Takeaways from an Exhausting Year in HigherEDU IT

Aubie joining me on a Teams call with our IT staff

The last 15 months…has been a LOT. Global pandemic, , wild fires, hurricanes, Tiger King, and probably other horrors that I cannot recall. Everyone has been through a LOT. Everyone live through the same constantly stream of doom and more connected, but more distant that I can ever remember being in my life. It feels like everyone had to learn to adapt to the moment and in my world it feels like that was a constant roller coaster of preparing people to move to remote work + learning then hybrid work + learning last fall and now returning to in person work + learning again.

Mobile is the new Default Computing Experience

Laptops and 2-in-1’s running Windows 11

In the early days I remember explicitly having to order, borrow, and steal laptops for my coworkers to use at home since most of the people that I supported were using desktops. My people used to have minimum of two monitors and desktops with comfortable keyboards. I lucked up that I ordered a number of Surface Laptops the month ahead of time since one of my offices were due for upgrades. It was a bit of an adjustment for my people, but as we started to go back into the office with hybrid work and now full time back into the office the desktops are gone and the laptops are in. One things that I’ve found that people really enjoy having, simplifies the experience, and is cheaper is to have one large monitor and a laptop stand like the TwelveSouth Curve to the left or the right of the computer. Even the TwelveSouth is $60, much cheaper than a 1080p or 4K monitor and it simplifies Windows or MacOS having to try to resolve windows between the internal screen and multiple screens in the office or at home. It just simplifies operations and cuts down on support calls to help people with monitors and docking stations, which, particularly on Macs, can be a real pain point when people are working from home part of the day or week and then coming into the office for the other part. Also, docking stations make it so that people can work from any office and hot-swap. When we were working from the office for half the day and people swapping out at lunch time we would have an employee sit at the front desk if it was their turn to be in the office that day and still got to use the big monitor, keyboard, mouse, and ports from the Surface Docking station like they would in their own office.

Video is the new Default Conference Call

Teams Together Mode

Before 2020, we were still stuck in the world of conference lines because of institutional inertia and all of that has changed. Over the last year and half the quantity of high quality webcams and microphones have joined the office as standard requirement, especially since a lot of staff double as educators. Being able to Zoom from any conference room or classroom has become table stakes and when I have somebody inquire about a laptop upgrade they almost always inquire first about the quality or the webcam and microphone over the storage and memory on the computer.

Hybrid Learning is the new Default

OneNote app running in Teams

One thing that it appears that will also carry over from 2020 is the desire for more video and more interactive classrooms. Now all of our classrooms are required with high quality video cameras and microphones and we are currently working on better, easier ways for faculty and students to bring in their own personal tablets and laptops into the mix, as well as making remote students first-class citizens to those in the physical classroom. Microsoft, Google, and Zoom are all working on solutions to this idea of hybrid work/study, meaning that people can join a meeting from anyway. We’re just starting to see updates to software and now hardware that support these configurations and I’m looking forward to seeing how our classroom experiences evolve with time. On my bucket list is being able to capture whiteboards and other physical objects. I work for a design college so we use a lot of mediums in our classrooms that cannot always be showed properly on a PowerPoint or Keynote slideshow. It will be interesting to see how this goes forward because I do not see these things fading away as we start to go back to regular schooling in the fall semester.

Microsoft Teams is the new “Office”

Microsoft Teams chat on an iPhone and WIndows PC

While we still use Zoom for conference calls because that’s what everyone is used to after the last year, as we have started to go back into the office we have had people start to embrace Microsoft Teams for work chat, file collaboration, project management with Planner, and line-of-business processes with Microsoft Lists. I’ve seen a lot of cross-campus groups using Teams to collaborate on projects like grants, committees, and other projects now and people seem largely excited about it because it simplifies several tools into one platform that everyone at the university has access to and they do not have to learn half a dozen services to get their jobs done.

