A Technology Support Model for Challenging Times

Technology support requirements in higher education are escalating, but the resources available to meet these needs are not. How d'es a campus balance these two realities?

In many ways, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania has typical issues and challenges regarding support: more requests for service than people and time available to address them, less technology than demanded, and increasing sophistication and expectations of the client community. In searching for answers, it looked as if no one good idea or best practice would address these challenges. Many approaches would have to be adapted to Edinboro's environment and culture.

Environmental Factors

With a new president in 1996, a new campus priority emerged—enhancing technology campuswide. By many measures, Edinboro University was considered "behind" in providing a comprehensive computing environment for students, faculty, and staff. With this new priority came the resources and an expectation to improve conditions at the university. As a result, the support structures for information systems, desktop and lab computing, networking, telephones, and distance education were organized under one umbrella dubbed Technology and Communications, which was responsible to the president through an associate vice president. As a new, and integrated, support structure, it represented an opportunity to change the orientation of both the staff and the perceptions of the user community. Before that time, although there were many good individual efforts by staff, the organization overall had a negative reputation. Thus, the challenge was to develop a support environment that responded to the needs of the campus (by both deploying new technology and supporting it), improve the perception of the user community, and restore the morale of the technology support staff members.

Assessing the environment, particularly its culture, leadership, and values, was a key component for developing a successful strategy. With the new leadership came new a new paradigm for change—one that articulated a vision embraced by the campus community. It was within this new environment that our model was to function.

A New Support Structure

We began by organizing into three teams: Enterprise Systems (centralized information systems), Networks and Telecommunications, and Desktop Systems and Learning Technology (DSLT). To provide some focus and shared understanding, a wide-ranging task force was established, with both internal and external members, to develop a mission statement for Technology and Communications. The mission statement continually orients our work toward our "reason for being" and overlays our planning and implementation of initiatives.

With the bulk of the support calls coming into the staff members from DSLT, and no organizational tool to address these support needs systematically, a help desk solution was sought by that team. A student employee phone bank was put in place to field the initial calls, and PHD help desk software was deployed. As a Web-based tool, we were able to add extensions to allow campus users to look up the status of their calls. Eventually, PHD was replaced with an application created by a team member that allows individuals to submit their help desk calls via the Web. The use of the help desk was expanded by its adoption by the Networks and Telecommunications staff.

The help desk's greatest value is that of a tool to manage the flow of work into the operation. Before its use, campus employees called anyone and everyone in the office to try to find someone to help them. If they did not receive a satisfactory answer, they often called back and tried someone else. By directing the campus to contact the help desk, and assuring them that their problem will be addressed, staff members can now spend more time solving problems—and finding ways to prevent them—with less redundancy and overlap. Since boundaries have been established for the campus community, its members better know what to expect and how to access services. It is no longer a matter of who you know, but a standard protocol that everyone understands. A department liaison program is now being piloted to offer yet another dimension to technology support.

Communication and Customer Service

Similarly, the range of services offered by Technology and Communications were not well communicated. A set of Service Guides is being developed to address this deficiency. Also known as Terms of Service, this approach provides a documented explanation of what the service is and how it is offered. Again, by defining the boundaries of service, user expectations are not out of line with the resources available to support them.

Along the lines of communication, committees for each team were initially set up with a broad range of employees installed as members. The difficulty, we found, was that the committee participation varied widely and there was rarely an opportune time to hold the meetings. This approach was abandoned in favor of holding open meetings, once per semester. Any member of the campus community is welcome to attend and hear an update on the progress of initiatives as well as to ask questions or make comments. Student input is sought and received at periodic presentations by the Student Government Association. A Teaching and Learning with Technology Roundtable was established to bring together faculty who are interested in sharing ideas about technology integration, and provide them with a forum to help Technology and Communications serve them better.

A customer service emphasis has been placed on all staff interactions with our client base. As a "student-centered environment," it is stressed that our students should be treated like customers. Similarly, staff who access our services to assist students are indirect customers. A variety of staff were sent to customer service training, and they in turn held customer service sessions at our monthly staff meetings. To reinforce this emphasis, a two-dimensional survey has been conducted to assess the satisfaction with a variety of services we offer, including interactions with our employees.

Meeting the Community's Goals

The model used by Edinboro University to transform its technology support structure is not based on any one mode of support. Rather, the university seeks to find ways to leverage the resources it has to meet its goals within the culture, leadership, and values of the institution. It is the responsibility of the chief information technology officer to continually communicate this to both the staff and the campus community. It is understood that the resources available for technology support are limited, but are being put to the most productive use possible. By connecting students, faculty, and staff to one another and to the resources and support they need to function effectively, people better understand limitations if and when they encounter them. The support organization is not trying to be "all things to all people"—a recipe for failure. Rather, it is positioned as a responsive, involved component of the university that is striving to provide access to the technology and tools that help members of the campus community reach their goals.

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