Keeping students and faculty connected while socially distanced

Left to right: IT team members Kelly Bronson and Michael Johnson, taken prior to the Washington state Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.

As COVID-19 swept through the nation, many institutes of higher education were faced with the prospect of suddenly moving instruction to a virtual setting. The WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (CPPS) was no exception. With only a few days’ notice, the CPPS IT team had to spring to action to provide the IT infrastructure for nearly 700 students and 160 faculty and staff to work from home as the Washington state governor issued a mandated stay-at-home order in March.

On a normal day, the CPPS IT team could be doing multitude of tasks, from supporting video conferencing or helping with connectivity issues, to system maintenance, custom applications or finding ways to collect and move data in a more streamlined manner. They serve CPPS students, faculty, and staff with any technological needs. As COVID-19 made its way across Washington state, these daily tasks turned to outfitting computers with cameras and virtual private networks (VPN) for teleworking.

“We’re very different than a lot of IT organization where everyone is specialized in one job,” said CPPS Director of Information & Instructional Technology Ryan Maynard; instead, he explained that every member of his three-person team is ready for any task the college throws at them.

Beyond ensuring that all faculty and staff had the equipment they needed, the IT team needed to ensure students could access all the systems and resources they would need on a daily basis. This meant mapping out places with free Wi-Fi access and helping students in rural communities get internet connection in order to take tests or go to class virtually.

“When you move a whole world online in a short amount of time there’s a lot of infrastructure that hasn’t been tested,” explained Maynard. “The biggest distinction is a faculty teaching 160 students — it affects all those people whereas for a student, just one person is being impacted. It’s stressful for faculty.”

Lately his team has been working to ensure faculty, students and staff stay connected in this time of social distancing. Working with individuals who are not physically on campus presents a whole new group of challenges for his team. Where all the infrastructure would normally be housed on campus and within the IT team’s control, now they are facing issues with home internet connectivity and working to solve problems from a distance.

Even so, “Just about everyone transitioned very quickly given what was thrown at them,” said Maynard.

The college’s progressive active-learning model helped make this transition a little smoother. With this model, known as the flipped classroom, WSU pharmacy students review materials ahead of time so class time can be used for self-guided learning and informed discussion with instructors and peers.

“Looking at the big picture, it absolutely made it easier to have the flipped classroom,” said Maynard. “Faculty were already used to a different way of teaching and were a little more prepared for moving that group instruction online.”

The IT team continues to work with students and faculty as the college prepares for the fall semester. With classes going virtual for the start of the academic year, the IT team says that they face fewer hiccups than when the stay-at-home order first began.

“I’m fortunate to have Kelly [Bronson] and Mike [Johnson]. They’re absolutely amazing. They’ve been able to solve all the problems, come up with solutions, and work to make sure everyone’s needs are met,” said Maynard of his CPPS IT team.

“I think the hardest transition [for the college] is the social and emotional piece of isolation.”