians would spend the final weeks of spring semester at Penn State going building to building, testing, updating and replacing hardware piece by piece.

COVID-19 prevented Teaching and Learning with Technology’s Learning Space and Innovation Team from doing so earlier this year. Test, the team’s manager, could only wait, painstakingly knowing every day counted, until given the green light to return to campus. 

Waiting isn’t part of this group’s M.O. So with more than 400 learning spaces to update and equip in time for the University to deliver online, remote and hybrid learning options for the fall, Test watched the calendar closely, much like an instructor might nervously watch the clock at the start of class, waiting for a webcam fix, or a malfunctioning microphone to be replaced.

“In a 50-minute class, if you lose 10 minutes with a technology issue, that’s 20% of that class time that students and faculty can’t get back,” Test said. “This is a unique challenge this fall where they’re managing what’s in the room and they’re managing what’s on Zoom, so it comes down to having empathy for the instructor, and trying to anticipate what they need so that by the time they’re in the room, we’ve already met those needs and they don’t have to worry about it.”

Although Test’s group couldn’t physically return to on-campus work until June 15, they were among the hundreds of Penn State IT professionals who worked around the clock remotely in what are normally quiet summer months to help the University prepare for any scenario that could possibly unfold in a year like no other.

Earliest reports

Tim Weston began tracking news reports about the coronavirus outbreak back in January.

A month later, reports surfaced on the novel disease’s potential impact on supply chains. As Penn State IT’s acting inventory manager, Weston realized the looming problem. Almost immediately, he ordered 100 network switches.

It was a smart move. The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, and Penn State switched to remote-only instruction — which required expanded network capabilities and another all-hands on deck effort by Penn State IT — less than three weeks later. 

“The Inventory Team is the foundation of everything we do,” said Tim Shortall, director of enterprise and network communication services. “We can’t do anything without equipment, and they moved mountains to get equipment however they could.”

Weston’s team is similar to Test’s in that they are both hands-on groups made up of highly skilled technicians. They both do most of their work on campus, delivering and taking stock of IT hardware.

“Microphones, webcams, document cameras, basically anything you could connect that could be used with Zoom was hard to find,” Test said. “We started with a list of ideal equipment, then worked with various vendors to find the equipment we could actually get and sort of tried to find a happy medium there. It was tech that might not have been the model we asked for, but it was similar, and we could get it in quantity.”

Building blocks

When Back to State plans were announced in late July, Penn State IT was already developing tools to help fuel the University’s COVID-19 plans.

Specifically, the Software Engineering Team was putting the finishing touches on a scheduling system that would notify anyone selected for pre-arrival testing, and was at work on software solutions for collection site workers, testers and contact tracers.

As summer progressed, daily stand-up meetings between software engineering and faculty and staff from the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences department quickly evolved into working and demo sessions.

One of the trickier tasks was how to handle surveillance testing when students arrived. The team hoped to be able to have the ability to test five samples at once in a pool, as it would save on testing material and time. The team had a facility ready — a converted animal sciences lab — to receive the tests.

But they needed the IT. And they needed it fast.

Shawn Smith, Penn State IT’s director of software engineering, estimated that had his group started from scratch, it might’ve taken a year to develop the components for the scheduling, testing and contact-tracing systems that work together, are expandable and HIPAA-compliant.

But they weren’t starting from scratch.

“Whenever we build a system, we’re not starting at zero,” Smith said. “Over the last five or six years, we’ve built up a powerful set of core tools. So when something like this happens, we can act quickly and pull those pieces and put them together in the right way.”

One of those existing tools is the team’s development of Identity and Access Management. It’s part of the framework that’s enabled the surveillance testing to be conducted on 1% of the University population (about 700 people) daily.

To initiate the process, those selected simply swipe their Penn State ID cards at a collection site to generate an anonymous barcode that will be used to identify each person’s test sample as it’s tested in a pool of five. Pools that test negative are cleared. An inconclusive result triggers a re-test of each sample individually.

The system includes an automatic notification to contract tracers when samples are inconclusive.

