Supporting Campus Online W&L was well prepared for the switch to virtual instruction, thanks to investments made long ago and the people of its Information Technology Services office.
For Washington and Lee University’s Information Technology Services office (ITS), work came in waves after campus closed due to COVID-19 in mid-March. First there was the push to get faculty prepared to teach online. Then came equipping staff to work from home. New challenges, including online classes and providing remote technical support to students, cropped up every few days for a month.
W&L was well prepared for this kind of disruption. A forward-looking approach to information technology, from investing in the Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA) a decade ago to tabletop drills simulating emergencies, gave it a strong foundation for dealing with an enormous problem.
In the first few days of the closure, ITS repurposed about 150 campus laptops to serve as work-from-home machines, laboring late at night with diminished capacity because staff were caring for family or were in high risk categories for COVID-19. As online classes drew nearer, its client services group, led by John Watkins, worked with departments across campus to meet their needs, and specialists like Tom Marcais and John Raynor engineered solutions to complex remote-connection problems.
Chief Information Officer David Saacke, who sits on W&L’s emergency management team, likened it to the group’s tabletop training sessions. “Consultants throw a scenario at you, and then you do it. An hour later, they throw a different variable at you, and it keeps coming. That’s exactly how the first two weeks happened. Every day, a new variable hit a new stumbling block.”
As faculty and staff settled in off campus, ITS turned its attention to students, set to resume classes from home after a two-week break. The faculty affairs committee, Associate Provost Paul Youngman and Marcia France, a former W&L administrator who helped Duke University go online in China, worked with the department to create an online readiness survey and send it to every W&L student.
Nearly 800 responded. They were spread across 19 time zones, 135 of them with no access to a consistently quiet space. Their concerns ranged from bandwidth caps and old or damaged equipment to sharing videoconferencing spaces and internet connections with family members working and studying from home.
Faculty were able to view the survey results for students in their classes so they could better anticipate the troubles their students might face. “The survey was a very good idea,” said Robert Ballenger, professor of business administration. “It gave us extremely valuable information from a teaching perspective.”
Small, in-person classes are a hallmark of the W&L educational experience, but the university is also built to be responsive and resilient. Investments made in information technology over the last decade, intended to equip the university to interface smoothly with an increasingly digital world, made moving online much easier.
“We just upgraded to a redundant bandwidth pipe of 10 gigabits per second,” Saacke said. “For a school our size, that’s pretty unheard of.” The extra bandwidth made it easier for students and faculty to connect remotely to campus resources like the customized computers in physics and engineering labs.
That ease of connection is possible because of the contribution W&L made a decade ago to the Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA), a state-of-the-art data center in Lexington built in partnership with local governments. “That whole effort allowed cost-effective broadband to be brought here,” Saacke said. “We actually buy our internet in a data center in Washington, D.C. That’s where we connect to the world.”
W&L’s internet infrastructure begins on campus at the Richard A. Peterson Data Center and Wilson Hall. Fiber-optic cables run from those buildings to an enormous EQUINIX data center in northern Virginia, where W&L connects to the global internet. “From a technical perspective,” Saacke said, “EQUINIX is sitting directly on the W&L network, just like a campus building.”
At EQUINIX, equipment owned by W&L sits in the same facility as equipment owned by many of its major vendors. That direct link, plus W&L’s switch to cloud-based service providers like Box, has lightened demand for bandwidth and reduced lag times when connecting to essential services.
As ITS turns its attention from the immediate crisis to the future, Saacke and his team are looking for other ways to make the school more resilient. “We’re trying to get back into our world of making sure that people have the right tools to do what they need,” he said. “If there’s a period where we’re mixed mode, with some people in class and others remote, do the tools we own work? Do we need to purchase different tools?”
Saacke has also come through the experience with more faith than ever in W&L’s ability to prepare for future crises. “We were well positioned. We’re well resourced. People who support the school do their jobs really well. I think faculty have been amazing to accept input and flip their courses in a way that’s working. Witnessing the community come together to make it happen was pretty impressive.”