Illinois State University Chief Technology Officer Charley Edamala described it as the calm before the storm, as the extended spring break tapered down. The global pandemic has disrupted face-to-face education at most universities in the United States. Classes at ISU resume online Monday.
Edamala said his division has been preparing for the event for three years, though planners had thought tornados were a more likely eventuality to force the shift.
Among the decisions, Edamala said, were how to estimate how much capacity will be enough.
“I broke it down from the back-end systems, the systems the students use all the time; email, the learning management system – we call it ReggieNet, the system they need to register for classes and so forth,” said Edamala.
He said most of the systems are in the cloud and that makes it easier.
“If we needed to increase capacity quickly and if they were sitting in my data center I would have to look for servers to raise capacity. But, since they are in the cloud, most of them are sitting on Amazon Web Services. Amazon has the ability to put in servers very quickly. So, if we give them 24-hours’ notice they will bump up capacity,” said Edamala.
Edamala says ISU decided to act preemptively and doubled the capacity for ReggieNet.
“Right now we are aiming for about 15,000 students to hit the system at the same time. And if the system can’t handle it, we will bump it up to 22,000 or 23,000 students,” said Edamala.
ISU never hit the top end of the previous cap of 7,000 simultaneous student users. Average usage was about 3,000 students, he said.
“This is where we are in unknown territory. We don’t know how many students will hit all at the same time. We project that through usage and the 21,000 students we have and say two-thirds will use at once.”
The past is a partial guide.
“One of the biggest usage periods is grade release. That is when all 21,000 students try to hit the systems all at the same time to see their grades. This happens around December. So, we watched that number and sized bandwidth based on that number. Now, each system is different. Checking for grades is a one time hit. Reggienet would be a more prolonged hit. So, we look for those factors as well,” said Edamala.
Many universities are ramping up in the same fashion, raising questions about nationwide capacity. With "shelter in place" orders happening in some states, people will be using more bandwidth at home as well. Is there the infrastructure backbone to support this?
“That is a question. That is a good question! One of the first things we did is we reached out to our providers, say Zoom for example. The video service. And we asked them look we know everyone is going to jump on this at the same time. And the answer they gave us was they have been planning for this for a long time and they will be able to handle the load. We have to go by what they say, right?” said Edamala.
He acknowledged students will encounter different issues with their home internet services and circumstances will vary depending on what happens in a given neighborhood.
“We don’t know how bad it’s going to be. We have people guessing,” said Edamala.
He noted K-12 students will also be trying to take e-classes and may be streaming and it’s possible home internet connections will be disrupted.
“Honestly, I will be able to tell you more on Wednesday after we go through a couple of days of this,” said Edamala.
Not all faculty are created equal in technological savvy. Some will push more than others and have a better idea of online education techniques. There are varying methods and varying tech needs for the campus. He said there have been a lot of meetings.
“I heard of one possibility of a chemistry lab that would be streamed online for first year students. I have heard about voiceover PowerPoint that’s going to be done. I heard about synchronous teaching, that is live teaching. I think everyone is trying their best to make the experience for the students as good as they can,” said Edamala. “They are going to push their knowledge to the limit, not necessarily the technology to the limit.”
He said there is only so much someone can learn about new technology in two or three days.
“I think supporting them (faculty) is going to be one of our challenges. A lot of people will be trying to figure out Zoom or figure out Reggienet for the very first time, said Edamala.
He said ISU has a tiered support system. The university help desk will take calls. Further up the chain of need, IT staff will play a big part. He said the campus will also have peer faculty to support colleagues as well, said Edamala.
“So far everyone is willing to try what is basically a big adventure to try and figure this out.”
Some faculty have noted students tend to zone out after a period of certain kinds of tech-based presentation. Professors have been working on ways to become more effective. Instructional course designers are in high demand right now.
“To be honest, I don’t think we have enough instructional designers to do all this work for the faculty, so they will have to do this as they go along,” said Edamala.
Some scholars said they believe this forced adoption will permanently change the face of higher education and do more than just make it easier to do this during some future need. Edamala said he is more cautious.
“Teaching is very complex, especially at a university. I would say this sharp learning curve they are going through right now, is not optimal. And if they do pick up one of two things they can use later in their teaching, I would be excited about it,” said Edamala.
Y2K was a big lift, Edamala said, but this is bigger. In 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic there was no Zoom. During Hurricane Katrina there was no widespread online education capacity at all. This is unprecedented territory.
He said peer institutions who have begun online instruction tell him to expect a lot of phone calls.
“If a university of our size and our reputation is not able to go online in some form, shame on us,” said Edamala.