Made to order

Less than two weeks before classes began, Director of Penn State Contact Tracing and Student Support Services Darcy Rameker was managing the pre-arrival testing call center where she’s been on the frontlines of Penn State’s contact tracing.

Rameker and others have worked closely to help Smith’s team identify the tools necessary to create serviceable case investigation software.

“There has been a true sense of collaboration throughout the process,” Rameker said. “The team has made both small and large updates to the system as new needs have come up or simply to make it easier to use. That’s one of the great things about it being a homegrown tool versus a vendor solution. There’s a lot of flexibility to adjust as we refine our needs.”

But again, time was of the essence.

“She [Rameker] makes a request and we can have it ready in an hour or two,” Jay Orr, the software team’s user experience manager, said. “You might not get that from a cloud solution. We have a direct line. We can change it, test it and get it back to you in a hurry.”

Keep teaching, keep learning

When Penn State opted for an all-remote return to the spring semester, perhaps no group was called on more often, from as many different places, as TLT’s instructional designers and learning development staff members.

They spent hours in the spring helping faculty get acquainted, many for the first time, with the software and tools they needed to keep their classes running. 

“We went from teaching one session a day to four sessions a day every day,” said Lindsey Kiraly, manager of TLT’s IT Learning and Development group. “My team went into overdrive. It was like that pressure motivated us to the point where we’re doing more training and doing more impactful work in this remote situation than we had done in the past. It’s the sense of urgency. Our work is valued and needed across the board.”

And the proof is in the numbers. While Penn State’s newly created website designed to help faculty adjust to online instruction briefly went down in the days leading up to classes, the voluminous server loads on the remote-teaching resource only further illustrated a need for their expertise.

Over the summer, TLT also debuted its Engaging Students Series designed to help faculty engage students in online environments. In the first four weeks, nearly 300 faculty, staff and administrators and that number has grown to over 800.

Meanwhile, in the usually-sleepy summer months, more than 1,000 faculty members or staff have taken advantage of ITLD’s training sessions. How does that compare to non-COVID-19 summers?

“We’re lucky if we were hitting 100 people combined in those months,” Kiraly said.

Being able to lean on the unprecedented experience the spring provided has helped, and most of the feedback Kiraly’s group has gotten has been positive, and even transformative.

“We are getting a ton of instructors saying, ‘I never thought I would be able to do this. I never wanted to do it and now I see the possibilities,’” Kiraly said. “This is changing their way of teaching. Even though you plan on teaching in person, in the back of your mind you know you can provide activities that are asynchronous or synchronous via Zoom. You think in the future you may incorporate those into your normal schedule and give students that blended experience.”

Prepared, just in case

Chuck Enfield looked at a map of the Keystone State and began pondering a series of road trips.

It was late in June and the ENCS manager was committed to visiting each Penn State campus to begin scouting parking lots that could serve as additional wireless hotspots in the event that more social distancing guidelines could be required should local outbreaks worsen.

With no efficient way to crisscross the state, and discouraged from overnight stays due to COVID-19, Enfield and his engineering team hit three campuses a day. One day trip took them to the Philadelphia-area campuses and another into Western Pennsylvania. Days later, the team made the long trip to Erie, hitting up DuBois and Shenango on the way.

At each stop they met with a local IT director, the campus chancellor and Office of the Physical Plant personnel to determine the best solution for each campus. In many instances, OPP had to modify buildings to be able to mount equipment.

“The scale and the urgency are what make it unique,” Enfield said. “We’ve done big projects that included 10,000 access points, others that were emergency situations, but I’ve never done anything on this scale, this fast.”

By the start of classes, all campuses except Wilkes-Barre had at least one wireless-accessible parking lot. Wilkes-Barre required a different solution but was in place just a week later.

“The wireless team had a lot of work to do here, but so did  OPP, the cable and wiring folks, the materials people who’ve been rushing in purchase orders that’s putting pressure on purchasing, this project is definitely a multi-organizational effort to get this thing done,” Enfield said.

Last Updated September 30, 2020