While BYOD and broader consumerization trends may be turning the corporate IT world upside down, such factors have long been a reality in the campus IT environment. But that doesn’t mean that university IT departments are immune to the changing expectations of today’s empowered device owners. Delivering always-on connectivity to students, faculty, and staff alike can be a challenge for those sitting behind the support desk. Just as in corporate environments, policies and practices around employee-owned devices vary widely from campus to campus. Some higher-education environments allow access to work email via personal devices; others tap into remote access programs to help constituents access work applications, files, and data while on the go.
Over the past three years, the University of Massachusetts, Boston has adapted to these changing dynamics. UMASS Boston, one of five campuses of the University of Massachusetts, is a commuter school, nationally recognized as a model of excellence for urban universities. Nearly half of the university’s more than 17,000 students are first-generation college students, and they generally leave campus by 7:00 p.m. and continue their coursework and research from home. The university’s 950 faculty members and 1,200 staff employees work at the school’s principal location on the Boston harborfront, at several satellite locations in and around the city, and, in the case of some distance learning faculty, across the country. With the proliferation of new educational technologies, the rapid growth of online courses, and students’ increasing expectation that the university will support an ever-wider variety of mobile devices, the support team has had to evolve its policies and practices.
Changing with the Times
Like many of my colleagues who attended college twenty or more years ago, I navigated the library stacks using the card catalog and went to a computer lab only when I needed access to technology to complete my work. Of course, that has all changed, and quite dramatically, over the past four to five years.
Not only have we seen an enormous shift on campus from PCs to Macs (at UMASS Boston, the split is 76% PC and 21% Mac), there’s also been an explosion in the use of mobile devices—everything from iPhones and iPads to Android devices and BlackBerry smartphones. Our students are tech-savvy, style-conscious, and brand-loyal, and they enthusiastically embrace new technologies. Consider the technology profile of our student population:
- 93% are online
- 75% have a profile on a social network
- 41% only use cell phones
- 83% come to campus with a laptop
- 62% own smartphones
- 44% are iPhone users
- 46% are Android users
- 33% own desktop computers
- 56% use them while on campus
- 15% own tablets
- 57% are iPad users
- 25% use Android-based tablets
- 12% own e-readers
- 59% are Kindle users
- 24% are Nook users
Like our students, UMASS Boston has become increasingly reliant on technology, including academic-specific technologies for learning management, such as Blackboard, and general-purpose applications like blogs, wikis, iTunes U, lecture recordings, desktop applications, and enterprise systems.
The university also has a robust online course offering that’s experiencing tremendous growth. With 200–300 courses available each semester, many conducted by faculty members across the country, the number of students taking online courses has doubled over the past three years (to 31%). Based on student feedback, we know that they prefer a learning environment that blends technology with face-to-face instruction, and they want access to resources that contribute to their learning goals. To satisfy this growing population, we’re currently evaluating a blended teaching program that combines face-to-face instruction with periodic online sessions throughout the semester. Like our other technologies, this, too, will challenge our support staff in new and interesting ways.
The Support Challenge at UMASS Boston
The reality is that supporting access to remote and online classes and delivering always-on connectivity to students, faculty, and staff alike can be a challenge for those of us sitting behind the support desk.
Naturally, students want the freedom to use the latest mobile devices to access campus resources, and they expect us to support them. Similarly, faculty and staff see the value in using mobile devices to stay connected to their classroom content anytime, anywhere. The increasing diversity of technology on campus created new challenges for the UMASS Boston support staff, which historically had been geared toward supporting PCs and smartphones. (In 2010, we were only supporting BlackBerry smartphones. As faculty and staff began migrating to the iPhone, call volume increased, a trend we continue to see as faculty and staff adopt Android devices.)
At UMASS Boston, technical support runs lean, offering both walk-up and phone support. Our help desk is staffed primarily by students, who work part-time and bring their own devices. They provide tier 1 support for students, faculty, and staff, where the typical requests are for application access, network issues, and answers to “how-to” questions. Three full-time employees complete the team.
Of the 2,000 support calls the help desk receives each month (on average), 200–300 are escalated to tier 2. Eight team members provide tier 2 support for hardware, networking, and other enterprise systems. For applications that require 24×7 availability, such as Blackboard, after-hours support is outsourced to a third party.
