Colleges reopen with an assist from tech

Creating safe learning environments during the pandemic

At the University of Central Florida this month, the freshman class welcome-to-campus experience will be anything but traditional. Students will move into their dorms in stages, and many will have rooms to themselves. Classrooms have been modified to keep people properly distanced. The university ordered 100,000 washable face coverings to distribute to students and faculty.

But for staffers like Ryan Seilhamer, UCF’s assistant director of mobile strategy and innovation, that the students will be there at all is an achievement.

“I came away from this process feeling that students are willing to do almost anything to be back on campus,” he said. “We’re making it clear what they need to do to keep the campus safe.”

Among all the unique challenges colleges and universities face during the pandemic, not even digital transformation experts could have foreseen the magnitude of change and effort required to reopen campuses. Many university IT professionals are doing their best to support these changes with older technology—and lower expectations—than what is typically available to their private-sector counterparts.

“Change has been forced upon a lot of institutions that have been operating much the same way for decades,” said Tom Yeatts, chief strategist and CTO for government and education at ServiceNow. “Now, they don’t have any choice. If they want to remain viable, they have to adapt quickly.”

The challenges are existential and operational—from maintaining educational quality through remote learning to enforcing social distancing for a demographic that may be more cavalier than most toward physical distancing to testing and treating communities the size of small cities. All while maintaining required privacy standards.

Elusive as answers to these and other questions may be, numerous case studies show how schools are meeting their key challenges. Below is a sample.

Safety is job one

There’s one item at the top of every school’s checklist: keeping students, faculty, and staff safe. That starts with effective screening that can keep potentially infected people off campus.

The IT team at UCF, which, with 69,000 students and more than 13,000 employees, is one of the largest universities in the country, was given that task in late May. First up: Devise a system that could screen thousands of school employees returning to campus to prepare for the reopening. Their deadline: July 1. They had less than six weeks.

“The rule of thumb in our world is that it takes months just to get a contract signed for a new technology,” said Scott Baron, associate director of IT performance and service management. Even finding the software development tools and staff to write a custom app, which is the usual MO, would take too long.

So Baron and his team found an inventive way to use ServiceNow’s Now Platform to integrate a seamless web-based questionnaire into Seilhamer’s managed UCF Mobile app, used by 85% of people on campus daily. By asking just a few questions, such as whether an employee has COVID-19 symptoms or knows anyone who has tested positive, the school can assess possible exposure and tell people if they are cleared to return to campus.

Change has been forced upon a lot of institutions that have been operating much the same way for decades.

“The idea was to create something you could quickly do right when you wake up,” says Seilhamer. He notes that this effort required fast action by not only the development team but also by dozens of academic departments and operational organizations that had to integrate the self-checker into their own COVID-19 policies and protocols.

Getting people to take the survey required some planning. Rather than barrage employees with requests and reminders to use the tool, the school announced that everyone’s supervisor would get a daily email at 11 a.m. listing those who had completed the self-checker. “I’m an employee too, and that would get my attention,” Seilhamer says.

Students who will be on campus are expected to use the self-checker each day, too. But the school isn’t enforcing it the same way as with staff. Instead, departments are offering incentives, such as Barnes & Noble gift cards and Coca-Cola swag bags. “We’re going to take a very positive approach,” he says.

High-frequency testing

Screening can provide a good first defense to keep infection out, but the only way to know you’ve succeeded is through frequent testing. And because those infected can be asymptomatic up to two weeks, tests that take several days to return a diagnosis are not effective.

To address this issue, the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and the University of Southern California turned to a new test developed by Silicon Valley–based Color Genomics.

The test has several features that make it well suited to campuses. It doesn’t require the deep nasal cavity penetration that’s most common now. The swabs don’t have to be stored in saliva or another liquid, streamlining the task of collecting and shipping samples to Color’s lab in Burlingame, California. Currently, 60% of people have their test results within a day, and 90% get it within two days.

USC has been administering hundreds of tests per day since the beginning of August. It plans to move to unattended self-tests by Sept. 1, which will lower the cost of hiring nurses or other health workers on site.

Privacy, privacy, privacy

Remember contact tracing? In the pandemic’s early days, it was seen as a crucial tool to combat the spread of the disease. That’s changed in recent months, given privacy concerns and the sheer logistical challenge of identifying everyone who has been in contact with an infected person.

Sharad Mehrotra and his associates at the University of California, Irvine are developing a way to trace contacts that accounts for both challenges. Their approach uses the school’s Wi-Fi network and specially designed software to collect data from sensors that can track individuals via their connected devices. When someone tests positive and shares their diagnosis, the system warns other students who have been near the carrier—all while keeping each person’s identity private.

“Our technology has the potential to stop super-spreader events, even if we don’t know the super-spreader,” says Mehrotra, a professor of computer science at UC Irvine.

The system grew out of a DARPA-funded smart-building initiative that was adapted in March to help fight COVID-19. It can also track and notify students, professors, or even campus security if they’re in a room that’s overcrowded, or check if the laundry room or student union is dangerously busy. Mehrotra’s team is now testing the system within the computer science building and working on software to urge people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 to get tested.

In the classroom

Over the past decade, Arizona State University has become a powerhouse in distance learning, with 60,000 students taking more than 200 online classes. But as some students return to campus, it had to come up with a hybrid-classroom model to teach students in person and online simultaneously, using a system called ASU Sync.

To implement the system, the school spent as much as $20,000 to outfit each of 182 classrooms with video cameras and 24-inch touchscreens that teachers can use as digital whiteboards to share notes in person and virtually. Remote students appear on a large monitor in the front of the room, so that they can interact with the class as if they were physically present.

Currently, the system is being used only for classes with more than 100 students, which presents the greatest social distancing challenge. And to ensure professors can maintain focus on teaching, the school assigns a student ambassador, typically someone at the postgraduate level, to manage the technology in each Sync-enabled classroom.

“This isn’t [just] a technology problem. It’s about driving changes that require faculty to come up the learning curve more quickly,” says Jess Evans, ASU’s chief operating and digital transformation officer.

Time to find new digital tools

Even if schools and their IT departments do everything to ensure safety and deliver a useful learning experience, they may still fall short of many student’s expectations, given the magnitude of the pandemic’s disruptions. So schools are well advised to look for new ways to deliver value.

Colby College, in Maine, is one of 400 or so schools that are connecting students with “virtual micro-internships” to take advantage of all that time they won’t be spending socializing or going to the gym. “Students are looking for something juicy and meaningful to do,” says Lisa Noble, director of Colby’s employer engagement and entrepreneurship.

Under the internship’s guidelines, students sign up to do small, self-contained projects for employers like GE, Microsoft, and others to get real corporate experience. They typically earn around $20 an hour.

“For schools, it sends a message that, ‘Hey, we know this year stinks, so we’re doing what we can to engage our alumni and corporate partners,’” says Jeffrey Moss, founder of Chicago-based Parker Dewey, which popularized the micro internship concept. “And you even get paid! How cool is that?”