IT Trends | Feature

Beyond Buy-in

In order to give a much-needed boost to campus tech support, Central Michigan University's IT department mobilized an interdepartmental team of experts to evaluate and implement a system that has delivered greater efficiency and expanded IT's reach well beyond its previous capabilities.

As its student body became more and more geographically dispersed, Central Michigan University (CMU) of Mt. Pleasant had to come up with a way to provide technology support to its growing base of non-traditional students, as well as faculty and staff.

Previously, the 25,000-student institution used onsite visits to handle the job--a strategy that proved unviable in today's distance education age. Add in the fact that tech-savvy students have come to expect online forms of support, such as chat, and it was clear that CMU needed a better system.

"We noticed that our online enrollment was growing tremendously," said
Jeffrey McDowell, help desk manager for CMU's Office of Information Technology. Between 2005 and 2007, for example, the school's online enrollment doubled, making the task of "supporting online students from anywhere" challenging for the institution, said McDowell.

"It's really a double challenge because on one hand students have to connect to the school and access learning materials," he explained, "and on the other they aren't in close proximity to us, so they can't just bring in their laptops or have a technician run over to their classrooms to solve technology problems."

To close those gaps, McDowell said, CMU began searching for a tool that would tackle both sides of the problem and alleviate the "long, impossible process of solving those issues via telephone," he said. "That was the overriding theme as we launched this initiative."

Mike Reuter, director of technology operations for CMU's College of Education, said the school also needed a way to support non-traditional students who attend class in the evenings and on the weekends, when the IT department isn't open or available to provide live support. "That was another important group that we needed to reach," said Reuter.

McDowell said the selection process for the help desk solution started with a CMU 2010 Initiative grant request (a $5 million vision fund established to support specific projects). A team of 13 individuals from various departments was assembled and charged with reviewing the options and making the final selection.

"We got together as a group and orchestrated a democratic process of putting together vendor requirements, interviewing vendors, selecting a vendor, and launching the implementation," said McDowell, who credited the selection team with much of the project's success.

"By putting all of these knowledgeable, tech-savvy people together, we were able to cover pretty much every aspect of the technology," said McDowell. "We headed off any major technical problems well in advance; by the time we were ready to move forward, everyone knew exactly what we were looking at."

CMU's 13-person selection team was divided into smaller, "more agile groups," said McDowell, and each of those newly formed project teams tackled different aspects of the process. McDowell and several others served as the leaders of their respective project teams, each of which went about outlining the implementation steps and developing a set of requirements that had to be met. "There were so many details to cover," said McDowell. "By breaking down into smaller groups, we were able to handle it pretty efficiently."

Each member of the selection committee brought his or her own expertise and requirements to the table. For example, Tim Gramza, manager of technology at CMU's College of Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences, zeroed in on solutions that provided collaborative tools for users.

"I really felt that we needed to be able to collaborate on the different levels of technical support that are available here on campus," said Gramza. "If, for example, the help desk was the student's first contact, I wanted to see a solution that could automatically advance the case to the appropriate technician."

Jeremy Bond, learning management system administrator, said he was most interested in a solution that was easy for users to access, regardless of which computer, device or operating system was being used. "We wanted dual-platform accessibility," Bond explained, "and we wanted to avoid systems that relied on programs like ActiveX."

After sending out requests for proposals and reviewing the options being offered by numerous vendors, CMU's selection committee chose a remote support solution developed by Bomgar. The system allows users to remotely (and securely) receive support for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux, as well as Blackberries and other smart phones.

Today, CMU has 110 support reps servicing the school's 5,000 employees and 25,000 students, both remote and on campus. Thanks to tools like the "click-to-chat" buttons that are integrated into its Web site and portal, the school has been able to lower its average tech support resolution time by more than 50 percent, said McDowell, while also reducing its escalation rate (the rate at which calls are referred to the "next level" of support, and/or a supervisor).

Gramza, whose college is one of the largest on CMU's campus, said the remote solution has proved particularly useful in serving students and faculty who are "somewhat distributed geographically," as well as distance learners. "The fact that we no longer have to send a technician from our main office to the satellite buildings that we support," said Gramza, "has made our team more efficient."

Looking back on the detailed selection process used for CMU's remote support systems, McDowell said the formation of a committee and the subsequent project groups played a significant role in the successful implementation. Reuter concurred and advised all institutions to use a similar approach when undertaking technology plans of all shapes and sizes.

"This approach works for small-scale projects all the way up to campus-wide implementations," said Reuter. "When you get everyone at the table, you can effectively leverage all of the skill sets and knowledge that you wouldn't otherwise have in one place."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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