Azure Virtual Desktop are the new Computer Labs and First Year Computers

One scramble that my boss and coworkers had to do was built out virtual labs in Azure that allowed students to run our high-end software from home and its been a big success. Instead of hosting our own VMWare Horizon server on campus, we run the entire thing from the Azure cloud and can scale up and down depending on need. More importantly, it also levels the playing field with incoming students. Now you can use the virtual lab from any location with an internet connection using any computing device that will run the Microsoft Remote Desktop application or a HTML5 web browser, including Chromebook and iPads. We have been now telling students if they already have a computer from high school then they can continue to use that for the first year or two of college until they get into the professional program at my college. To be honest, there is nothing stopping them from using it for the 5 years they are in college so we shall see how that goes on. For our faculty, they can now request new software/plugin/update and we can get it rolled out to their classes in record time, often a couple of days or even hours after the request.

MDM is the new Default Device Management

Microsoft Endpoint Manager (Formerly Intune)

We were looking at Intune and Jamf before 2020, but this last year has really accelerated the need for it and its now part of our standard device configuration. Its really better for end-users and IT-alike. I can provide a quick white-glove experience that the device sets itself up when they pull it out of the box. This instill device-ownership and people really love that feeling like they are opening a present. From an IT perspective, it allows us to inventory, manage, and keep tabs on the machine from wherever. With the rise of malware, removing local admin is becoming a must and MDM solutions like Intune and JAMF allow IT to provide an application store that people can pull down software from. Heck, I’ll even approve stuff like the Xbox app or Netflix app if it stops people from surfing the web to sketchy websites or trying to download games on their work devices from sketchy websites. But like all things in IT, I believe that whatever you take away (Local Admin), needs to be replaced with something better. That’s why I’m working so that we can use these MDM solutions to build a library of software that people can request for their computing devices that we can vet, purchase, acquire, and deploy quickly. I want Windows, Macs, and iPads to be like Apple’s App Store in the sense that they are secure, but people feel comfortable making requests from us for applications. I much rather somebody come to me for help with their devices so I can help guide them to secure solutions rather than them go off the reservation and start doing their work on their own personal devices, personal cloud services, personal email addresses, and now with 5G, personal networks. The reality of the situation is any information system is as weak as the human link. I rather be a bridge to a safer, easier, and more secure computing experience than try to be Dark Vader and have people slip through my fingers as I start to tighten my grip.

Power PlatformReplacing Line-of-Business Processes

As we have started to return to the office full time, people have been starting to re-exam how they do things. At the start of COVID, we end completely paperless and as an extension of that, people have been looking at their other processes that they did by hand with paper or even Microsoft Office apps like Excel or Word. Over the last couple of months I have been introducing Microsoft Bookings, Planner, and Lists as modern tools that are more adaptive than a plain-old Excel spreadsheet that is only available to one person a a time. Microsoft Lists in particular is a platform that I am building out for a lot of offices on campus for everything from Travel Forms to lightweight Thesis Databases. The web applications are more flexible in how they present data, accept data, are searchable, instantly update across Teams, and have great mobile applications.

Wrapping things up

So, those are my observations after the last 15 months of having to react and reinvent large parts of IT in Higher EDU. Its definitely been a journey and I feel like we’re just on the beta phases for a lot of this stuff, particularly the hybrid classrooms and modern work platforms like Microsoft Teams. It will be interesting to see what lessons we take forward after this really trying time. I’m looking forward to IT conferences this year with Microsoft Ignite and Jamf to see what future hardware and software I can provide to my people to make their lives better. I work in IT and find all of this fascinating, but I know most people do not, they just want their stuff to work and it to be a great experience. It’s a lot of work to get to that point, but I find it very rewarding and its been one of the things that keeps me looking forward to what I’m working on every week when I come into the office physically or digitally.

-Hobie 🦖

IT Support Specialist V and Spring Hill College graduate who loves all things tech. If it has a flashing LED it has my immediate attention.