Higher Education – Best Practices for Business Continuity During Pandemic

Recently, I (Michael Zastudil, SVP, CS & Product Development, BlackBeltHelp) and Michael Lyons (CIO – MassBay Community College) presented a live webinar where over 250 higher-ed institutions joined us to learn and discuss the best practices for business continuity during the pandemic. Michael Lyons shared some of his experiences and expertise around how he has prepared to manage business continuity during this time. We hope that you find the resources discussed here useful.

I (Michael Zastudil):

High-Level Concerns in terms of Next Fall’s Enrollment

What we are seeing and what I am seeing are the high-level concerns that came from all the customers and the Educause discussion board. These concerns change as per the role and responsibility but again everybody is more focused on the quality of instruction because that’s the business of higher education. We are all struggling with how we provide remote instruction and the online learning community states this struggle is not about online learning but the remote instruction because this is like putting a first-aid or bandage to get through the difficult times. So, everything revolves around how you maintain rigor learning in outcomes during this time and how do you keep students engaged and drive completion. This is definitely concerning a lot of leadership and in terms of what it’s going to look like in the fall because we don’t know how long this is going to go on or we don’t know what impact this is going to have. Obviously, each institution is different in the unique circumstances but how is this going to change what students are thinking about, what parents are thinking about when we look at the fall, we look at some numbers around incoming freshmen and how they are thinking about this but there are some positive that I think everybody’s seen people come together sharing information, breaking down siloes, and somewhat a paradigm shift around the fact that we’re all forced into this situation and it’s great that we’re coming together to share this information. One of the things that I like about working with higher education is that it is a community but the most disconcerting of all is the uncertainty of all this and we don’t know how long this is going to last. We can only see the things progressing and picking up in terms of social distancing and closing groups of multiple people together and that’s very stressful and on top of that we know there are a lot of issues around student access and as a community college, Michael Lyons has some concerns around being able to have students have access to the technology that they need to be learning online and get the education that they are looking for so we don’t want to have students or anyone get a bad taste in their mouth about online learning. So, it’s important that we make that distinction and realize that this is not what online learning is. This is a stopgap.

So, Michael told me Fast is Slow, so I disseminated that message to our team, but it got used against me because I was moving too fast. So, Michael what do you mean by Fast is Slow?

Michael Lyons:

The Concept behind Fast is Slow

My dad was a Boston Fireman so I have always grown up with the idea of worst-case scenarios, walking into the movie theatres knowing the fire exits are, knowing all the planning and fast is slow is something that he always grounded in my head we don’t have enough time to do stuff twice so we need to slow ourselves down and think don’t panic. It’s almost two weeks to the day where I sat in front of my faculty senate and they were panicking and planning to go to the Provost. I talked to them on one on one and I talked to each one of them saying this is what we have done to our technology to handle things moving to the cloud, moving to off-premise services, having critical partners. I said just slow down, take a breath, give yourself permission to fail, know that we are all going to make mistakes, pick each other up, dust each other off, get back on the bike and move forward.

I (Michael Zastudil):
That’s great! So, what would you say has been the biggest success over the past few weeks?

Michael Lyons:

Biggest Concern in terms of Online Transition

Over almost three weeks, it seems that the requirements keep shifting. My president is a great leader and he early organized an emergency team and we started meeting daily to talk and discuss about the shift. From that standpoint, it has allowed me to task my team about what’s the top priority. We can say that the community came together in two weeks, we power-lifted all our online learning, all our on-prem learning to remote learning. We are still moving people this week and we will be moving people next week. So, reframing a lot of things that we have been doing – the long-term, they are going to benefit the college, so it isn’t just a cost in the disaster. The college is going to be stronger in the long-term.

I (Michael Zastudil):

That’s great! Thank you. So, would you say that there’s anything that you would point to is the biggest challenge or would you say it’s pretty much the fact that requirements are changing so quickly?

Michael Lyons:

Challenges & Long-Term Goals of MassBay Community College Amidst the Global Pandemic

A lot of times it’s the hardware, that’s the first challenge. So, we are lucky that we had a number of laptop carts at the campus. We have a contingency or business continuity plan that everybody else does. We have strategic partners with it. One of the partners that we have is CDW and we like CDW because for us geographically their warehouses and storage are in Connecticut, so they always keep a good supply of machines. The real challenge is when you deal with something so global because everybody is going for the same resources. So, I think these have been some of the challenges with getting the resources and act in making quick decisions. For the long-term, we are going to be able to pivot that going into the fall semester if we have students who have food scholarships or have huge needs. We’re now able to loan out them a computer that is going to help them in their education. So, it becomes a great piece of infrastructure for the college which I think is really going to distinct us in higher education.

I (Michael Zastudil):

So, you talked about the technology needs and one of the things that is being talked about a lot is not just the technology needs, but students want access to WIFI to their home living situations without getting into their space to learn. How were you handling the students who needed the equipment but the laptops, how are you handling getting those things to them on demand?