The desktop team once consisted of six team members dedicated to PC support and one dedicated to Mac support. We’ve since had to cross-train staff and ensure that new hires have the skills to support multiple platforms. While it’s not possible to provide support for every type of mobile device on campus, we try to have at least one of each of the primary devices available for the help desk staff to share. We also purchased iPhones and iPads for the support staff to play with and learn to use, so they could
better support the university community.
Securing Data in an Open-Access Environment
Eighteen months ago, we brought a security officer on staff to help us support and secure access to data in a consistent fashion. However, as a higher-educational institution, access to content is generally more open than it is in other industries, and we get a lot of resistance from faculty and students when we start restricting access. As a result, we allow everyone to visit any site they want through the wireless network, which is divided into three segments: one for faculty and staff, one for students, and one for guests.
Faculty access is granted (or restricted) based on login credentials. On their mobile devices, we install clients that automatically check for OS and McAfee antivirus updates, and we use TrueCrypt, a data-loss prevention program, to further secure the device. Like mobile devices, university-owned laptops are protected by McAfee’s antivirus program, but we also install Computrace, which enables us to recover a lost or stolen laptop.
Students actually have access to a dedicated wireless network, with access restrictions based on port address. They can use this network to access their email and print resources through Pharos, Blackboard, and other services. In terms of device protection, we provide students with cost-effective solutions like McAfee antivirus and Brigadoon Software’s PCPhone Home and MacPhone Home.
Running an Efficient Help Desk Using Remote Support Tools
As the cloud and mobile devices come together, we’ve begun to provide support in new and different ways, and our team has had to learn new skills and adopt new tools. When people have a problem, they expect to be able to chat with someone on the help desk and they expect a quick answer. With a robust online and distance learning program that relies on UMASS Boston’s technology, remote support has taken center stage in our multidevice, multichannel strategy, all with an eye toward the constraints of security and cost.
When we started evaluating remote support options, we initially felt that the free version that Windows offers was adequate to support faculty and staff. However, as our environment became more complex, we recognized that we needed a different solution, preferably a cloud-based tool to help eliminate the need to use staff resources to maintain, patch, or update the server. Our other top requirements included:
- Cross-platform support (Mac and PC)
- Agent multitasking (i.e., the capability for an agent to work on multiple tickets/multiple sessions at the same time)
- Seamless transfer/escalation
- Full session transcripts (print and electronic) recording the work done to resolve the incident
- Desktop sharing to facilitate “how-to” training
- Chat capabilities
- The ability to reboot a system remotely without needing to authenticate again
In the end, we decided that LogMeIn Rescue was the solution that was the best fit for our requirements. Rescue enables the help desk to more effectively diagnose and resolve technical issues, and the on-demand online console allows the help desk to connect to a computer or smartphone remotely without installing software on the remote machine. With the user’s permission, our staff can then take control of the user’s device to quickly configure, diagnose, repair, and train.
Benefits for Users, Technicians, and the Bottom Line
The key to our success in this open, rapidly changing environment was recognizing that we needed to be adaptable and flexible, maintain data security, provide a 24×7 support culture, and use tools that can remotely diagnose, configure, and troubleshoot a variety of devices.
Since adopting LogMeIn Rescue, we’ve realized a number of benefits, including reduced call handling times, increased first call resolution, decreased operational expenses, and increased user satisfaction. More specifically, we’ve been able to support a 22-percent increase in help desk call volume without needing to add support staff and we’ve seen a 30-percent increase in first call resolution. In addition, we have been able to reduce deskside visits and improve the level of their tier 2 support, again without having
to add staff.
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Going forward, any new service we roll out must be in the cloud: Microsoft 365 (faculty/staff emails), iTunes (on-demand access to hosted and managed content like classroom capture and recorded lectures), Web 2.0 (wikis and blogs), etc. By using LogMeIn Rescue and various administration tools to manage report support, UMASS Boston has been able to automate functions, reduce the day-to-day workload of the technology staff, and improve the user experience and bottom line. That’s a win-win-win: for the end users, the technicians, and the university.
Apurva Mehta is the director of client services and educational technologies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston campus. He is responsible for the help desk and desktop support, instructional support, the computer labs, classroom technology, the faculty support center, and the instructional technology center.