The Latest

USU IT Team Ahead of the Curve on Successful Transition to Remote Learning, Workforce

A screenshot of a presentation of a virtual dissertation.

By Vivian Mason

Like many other institutions of higher learning navigating through a global pandemic, USU has been forced to suspend face-to-face classes, offering students a curriculum they can access remotely, while most personnel pivoted to working from home. 

Thanks to an innovative and proactive information technology team, the university was ready for the unprecedented changes, and made the transition with success and ease, according to Timothy Rapp, Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Vice President of Information and Education Technology at USU. 

“Hurricane Katrina made us step back and examine our network infrastructure and how we would approach remote work on a broad scale over an extended period of time. We saw universities literally close overnight because they were simply not able to recover in a normal fashion. They had to shut their doors and send their medical students to other schools,” Rapp said. “At that point, we were just starting a seven-year infrastructure upgrade at USU, so adding critical and remote capabilities upgrades that allowed users to work from anywhere and on any system made sense.

“We started more than 10 years ago putting a lot of those systems in place. Once COVID kicked off, there wasn’t much pivoting for us to do from an infrastructure and services perspective. Sure, there were the usual things, like ordering a modest amount of additional web cameras, accelerating training, etc., but other than that, there really weren’t a lot of adjustments needed. The infrastructure, bandwidth, and collaboration tools were already in place,” Rapp said.

He added that staff across all OCIO (Office of the Chief Information Officer) departments were already performing their work functions remotely, and so it wasn’t really a new concept. Most OCIO staff also had work-issued laptops and completed the necessary requirements – i.e. training and paperwork – in order to work from home. 

“We were at about 40 percent telework before COVID. So, it was really just a matter of increasing that,” he said.

The majority of USU-issued laptops were also already mobile-ready. Many of the university’s students and employees had these laptops issued to them, which is why they already had the default computer configuration for years -- or they were able to do the majority of their work responsibilities under the Bring Your Own Device program. Thus, the switch to telework was quick and smooth thanks to this immense effort by the IT team to get hundreds of new remote employees up and running in record time, Rapp said.

Additionally, Rapp and his team made sure everyone at USU had the necessary tools, resources, and solutions to perform their duties. USU’s IT staff offered additional training sessions almost immediately, as well as drop-in virtual Help Desk rooms and additional “just-in-time” online training resources. Still, additional training materials were produced and new sessions continue to be added even today. 

Network Operations & Communications (NOC) engineer, Mai Tran, upgrading one of USU's many communication closets. [Image credit Courtesy of IT
Department, USU]

Not only has USU’s IT team made this transition quick and efficient during this challenging time, they have continued to stay on the cutting edge for many years. In 2019, they installed a redundant 100-gigabit circuit, better known as the “100-Gigabit Ethernet” (or GbE). It’s one of the fastest internet speeds available and a better fit for USU’s research and online synchronous teaching environment, Rapp explained. Also, for years, the IT team has provided at-home workers various tools, such as VPN, email, web access, encryption capabilities, cloud storage/management, security capabilities, file sharing, remote phone capabilities, remote desktop software, screen sharing software, team chat apps, video conferencing apps, screen recording tools, and the customer service Help Desk.

“Sometimes, the most powerful thing we can give the remote worker is email,” says USU’s Chief Technology Officer Sean Baker. “Some people need managed systems access (e.g., servers), and some people need other things. A common platform is the collaboration tools (email, file sharing, collaborative editing, teleconferencing, etc.). These items are typically the basic tools needed to make working from anywhere a reality.” 

The IT staff has also continued to focus on three core areas for the remote worker: collaboration, ensuring that workers had access to audio and video conferencing technologies; information access, ensuring that remote workers had access to their work files and documents to maintain their at-home productivity, and security, ensuring that remote workers took the necessary precautions to protect their data.

“Risk has increased for everyone ― universities, businesses, etc.,” Baker said. “We’ve been fortunate, and we’ve been deliberate in our risk decisions to date in trying to find that safe and sustainable balance between mission capability, affordability, and security that we need to operate.” 

This still comes with its issues, he said, but we have the capabilities to overcome those challenges. 

Baker added that USU has always been on a modernization journey, for example, converting “shared drives” to a Google Workspace. This has made it even easier for employees to log into Google Drive and have the access they need to do their work – and the list goes on.

“This kind of modernization, which is such an important part of what we did, allowed a continuity of business as we entered the COVID period. Hopefully, it’ll be one of the hallmarks of our sustaining efforts as we come out of it and return to normal operations, whenever that occurs.”

All in all, the IT staff was willing to do whatever it took to get everything ready for students, faculty, and staff, as always, working tirelessly to support employees. 

“Even when emails and texts were sent late in the evenings and early mornings, the IT staff would always answer them,” Baker said.  “We give people the power they need to maintain/sustain their work and family lives through a pandemic so they can be flexible in their schedules. We want to support a humanistic work culture.”

Rapp added that his team will continue keeping the needs of the university’s students and personnel at the forefront, regardless of a pandemic, allowing the organization to work remotely while providing essential telework communication technologies, ultimately ensuring success. 

A photo of a computer with a virtual presentation of the Board of Regents Report
The USU IT team positioned the University more than a decade ago to easily pivot to online platforms for classes, daily work, and meetings, like the 
quarterly Board of Regents meeting. [Image Credit: CAPT Sean Hussey]

“We get many more requests now than we ever did before,” Rapp said. “There are people using systems for the first time even though they’ve been here awhile, and they’re providing useful feedback. Sometimes we improve capabilities, such as a recent move from Adobe Connect to Zoom because it provides more capabilities … We have such a dedicated group of individuals working for us, and it’s allowed us to provide a very strong service base to the USU community. They have truly adopted the mantra that, ‘work is a thing you do, not a place you go.’”

Recently, USU’s IT team earned some remarkable accolades for their efforts. Google recognized USU as one of the “best prepared” for COVID through the use of a variety of online tools and products, including, but not limited to their products.

Like proud parents, Rapp and Baker both agree that it has been a tremendous team effort.  

“We need to give a huge shout out to all of the OCIO staff for helping with this remote work transition,” Rapp said. “They all deserve a big thank you for helping to make at-home working a USU success story.” 

(Note: Use of Google, Zoom, and Adobe names does not imply endorsement by USU, DoD or the Federal Government.)