Michael Lyons:

Remote Support Provider – BlackBeltHelp

Before I get into this, I also want to talk about support in general. We are really lucky to have BlackBeltHelp as a partner. Michael, I can’t honestly tell you how much I really appreciate everything your team has done for us. Before you get into anything, you want to have those strong relationships – you have strong relationships with Cisco, they have helped us with everything from getting VOIP calling done remotely to even offering everybody in our system a thousand WebEx licenses till the end of the semester and for any higher education institution. So, they have been a great partner. As we have been changing day-to-day, you guys have been with us day-to-day.

So, that ties us into the center of how we are supporting the hardware, for remote support we are using WebEx. We are able to remote connect to people get onto their workstations, basically helped us speed up getting machines out.

I (Michael Zastudil):

That’s great! Thanks for the kind words. So, Michael we talked about teaching and learning being facilitating that is the primary mission of higher education and support and IT obviously and as I have spent a lot of my time supporting IT and central IT as well as online learning, I haven’t always seen a tremendous collaboration between the two and sometimes it’s just silo and probably it’s different in every school but traditionally I have seen that and I know that these silos are breaking down now which is great; sounds like you have had a pretty tight collaboration with those teams.

Michael Lyons:

I’m really lucky and it’s all about getting done for what we need to get done for the students. The key thing is we want to make sure you are in place and also do some education around protecting private information and give them good guidelines to best and clean practices. Faculty support, again going back to BlackBeltHelp, you guys really make it possible for us to offer 24×7 support. It lets my guys internally handle a lot of the escalated things.

Below are a few questions asked by our attendees and brief response by our panelist:

Q: Are Chromebook learns enough for most students’ work? How would you handle incompatible software?

Michael Lyons:

Chromebooks work for a lot of things, but they won’t work for everything. So, one of the challenges I have is right now I have a CS100 glass and when I am talking with the instructor, I have asked him what he needs for his classwork and he is like well I need a Windows machine in this environment. So, the way I am looking at working on this now is our partner for our Microsoft licensing is gov connection, another great partner I am really happy to work with CDW gov connection and SHI; they have been great partners for us. So, what I am looking at to address with that class is the Microsoft Azure VDI environment and see if we can spin up an environment that students can have a Windows environment so they can learn CS100.

Q: What’s the collaboration been with your HR department?

Michael Lyons:

HR has been a great partner. MassBay is a unionized environment; we have two unions,  both have been great kind of partnering with the community making sure that they are watching out of their folks and helping with the school, periodic meetings to make sure that we comply with the labor agreements, making sure if there are issues that were kind of hearing about for faculty. Our HR directors get together and swap ideas to make sure that everybody’s doing the best practices. I have been working with those folks for about nine years and they are just amazing. I am so lucky to have such a great support team around me.

Q: We talked about exam proctoring, what are we looking at?

Michael Lyons:

So, we are looking at the lockdown browser for the secure environment or secure testing environment. That’s not so much proctoring, we are looking at what’s being offered by exam soft. There are a couple of other products that the team is looking at. The Director of online learning has taken a lead on that. So, I’ll be happy to share the status update from what they are looking at.

I (Michael Zastudil):

So Michael, you talk a little bit about working with us and this is near and dear to our business and yes I wanted to talk briefly about what you’re doing with us to some degree and it may be not just specific to the situation right now but how we have had you know our process and our support set up so that we could be nimble to be able to support you.

Michael Lyons:

MassBay Community College Support Journey with BlackBeltHelp

We started with you guys almost 5 years and we moved to BlackBeltHelp from Blackboard Learn Student Support Services. Our conversion was great at the time my faculty and staff were really dissatisfied but BlackBeltHelp really was doing great work. They were fantastic off the bat. I have been really lucky to work with great customer managers. I have always been lucky to have really strong people to work with. We have been able to streamline things with the new phone system, we cut down on calls in general but let us also have a 24×7 operator that could answer questions. Now you can imagine with the COVID-19 situation, we got a lot of people calling in, they are hitting operators asking questions. So, having that elastic service where if a hundred calls came in, they are all getting picked up was really helpful. It was all the things that were really helping us.

The chatbot is great, we are finalizing and we got a couple of last little things for a look and feel that we want to put on to it but we were working with BBH already get the chatbot in place and again it gets into that how can we get more information quickly to students. Chatbot allows them to go in ask questions, get quick answers and when it exhausts all its answers that hands off to a live agent and I think that’s one of the key things for us guys is that we are trying to get as much information as possible to people as quickly as possible.

I (Michael Zastudil):

So, one of the ways just to take video in a little different direction and talk a little bit about that the challenge of with enrollment, admissions, and retention and I think this is connection right so you don’t have face to face and how you are how you can interact with students just to keep that relationship going outside of the classroom necessarily. I think just from what I have seen out there there’s a lot of different ways to keep in touch with students but some of the messaging is around really targeted messaging and being very specific around things.

Bottom Line:

Challenges abound amidst this unprecedented time to remote teaching and learning for higher education institutions. Therefore, institutions should proactively engage with their students to show them that they are concerned about them and their academics.

You can view the webinar here for more insights on how MassBay Community College is assisting its campus community with BlackBeltHelp’s IT Help Desk Support.

 

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