When SFU moved to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, IT Services supported the "herculean virtual mass migration" with new and expanded platforms and tools.

Faculty and Staff

813,000 Zoom meetings: How IT Services handled the move to remote instruction

March 23, 2021
Print

This story was originally published on the Centre for Educational Excellence website.

By Mark Bachmann

One of the unsung—or undersung, if that term exists—heroes of remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic has been IT Services (ITS). The department was instrumental in implementing and supporting the platforms and tools that allowed SFU’s learning and teaching community to move its activities online. Recently, we spoke with ITS communications officer Courtney Pederson about the department’s activities this past year.

It’s been almost exactly a year since SFU moved to remote instruction. How did IT Services respond during those first days and weeks?

During the first days of the pandemic, we saw SFU begin a herculean virtual mass migration. During this time, we quickly identified initiatives that could empower SFU to work, study and perform research remotely as a new shared and urgent purpose echoed across the SFU community.

This catalyst accelerated projects from months down to weeks and allowed us to pivot our support points to become 100 percent virtual. The effort was nothing short of devotion. We also knew that as we rallied around the SFU community, faculty, staff and students were making this transition alongside us.

In many ways, we are still in this mode as SFU’s technological custodians.

In the past 12 months, you have introduced or developed a number of tools and platforms to support remote instruction. Could you highlight the most important ones?

Implementing Zoom was an early success for us because it opened a lot of doors for faculty, staff and students who needed to stay connected and engaged while working remotely. At the time, we also knew our current video conferencing tools, such as BlueJeans, lacked the agility SFU needed to move forward. Zoom was a natural fit as a user-friendly solution that could expand to meet SFU’s needs going forward. They were also a great partner to work with during a critical time due to their robust support network. Zoom has quickly grown into SFU’s most popular service. 

An unsung hero is also our Canvas LMS [learning management system]. Canvas has always been our powerhouse for remote instruction, so we were active in providing new integrations to help remote learning. Recently, you may have seen our lecture recording system, Mediasite, join Canvas. 

Another early decision was moving our IT computer lab spaces online to support those who didn’t have access to SFU software at home. While not as momentous, it does act as a vital lifeline for our community.

During the pandemic, we were also dedicated to unifying all our contact points into a single number and online location. If you ever need to connect with IT Services, you can now call 778.782.8888 (which matches SFU’s main 8888 address) or visit www.sfu.ca/itservices/help.

Which technologies and tools have been used the most by faculty, staff and students?

Canvas and Zoom are our most popular services. For Zoom, SFU has hosted 813,000 virtual meetings with over 4,000,000 participants in the past year. Within Canvas, we’re seeing exceptional consistency among students and faculty using the system, with a healthy 11 percent increase in online credit courses being offered. This is encouraging for us, since it affirms that we’re providing stable services for our community during uncertain times.

Is there an easy way for faculty and staff to find the remote instruction tools and platforms you support and to stay informed about new options?

Absolutely. We have curated web pages that are designed to highlight remote tools at SFU. 

For instructors, I would recommend exploring www.sfu.ca/itservices/technology-resources-for-instructors. This is a sister site done in collaboration with SFU’s Centre for Educational Excellence (CEE) to highlight instructor-specific resources for remote teaching. We also host on-boarding request forms for instructors who would like a one-on-one virtual session with A/V staff for Zoom and more.

I would also encourage everyone to visit our other remote-work overview page at www.sfu.ca/itservices/remote-study-work-resources. This page is tailored towards getting faculty, staff and students quickly up to speed for remote work, study or research at SFU.

What kinds of training do you provide and how can users access that training?

Most of our training is available on demand. Our IT contact points at www.sfu.ca/itservices/help are a terrific way to connect with us. We are also available to connect you to other technical resources at SFU or provide general Q&A support.

You’ve worked closely with the Centre for Educational Excellence in supporting instructors. Can you describe your collaboration and explain the difference in the kinds of support you provide?

We have a close tag-team relationship with CEE. Our expertise is with technical questions about SFU services and technology, while CEE is excellent at providing answers to challenging pedagogical questions facing instructors. We work in tandem to remove roadblocks for the SFU community.

What advice would you give to instructors when it comes to taking advantage of your services for remote instruction?

We recognize that remote teaching presents different challenges and we’re dedicated to supporting different modes of learning. This year, we will be releasing new services, such as Microsoft Teams, that will more closely bridge the SFU virtual experience to our on-campus one. As we implement these new services, we will be looking to the SFU learning and teaching community for guidance and feedback.

We also know that SFU’s digital portfolio can be hard to navigate. As we move forward, we’re working to remove silos and barriers to deliver a more consistent experience. If you are an instructor, I encourage you to explore our online resources and let us know when you notice areas for us to improve.

Last question. What knowledge and expertise have you gained during the pandemic that will influence the way you operate post-pandemic?

Serving the needs of our community is a guidepost we are continually revisiting, and we rally around a One I.S. strategic vision that is designed to bring communities across SFU together. 

During the pandemic we have had an incredible opportunity to explore an online version of that vision. As SFU prepares for this fall we will be returning with a community that has developed a strong need for virtual space. As we move forward, we won’t be returning to normal—we’ll instead be helping SFU define a normal 2.0.