It started Thursday, March 6, 2020. The University of Washington released a statement that all classes would be moved online for the remainder of the quarter. Then Friday came Stanford’s announcement. The dominoes continued to fall. Within the next 48 hours, every major institution in the United States announced some version of transitioning on-campus classes to online formats.
Some, like the University of Southern California were initially “tests,” and other colleges dealt with the threat by extending spring break an extra week or doing a couple week online format.
Yet, as the pandemic continued escalate, so did the operational changes. By the week of March 16, the academic year was in need of a mulligan: complete semesters were moved fully online, all campus events cancelled, commencements postponed, and campuses were on lockdown.
But in this crisis, one light shined bright: campus A/V teams, normally sequestered into dark basements began being invited to the c-suite table. It was our time to shine.
Don Merritt, PhD, Director of Instructional Resources at the University of Central Florida, explains that the circumstance moves the role of the tech manager “from tactical to strategic.”
University in-house integrators had to quickly shift AV resources towards livestreaming and video conference options, while building relationships with their instructional designers and LMS providers.
As BC Hatchett, Associate Director of AV Support & Design and Media Services at Vanderbilt University, put it: “Last week we didn’t have Zoom; this week we do.”
The purse strings opened wide to serve the changing needs caused by the pandemic response. What would have been months of administrative meetings was implemented practically overnight.
Tech managers converted classrooms and production spaces equipped with microphones and cameras into Zoom Rooms for video production and lecture recordings. Institutional red tape all but disappeared in order to provide a safe and seamless learning experience for the student bodies.
While transitioning courses online through video conference tools solved many issues for the students who were sent home to continue the academic year online, it also opened up a pandoras box.
Raul Burriel, Video Platform and Network Operations Administrator at Oregon State University, draws attention the practical issues at work: How should university tech managers engage new best practices necessary to thrive in the changing educational climate?
How do we handle network bandwidth issues and the move from hardware to software-defined spaces?
Lecture capture has been a topic of conversation for the past couple years for higher ed institutions, but not all had the infrastructure or practice in place.
Partnering with Zoom, Microsoft, Kaltura, Blackboard, Canvas, and others meant rethinking what lecture capture means when faced with COVID-19.
Not every student has proper home WiFi in rural areas, as Donovan Monday, Network Engineer at West Virginia University points out. Even if the course can be streamed, there is no guarantee the students can access it.
Traditional synchronous courses have to challenge whether having every student present is truly important, or will recording on a laptop webcam and uploading the video be sufficient.
Mike Pedersen, Audiovisual Experience Manager at Iowa State University, spotlights “the equity issues that arise” when we move our services online: How do we ensure that students are able to receive an equal opportunity to learn and get the help necessary?
Accessibility becomes a problem when courses not initially designed to be delivered online are offered at the mercy of a student’s home WiFi and computing capabilities. What about the students who cannot leave campus due to travel restrictions?
What about those who don’t own a personal laptop?
Jimmie Singleton, Senior Learning Environments Support Analyst at the University of Southern California, notes we have to take a safety-first approach to daily operations:
“We are continuing to serve our students by implementing social distancing and continued sanitation in our computer labs and study spaces.”
For those who are still relying on on-campus resources, “we are consolidating all services into one campus building, while maintaining a complete lockout of the others,” Singleton explains.
The final piece of the COVID-19 response came in the form of community building. All the major higher ed AV groups served an instrumental role in informing, educating, and supporting the needs of one another.
The Higher Education Technology Managers Alliance (HETMA) hosted the first Virtual Flash Conference on Monday, March 16, 2020, with over 200 university tech managers coming together to collaborate in the chat and learn from the steering committee and SMEs Gabe Moronta, Project Manager at Zoom Video Communications, and Raul Burriel from Oregon State University.
The Consortium of College and University Media Centers (CCUMC) listserv quickly filled up with requests best practices on how to implement streaming technologies and integrating the classroom experience to the online community, leading to past president Kathy Dooley, Director of Media Resources at Midwestern University, to organize a COVID-19 Virtual Roundtable that CCUMC offered for free to anyone, not just members.
James King, Audio Visual Specialist at Stockton University, found his higher ed Slack channel, HigherEd_AVIT, blow up with tech managers rushing for advice and moral support.
“How are you holding up?” has become the daily mantra. For this same reason the Higher Ed AV Podcast is hosting a “virtual happy hours” for tech managers to just relax, connect, and share their war stories.
The higher ed av community has a special bond because of the similar struggles and situations faced on a daily basis: the response to the COVID-19 pandemic proved that connection to be even more distinctive.
For those of us who serve the higher ed vertical, we do so because of the students.
The current pandemic has been our opportunity to utilize our skills and technologies to both protect them and ensure a seamless transition to a new learning style. I’m proud of our collective teams and how we all have come together, unified, for this one purpose.