IT’s Growing and Changing Influence in the Age of COVID
Rick Shaw, Chief Information Systems Officer for the Antelope Valley Community College District talks about the critical role of technology in bridging the digital divide for students and faculty, how COVID-19 has expanded and elevated IT’s role in HigherEd organizations, and what the future of the “connected campus” might look like in five years.
With a diverse educational background comprised of two degrees in history, a master’s of knowledge management, and an incomplete doctorate in medical information science, Rick Shaw built his career on managing information and technology operations. He’s worked for state schools, private universities, and community colleges, giving him a unique perspective in approaching the problems and solutions for HigherEd.
“My career has largely been focused on building new shops or fixing broken ones from a service-oriented perspective,” he explains. “I teach people to be successful with their tools. And I genuinely love what I do.”
Technology Access Disparities Remain for Many Students
When envisioning a modern, connected campus’s attributes, Rick notes that significant disparities remain regarding access to technology and resources in today’s educational communities.
“I’m acutely aware of the digital divide. We are very much a commuter college, and we serve a huge geographic range across two counties. We have a large retiree community from the military and aerospace. But we also have a huge community of first-time learners and first-generation college attendees.”
COVID has amplified this digital divide. “Students were deeply dependent on open resources on campus to do their studies, to access their research, to write their papers, and to attend their classes,” he says. “Without those on-campus facilities, they were stuck. It’s not possible to do their coursework on a smartphone. Not all of our students even have a smartphone.”
Rick and his team conducted a needs analysis of the student population. They started a computer loan program consisting of new Chromebooks, as well as workstations and laptops that were due for a refresh. To date, they have loaned out over 800 computers and almost 400 internet hotspots.
“My job is to partner with my peers in academic affairs, my dean, and my faculty, and then identify the tools that they need to enhance the student’s involvement,” Rick says.
With widespread distance learning being implemented nationwide, Rick notes, “I think there’s a true opportunity for institutions who can provide a device for students walking in the door if they have that need. The socioeconomic breadth of what we support is very vast here.
“We’ve got students who have all the resources they need: they’ve got the home computer, a tablet, and a smartphone. They’re thoroughly connected. But we’ve also got first-generation immigrants and non-immigrant, first-generation students coming to campus who lack those resources.”
Resolving Connectivity Limitations
Rick’s team aims to present a seamless interface for students and faculty in their instructional environment during COVID.
When everything is remote, getting faculty up to speed was a challenge. “Many of them, honestly, didn’t have a home computer. If they had a home computer, it lacked a camera and headphones. Their computer had zero capacity for video calls,” he explains. “We’ve loaned out a ton of equipment. In some cases for faculty who have struggled with that modality, we’ve allowed them access back to campus and into their office and set them up in their office because that’s their comfort zone.”
Further, Rick says, “As we start coming out of these times of COVID, we’re in the process of revamping all of our classrooms. We had a smart classroom configuration that had a projector workstation but lacked the camera for hybrid modality. And we’re refitting our 250-plus classrooms to meet that modality as well so that we can manage Los Angeles’ county’s expectations for occupancy and, in many ways, our faculty and students’ comfort levels with occupancy to serve our students.”
“Our summer is going to be our transition into a hybrid modality. We are splitting our courses’ enrollment with a single instructor – 25% in person, 75% online. The classrooms are now configured with a microphone and can broadcast to Zoom from the classroom.”
Re-Defining the Role of IT in the Age of COVID
Some IT leaders have stated the remote learning experience has elevated IT beyond being perceived as “just a service desk.” After all, at some institutions, IT’s role was limited to fixing computers or turning on an application. Suddenly they’re being asked to speak about teaching and learning—or at least building an infrastructure to support teaching and learning.
“My philosophy is that IT is an enabler. We are a partner. We’re about making stuff work and problem-solving,” Rick says. “We want to enable the faculty to support the student who is the working professional or the working parent, online. People need to be able to choose whether they’ll attend in-person or remotely via camera. I think that modality is here to stay.”
For IT personnel just starting a new role, Rick advises them to “start the dialogue” with their supervisor. “You need to cultivate an environment of trust. Understand and cultivate the perspective that ‘I’m here to fix this. I’m here to make this look good and to make you look good.’
“I’m a huge advocate of managing up. You need to manage and network laterally with your peers, as well as up and sometimes around, just so that you’re part of the conversation.”
“Let me give you one anecdote, a perfect example. I was invited to the college coordinating council, which consists of the president, the vice presidents, and the representative leadership from the union and faculty senate. It’s the coordinating council because all of the issues come there. I was invited in because it was a software conversation, but I was listening to another dialogue, and there was a lot of gnashing of teeth over key recovery with adjuncts leaving.
“And I said, you’re not talking about key recovery. You’re talking about a business process: onboarding and offboarding. This is a systemic issue. There is a solution to this that goes to business processes. And this is not about an adjunct getting a key. This is about that adjunct coming in and being part of the community, being onboarded effectively. They need to understand what they’ve been given, and at the end of the term, there needs to be a process to recover that for the next adjunct.
“It’s bringing a systemic point of view to a dialogue. IT is about supporting the institution and serving students.
“IT serves students when a faculty member can walk up to a building and get into a classroom day one. We serve students when faculty can log in and get their shell ready a week before instruction starts and start communicating with their students. We provide a system and a business process to enable these things.”
A Five-Year Vision for The Connected Campus
“I think that five years out the road we’ll be very connected. Will we be able to do all of our coursework on a smartphone? I don’t know. I don’t think so. There are examples of full novels being written on smartphones on commuter trains. I don’t personally see a smartphone as the enriching environment necessary to give students access to everything they need. I think you need a bigger screen.
“PC-enabled distance education, online education, access to resources, connected faculty, and connected research components are going to continue to proliferate and be demanded by our students.
“I grew up around my dad’s machine shop; he was a prototype machinist at the end of his career. His perspective was ‘It’s already broke. I can’t break it again. Let’s find a way to fix it.’ And that’s a mindset that I’ve tried very hard to instill in my department and the community that I serve.
“Let’s find the solution. Let’s find a way to make it work.”