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Maintaining A Strong Infrastructure for Remote Learning

The EvoLLLution | Maintaining A Strong Infrastructure for Remote Learning
Although IT plays a huge role in helping everyone shift to a remote environment, departments still have a responsibility in making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.

IT is often referred to as the backbone of an institution. Now more than ever, colleges and universities are looking to their colleagues in IT to support their shift to remote learning and working. These units play a key role in helping establish an accessible learning environment suited to the needs of their students. But with a recession on the horizon, IT leaders will be under pressure to support scaling initiatives as well. In this interview, Joseph Moreau reflects on how IT teams can handle the pressure and shares some insights into what it takes to establish data security and privacy in a remote environment.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the shift to remote learning been across the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District?

Joseph Moreau (JM): It’s been crazy, yet relatively smooth.

Foothill College has long been a pioneer in online learning, dating back to the mid-nineties. Prior to the crisis, about 52% of Foothill College’s enrollment was already online. These are formal, intentional online programs that the college had developed over the last decade. De Anza has a significant population of online courses, but it’s about 22% of their courses. Proportionally, they had a bit further to go than Foothill, but across the district the transition has gone well.

People have been remarkably flexible. Our Foothill College president has been putting out the message, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of progress,” and people have really taken that to heart. It’s been all-hands-on-deck, everybody helping each other out, moving as quickly as they can and understanding that it won’t be perfect. People are trying new and different things that they’ve not had the opportunity or the interest to try before. They’re discovering new tools and techniques that are important for conducting instruction online and engaging with students.  A lot of work has been done by a lot of people. We haven’t had any catastrophes that we’ve not been able to address in one way or another.

Evo: How concerned are you that folks are going to equate the experience they’re having in a remote learning setting to what the possibilities of really well-designed online programming are?

JM: That is a critically important distinction. We have to be consistent in our communication—and in our planning—in distinguishing the difference between online learning and remote instruction.

Our definition of online learning is very intentional. It implies that faculty have had the opportunity to go through training and professional development to prepare them to teach in the unique environment of online learning. That also implies a level of intentionality with content creation, assignments, the presentation of the course material and how student work is assessed. Online pedagogy has been re-engineered to specifically respond to the pros and cons of asynchronous and technological delivery.

That is clearly not what we have done in the last two to three weeks. There wasn’t enough time or expertise for it. We had to help faculty find the best possible substitutes for their face-to-face teaching.

Other ways of interacting and engaging online, such as discussion or online breakout rooms or asynchronous project work, can’t be converted overnight. To deliver remote instruction, we’ve done the absolute best we can to quickly find reasonable substitutes for face-to-face instruction. We wouldn’t use that same approach to intentionally plan something for the online environment.

We want to make sure that both faculty and students understand that difference because we’ll likely be continuing with remote learning through the summer. We want to be transparent about what our offerings are.

We may be conducting remote instruction today, but if the pandemic continues for months, we’ll have the opportunity to move closer to online instruction. We want to make sure everybody understands there is a continuum. On one end, we have sophisticated programs that have been in place for years. On the other end, we have what the remote learning model that we did our best to pull together with very little notice.

Evo: How have learners in workforce and career education programs, which are more competency-based, been affected by the shift to remote?

JM: It varies tremendously by discipline. Students in IT programs–whether it’s network engineering or network technician support or configuration–likely haven’t experienced a big change. They may be able to use simulations equivalent to an in-person experience. But for students in automotive tech, welding or respiratory therapy, there may be no real viable equivalent to what face-to-face courses can provide to students.

That’s something we’re figuring out right now on every level at our colleges. We can get this far with remote instruction, but will students struggle if we go any further?

We’re part of a large system spread across California and have a relatively dispersed set of resources in the 114 colleges throughout the state, so we’re looking at how to do things regionally. For example, can we provide centers in Sacramento and the Bay Area, in Los Angeles, in the Central Valley, in Orange County and San Diego County, and then perhaps some other remote or rural locations?  Instead of there being 114 possible places for students to go, maybe there’s 12.

