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Welcoming BYOD on Campus

The Support Office manager at the University of York discusses the importance of fostering a culture that embraces mobile devices, while also setting realistic expectations.

University of York
The University of York's Support Office helps students connect their personal devices to school services and systems, keep apps up-to-date, use antivirus software, and store data correctly. (Photo courtesy of University of York)

At the University of York (UK), you can't swing a cat without hitting someone carrying a mobile device. The BYOD wave has engulfed the campus, with students bringing their own devices into the classroom, and professors and administrators expecting access to e-mail and other applications from their preferred operating systems.

While BYOD brings numerous benefits to campus users, it can be challenging from an IT support perspective. But it's not an issue that universities can duck. In fact, at York we believe in getting out ahead of the BYOD curve as a way to distinguish ourselves from other universities in the UK. With that goal in mind, we set out to reengineer our IT environment and to empower our support staff to say "yes" to more student and employee support requests, regardless of location or platform.

This story appeared in the March 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology, with an exclusive video interview.

To put the burgeoning demand for wireless connectivity into context, consider this: Last fall, 2,115 devices were connected to the university's wireless network, including more than 700 iPhones, 400 Android devices, and 300 non-iPhone devices running iOS. For a school with an enrollment of just under 14,000 students, these numbers are certainly not unusual--indeed, they may even fall on the low side. But the rate at which these devices have joined the network has been astonishing and shows no signs of abating.

Based upon our experiences, support-load distribution and staff training are chief among the challenges of the BYOD trend. In our case, the service desk staff had been used to supporting only Windows machines. When we changed to multiplatform support, we ensured that training was available for staff on both Mac OS and Windows 7. We also bought a number of mobile devices--a MacBook Pro, an Android phone, and a number of iPads--for staff to use on their own time or for support purposes within the department. It's hard for staff to provide quality support for devices they have never used, so these acquisitions were vital.

Given the budget constraints facing higher education in the UK, we also knew that we weren't going to be able to employ more support staff and we worried that our workload might increase massively. In circumstances like these, you have to make hard decisions. In our case, we restricted support only to university-operated services and systems--such as e-mail--but don't provide help with problems such as a broken screen on a personal device. You have to draw the line about what you can and cannot do in order to set user expectations.

Tackling the BYOD challenge is not the sole task of the service desk either. Schools must ensure that they have buy-in from the entire IT department. Embracing mobile devices on campus entails a true cultural shift and can succeed only if the key stakeholders are on board. Even though the IT department at York has been very supportive, I still made a conscious effort to include all department members in the development of support policies, as well as providing them with access to the correct tools and devices for training.

While security does not fall under the umbrella of the Support Office, it is our role to educate our constituents about best practices. These include keeping applications and operating systems up to date, using antivirus software, and storing data correctly.

Remote Support
Even when schools do significant educational outreach, users are invariably going to encounter problems, and support services must have ways to assist them wherever they are. While most institutions have tools to support PCs across distributed campuses, many of these solutions aren't equipped to handle non-Windows devices or remote computers. This was certainly the case at York. So, as part of our decision to embrace mobility, we decided to re-evaluate our remote IT support system.

In 2010, we went through a procurement process, researching various market leaders for tools that could easily--and cost-effectively--provide the university with remote IT support. Ultimately, we selected Bomgar, since the company offered an out-of-the-box solution with no hidden, extra costs for mobile support. We were also impressed with its ease of use.

While supporting mobile devices was the original impetus behind our investment in remote support, the new technology has enabled a massive shift in our overall approach to IT. Our response time and customer satisfaction have improved. We no longer turn away users with genuine support requests simply because their devices don't run our supported Windows image. And now my team is equipped to deal with a host of day-to-day issues, ranging from connecting the virtual private network on a MacBook and adding networked drives to installing the university's cloud printing solution on a student's laptop in a dorm.

Aside from its use in the front line of support, remote support also helps us implement and support new technologies, which in turn have improved the user experience with the Support Office. The traditional PC desktop is evolving and becoming a mobile and virtual resource, allowing our users to access our desktops from a variety of devices, such as laptops, tablets, Chromebooks, and thin clients from anywhere in the world.

Virtual desktop infrastructure has been adopted at the university to complement and extend access to our Windows-based OS and applications suite and--in the near future--Linux-based OS and tools. While this service brings many benefits, it also poses new challenges in how we support the platform, the user base, and roaming devices accessing the technology. Our remote-support solution addresses this issue, allowing us to directly access and provide support to remote devices (e.g., tablet or laptop) and the virtual desktop or application. We can diagnose and resolve client-side configurations and any virtual platform issues effectively and efficiently.

4 Tips for Supporting BYOD

  • You can't ignore BYOD. It won't go away. The needs and expectations of the user base have changed rapidly over the past five to 10 years, and IT departments must move at the same pace. You need to embrace the BYOD phenomenon.
  • Secure a defined policy and support from senior management. Management can help the wider IT department buy into the vision of BYOD support and help with policy creation. A well-defined policy ensures that users know what support help they can--and cannot--expect. There will always be support needs that are not the responsibility of the IT department. You need to make clear to campus users what those areas are.
  • Get the whole IT department involved. Make sure IT staff know that the culture of BYOD support doesn't end at the help desk.
  • Train and support staff. Conduct both in-house and external training. There are always one or two staff members in an IT department with expertise in each OS. Tap into their knowledge by asking them to provide training to service desk colleagues and to produce user guides. It's also a good idea to buy newly released devices for staff to test so they are comfortable with their operation when support calls arrive.
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