IT staffers in a Zoom meeting. Top row, l-r: Eric Leung, director, faculty information technical solutions; Mark Roman, chief information officer; Michael Thorson, director, infrastructure. Centre row, l-r: Martin Siegert, director, research computing; Keith Fong, director, application services; Jennifer Casey, director, digital transformation office. Bottom row, l-r: Dave Townsend, director, strategic services; Sandeep Sidhu, director, client services.

Community

IT Services streamlines remote work for SFU community

May 22, 2020
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By Diane Luckow

Unexpectedly operating a university online amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is an enormous challenge but all 400 SFU IT staff have taken it in stride.

When SFU announced a switch to online learning on Friday, March 13 and sent most of its administrators and faculty home to work, IT staff had to begin establishing remote support, in all its guises, for SFU’s approximately 41,000 faculty, staff and students.

While a part of the team’s work involved helping the Centre for Educational Excellence to quickly get instructors online, there were other important considerations, such as strengthening the university’s IT infrastructure, enabling work from home, supporting remote research, and enhancing videoconferencing services.

“We had to think about the supply chain drying up, so we stocked up on inventory, such as server parts and storage, and more laptops and desktops,” says SFU CIO Mark Roman. “And we had to make sure our technologies were robust enough to handle the growing volume of video storage and media streaming that permit online teaching.”

Implementing remote video-conferencing was another urgent requirement, so in just one afternoon, the IT team organized a pilot project for Zoom videoconferencing technology—a project that Roman says would normally have taken one year, before COVID-19.

A new IT Service Desk team now provides virtual support to the community, even for those who are not working on SFU-managed computers. And to put specialized computer labs online for remote research, IT has extended its software licenses.

To prepare for the summer semester, the team continued to work with SFU’s COVID-19 response teams to explore a variety of messaging and group collaboration solutions, while also considering how to better protect devices and data. Over the summer, IT will install new virtual private network (VPN) technology to provide more secure access. The team will also introduce multi-factor authentication for improved security.

Addressing privacy concerns in the new virtual work and learning environment was another big issue, says Roman. Fortunately, a B.C. Advanced Education ministerial order relaxed some of its privacy legislation, and IT worked closely with SFU’s privacy office to navigate any potential pitfalls.

“The privacy office has been a great team player,” says Roman.

Sandeep Sidhu, director, IT client services, says IT staff have had to learn new skills to keep up with the new remote work environment.   

“Our needs are shifting towards a hybrid skillset now—a mix of customer service, technical skills across various services, and problem-solving,” she says. “We’re finding we need more generalists rather than specialists, and so we’re cross-training staff, which is fantastic.”

She adds, “This pandemic has been a good test of our partnerships and collaborations with faculty and with administrative and research units.”

Roman is particularly thankful to the overall IT team for its work to address so many challenges, and is also deeply appreciative of the many IT staff who continue to work on campus to support essential systems and critical services.

“It has been insanely busy but also a very positive experience,” says Roman. “People requesting assistance have been just wonderful and understanding. I’m proud to work for SFU in these circumstances.”