That may be more manageable from both a resource and public health perspective. It would be far more viable to provide public health precautions at 12 centers as opposed to 114. This is the time for collaboration. We don’t need to do it all by ourselves, and in fact, we could probably do it better the more cooperative we are across districts, colleges, and throughout the state.

Evo: What are some of the considerations that you and your team are having to make from an IT perspective to facilitate a shift to a remote working environment for staff across two colleges?

JM: The good news for our two colleges is that our IT organization has been focused on remote capabilities for the better part of the last decade. We’ve adopted a cloud-first strategy and a mobile capability strategy so that everything we do new, upgrade or redo, is part of our portfolio. We’ve been very intentional about moving everything to the cloud for a whole variety of reasons. Cost is certainly one of them, as are refocusing our human resources away from patching, fixing and maintaining hardware and information systems.

If we can partner with organizations that have a much stronger core competency in these areas and are more efficient than we are, then that frees us up. We can use our in-house resources more effectively for things that a partner can’t do, and we work more collaboratively with IT and functional stakeholders throughout the institution. The good news is that the time, effort and money we’ve invested in mobilizing things has really paid off. In this transition to remote work, there is almost no resource people needed that we didn’t already have in place.

The bad news is that in some cases, the adoption rates were low, so we had to respond to people saying they would get around to it. Now, we’re faced with a flock of people that we need to train. We need to help them figure out the best ways to use their resources. Our biggest constraint has been the time frame in which we have to train people and help them understand what the possibilities are for replicating something they’ve done face-to-face. I’m glad that we had the foresight to put these things in place now that we need them.

Evo: What does it taking to maintain data security and accessibility compliance, especially the shift to this environment?

JM: The student information system is the single largest repository of protected data that probably any college or university in the country owns. We’ve been very intentional about its security. Our entire institution moved to the cloud about a year and a half ago. That allowed us to improve our security posture dramatically. Instead of having a couple of full-time engineers or security staff watching over our system, there’s an army of security people from both AWS and Ellucian looking at this stuff instead. Our in-house staff don’t have to worry about large-scale systems and can focus on other things we have to monitor more specifically ourselves.

A similar thing happened with accessibility. We’re confident in not only the level of compliance but of usability. Compliance doesn’t necessarily equate to usefulness from an accessibility standpoint. We’ve improved accessibility with some of the moves we’ve made. When we evaluate a new partner, we’re not just asking them for their VPAT; we want to see a third-party certification of their products and services before we can really talk to them. In some cases, partners have already done that, and that makes everybody’s life a lot easier. But in other cases, they don’t even know what accessibility is. Sometimes, that’s the end of the partnership or the beginning of a really important new conversation through which we help them understand what those requirements are. We work with them to test the requirements so that we can exceed compliance and really talk more about usability.

Evo: What are a few lessons about disaster preparedness that you’ve taken from this experience so far?

JM: Security and disaster preparedness is not just the IT team’s responsibility; everybody owns a piece of it. In terms of identity management, cloud reliability, personal information security or defense against hacking, we own those and have them covered. You don’t need to worry about them. But there is a piece of it everyone has to be responsible for. There’s no possible way IT could do it for you even if we wanted to.

For instance, you have to be “security aware” enough to know not to give up your credentials erroneously. You have to know that there’s more to recovering from a disaster or an emergency than just backing up your data. It’s about training, being ready and aware of the possibilities and options available to you. More than anything, that message has really permeated the fabric of our institutions.

There’s a culture shift, and the ramifications of that shift will have positive benefits for our students, faculty and staff, public agencies, taxpayers and the people to whom we’re accountable. There is a likelihood that we may encounter emergencies like this one in the future, whether it’s a natural disaster or another pandemic. We’ll need to embrace crises more wholeheartedly as opposed to saying it’ll never happen again.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 7, 2020.

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