This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 1 1999. The copyright is by EDUCAUSE and the author(s). See http://www.educause.edu/copyright for additional copyright information.
Connecting 500 Students in One Week!
by Marsha Maxwell
Each September, Bryant College’s information technology (IT) department is faced with the challenge of quickly and efficiently providing network connections for our students. Each year, there are more students, and more of them arrive with computers, so we know we must plan early and well to handle the increasing work load. Last fall, we used aspects of business process reengineering and a lot of "thinking outside the box" to connect more students than ever in a one-week time period. Most importantly, we had a team composed of students and IT professionals who worked together with a common goal. Our "Getting Connected 98" program was enhanced by a number of activities, described below, that we believe accounted for its success.
We started communicating with students long before they came to campus or even decided on Bryant, regarding the type of computer they should get if they were planning on purchasing one. (Bryant does not require students to own their own computers.) These communications emphasized the value of purchasing a computer with a network card installed, as our goal was to have as many student-owned computers as possible with installed cards. Once students decided on Bryant, we continued the same theme at orientation and in mailings that were sent to their home.
The next phase of the communication process was to let students know what to do once they arrived on campus, so we created a flyer explaining the Getting Connected program. To make sure every student got the information, the flyer was placed on each desk in the freshman residence halls, as well as posted in public areas. Our approach was to "keep it simple" and "make it complete." We identified the steps that were required to get a network connection and referred students for further information to a special Web site that describes network connections in the residence halls (RESNET) and to an IT department video that runs continuously on the College cable TV. The video explains everything about the telephone, cable TV, and RESNET, including the types of recommended network cards and an actual demonstration of card installation.
Informational tables were set up in the freshman residence halls on moving day, and in the Rotunda--a natural gathering place on campus--the day before classes started. Having the tables as part of moving day proved to be successful. Once their computer was safely moved into their room, students found the informational table a logical place to stop. At the table was a representative from the IT department as well as a Resident Computer Consultant (RCC). Students were able to get answers to their questions as well as actually walk through the registration or Getting Connected process.
Our campus Web site has always been an excellent way to help students through the process. Over the course of the last three years, the RCCs have actually been responsible for the development of the RESNET Web page. This Web page (see http://www.bryant.edu/resnet) contains a wide range of information, from what to buy and how to register, to who the individual RCCs are and how to contact them. Last fall the Web page was expanded to include detailed instructions on the registration process, an updated registration form, and feedback to let students know if their registration was successfully completed or if additional information was needed. In addition, the Web page now includes a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section to assist students with troubleshooting some of their own desktop issues.
Making software available
Another connectivity challenge is to make the e-mail and Web browser software available to the students in such a fashion that even the non-technical ones won’t have a problem. We created an auto-start CD and made it available at our Help Desk. All a student has to do is put the CD in the CD drive and the program will do the rest, as the CD runs a custom application with a simple interface that allows the user to click the "Install Browser" button and proceed from there. All setup files and documentation reside on the CD-ROM. Previously, the student had to navigate to a specified directory on a file server, download the setup files, and run the installation for each program.
Even though we encourage students to come with a computer that already has a network card, some do not, so we devised a way to ensure timely card installation--a computer fair which runs three days a week for the month of September, designed specifically to help students install the cards. The students had the opportunity to bring a suggested network card along with their computer to the installation or they could purchase a card from the vendor onsite. This was done on an appointment-only basis. On the day of the appointment, the students dropped their computers off in the morning and were able to pick them up at the end of the day. The students paid the vendor directly for the network card. The CD played a role as well, allowing the vendor representatives to concentrate strictly on network card installations, ultimately cutting down on the number of hours they were required to be on campus. More adventuresome students can borrow the IT videotape or follow the instructions on the RESNET Web site and install the card themselves.
Remote port activation was key to improving the process of actually getting connected. Once a student registers, IT staff can activate the room port remotely. Tracking the number of users in the RESNET segment enabled the IT department to accurately assign personnel to support the RESNET as well as physically handle and plan for capacity requirements. Also, there are situations when IT employees need to track use on the RESNET segment and locate a particular user. To achieve remote post activation, all ports were deactivated during the summer, forcing students to register in order to have a connection in their room. All electronics were then configured for remote port activation.
To best serve the students in each of the residence halls, RCCs are assigned to each hall and can be contacted by the residents via e-mail or an automated phone system designed to lead residents to the appropriate RCC. Given the anticipated volume of incoming students, especially in the freshman class, a great deal of attention was paid to assigning back-up RCCs for each of the residence halls in order to handle any overflow or backup of work that would take place during the start of the school year. The back-up RCCs were responsible for helping to check messages, assisting with calls and appointments, and working side by side with the other RCCs to troubleshoot and resolve any problems in the residence halls. This system proved to be especially useful in the freshman halls and has remained in place throughout the year.
All RCCs were given additional tools to make their time more productive. The RCCs were given a CD made especially for them, called RESNET 98-99, which contains all of the software they need to help students. We also gave each RCC a laptop to use while working in the residence halls. This is useful for checking ports and for showing students how to use software for file sharing. RCCs can also download files for students using the laptop, then copy these files to a disk to help get a network card working that is not fully supported.
This year, for the first time we formally addressed the Resident Assistants (RAs) concerning the RCC program to familiarize RAs with the RCCs, improve communications between them, and allow RAs to help solve problems in the residence halls. A member of the IT department explained the entire RESNET process and identified the individual RCCs. As a follow up to this presentation, all RCCs have been asked to speak regularly at RA mandatory floor meetings during the course of the school year.
All in all, eleven new points were added to the Getting Connected process this year. The new business process, although not foolproof, was a dramatic improvement over last year, and we plan to continue to refine the process in years to come.
Marsha Maxwell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Executive Director of Information Technology at Bryant College.
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