A project to offer virtual access to Rutgers computer lab software kicked into high gear this spring after the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly dispersed tens of thousands of students around the globe.
Many were left without access to vital academic software when the computer labs were shuttered. Opening “virtual computer labs” that make it possible for students no longer on campus to connect and do their work took on a new purpose.
“We knew many students relied on computer lab software, so we searched for a faster way to launch virtual labs,” said Office of Information Technology (OIT) director Brian Luper. “We ended up building the system with a program that let our idle lab computers function as virtual machines, and we launched in May. Last month, students logged in for more than 20,000 sessions.”
The launch of the virtual computer labs was one of the many expedited efforts that provided much-needed technical services and support to students now studying and doing their work from afar.
IT programs include lending laptops to students who need them and providing connectivity to students who lack broadband. Meanwhile, students who have returned to campus this semester have received special support, including curbside printing delivery to those who need to pick up printouts.
“The OIT computer labs serve two main functions for most students. The first is in providing access to software needed for class and the second is in providing print capabilities,” said OIT associate vice president and deputy CIO Frank Reda. “The challenging part was providing support for both in a timely fashion. OIT staff recognized the importance of the work and stepped up to get access to both implemented quickly.”
It took just five weeks from the time a decision was made to give iPads to many incoming first-year students before the first of those 8,100 devices was shipped.
The focus was on student need. Rutgers University–Camden and Rutgers University–Newark supply laptops, webcams, and other hardware to students who don’t have comparable tools at home, while the free Wi-Fi programs run by each chancellor-led unit help students who need a fast Internet connection. The demand due to the pandemic became even greater.
“We had about 1,500 students reach out to ask for help with internet connections, most of them with no home connection and, because of COVID, no access to libraries or coffee shops, so we started investigating possible solutions,” said Thomas Vosseler, executive director of IT for the Rutgers University–New Brunswick School of Arts and Sciences.
Cable companies, which maintain about 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide, provided a solution. Xfinity (Comcast) opened its hotspot network to all when the pandemic began, so students who live in Xfinity territory can access that network for free. Students who live in Optimum (Altice) territory can apply to their dean of students for free access to Optimum’s Wi-Fi hotspot network.
“We don’t have any formal program for students who can’t get Wi-Fi from either company, but such students should still reach out to their dean of students,” Vosseler said. “We are always trying to find ways to bridge the gaps.’’
Getting students the tools they need is only half the challenge. The other half is delivering those tools safely.
“Even before the pandemic began, we were lending students laptops to use for a few hours, but the process required direct human interaction at check-in and check-out,” said Kevin Dowlin, assistant provost for technology and learning spaces at Rutgers–Newark. “Now we’re about to install three kiosks that are essentially laptop vending machines. Students borrow a laptop for the day directly from the machine and return it directly to the machine, and we clean all the laptops first thing in the morning.”
Curbside printing pickup will also provide an important service while minimizing physical interactions. Students can use software on their computers to send printing jobs to particular locations, pay for that printing, and wait for the software to tell them when the order will be ready for pickup outside the facility.
And at Rutgers-Camden, IT has worked to enhance classrooms so that lectures and discussions can be recorded and streamed.
“We’ll obviously try to provide whatever services students tell us they need, and we’ll keep improving our existing offerings,” Reda said. “We’re currently working to implement our original solution for virtual computer labs, which will increase capacity and improve the experience.”