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Speeding Up IT Support

The secret to improved IT services at Valdosta State University involves training student workers, establishing a service catalog, adopting new technologies and more.

Valdosta State University in Georgia has achieved a 15-minute response time for second-tier information technology service — even while reducing costs. How? A new Technical Response Unit (TRU) program takes advantage of numerous technologies and operational changes to improve IT support on campus.

The university serves approximately 11,000 students and employs around 1,500 faculty and staff. From an IT perspective, it supports about 4,000 PCs in 235 classrooms and labs. As with many other educational institutions, VSU was trying to figure out how to support increasing levels of technology on a shrinking budget. "To be able to continue that level of growth yet maintain the same service and support levels, we had to figure out better ways to utilize our existing resources," said Benjamin Li, tier 1 coordinator for the IT department.

To achieve that goal, Sterlin Sanders, assistant director of IT/TSS (Technical Support Services), and his team launched TRU. The program trains student lab assistants to take on greater responsibilities, including regularly scheduled preventative maintenance visits. It also established TRU centers around campus and a service catalog to prioritize and help delegate IT service requests. Valdosta's IT department also adopted several new technologies to support the TRU program, including remote video cameras, a remote help desk system and two-way radios.

Turning Students Into Technicians

The university employs students as lab assistants, a position that pays $14,000 per year. In the past, the job had few requirements. Students spent their entire work shift in a single lab and could do their homework while they monitored the equipment and the people going in and out, according to Sanders. The TRU program transformed these students into technicians by providing them with the necessary training and resources for their enhanced responsibilities.

"We wanted to ensure they were resourced properly, trained properly, and had not only the technical knowledge but the customer service skills to roll them into that support process and better utilize their services," said Li.

The training begins with a one-week orientation and then teaches students the specifics of their new job. After the initial training, students shadow a more experienced technician for a week, and then the training concludes with an evaluation of their performance.

Preventative Maintenance Visits

Once the student technicians have completed their training, they become active members of the IT team. Their new responsibilities include preventative maintenance visits to the computer labs and classrooms at the beginning and end of each day, and every couple of hours throughout the day. During each visit, the student technician goes through a checklist, which includes making sure the printer is working, refilling the printer paper and making sure other equipment such as projectors or sound systems is working and ready for the next class.

"By being routinely proactive, checking the classrooms, checking the labs, stopping by the faculty and staff offices, rather than having to contact IT to request help, we've seen a tremendous reduction in the work orders," said Sanders.

Campuswide TRU Centers

Since the student technicians are no longer based in the computer labs, they needed a center of operations that would let them get to the labs quickly when needed. "The secret is not keeping all of the student technicians in one location, but actually having different TRU center locations to maintain that 15-minute response time based on the size of our campus," said Sanders. The university has already established several TRU centers and plans to add more as the program expands.

Service Catalog

Another key component of Valdosta's faster IT service is its service catalog, which is like a triage manual for IT service requests. It describes and categorizes the various types of IT service requests that the help desk receives, and when a request comes in, staff can look it up in the catalog. Minor requests, such as installing a keyboard or mouse, can be handled quickly and easily, so the help desk dispatches a student technician to handle the request right away, while more major service requests go to the Technical Support Services team.

IP Cameras

The new responsibilities of the student technicians meant they could no longer monitor equipment in the computer labs full-time. In their place, the IT department installed the Pelco Endura Camera System, which allows the team to keep an eye on the labs remotely. The system includes IP cameras in the labs and classrooms, so a single student technician can watch over multiple rooms at the same time.

According to Li, the IP cameras have enabled technicians to identify unreported issues with computers. "A lot of the time when a student goes to a computer that's not working, they won't report that issue," said Li. "Instead they'll just move over to the next available computer. With the Endura system, we can see that behavior and know it's time for somebody to go over and take a look at that particular machine."

Two-Way Radios

When a technician spots an issue, or when somebody in a lab reports a problem with a computer, a member of the IT team can radio a technician to respond to the request. The team adopted the two-way radios from Hasty's Communication after giving up on netbooks, cell phones and other mobile devices for that purpose. The wireless network wasn't available everywhere on campus, and cell phones were expensive and easy to lose or break. "With the Hasty's radio system, we have a 40-mile radius of communication, and there's no interference from obstacles such as elevators or buildings with cement walls," said Sanders. "That has transformed our communication abilities."

Remote Support System

The IT department uses the Bomgar Remote Support System, which lets IT staff log in to a computer remotely over the network to resolve software issues or chat with computer users looking for assistance. The university's computers have a "Bomgar button" on the screen, which lets people request help with a single click. "That puts them into chat with the technician, and from there, they can initiate the remote session if needed," said Li. The Bomgar system can also record the support sessions, and the university uses those recordings to help train IT staff, including student technicians.

Reduced Response Times

The team launched the TRU pilot program in August 2014 and it has been fully operational since January 2015. Ninety-six percent of the university's second tier IT support requests now have a response time of 15 minutes or less from the time a student, faculty or staff member makes a request to the time the technician arrives on site, and the team is working toward achieving that response time with 100 percent of those second tier requests.

Cost Savings

According to Sanders and Li, the TRU program has the potential to save the university a significant amount of money by reducing the number of student technicians and making better use of technology. "We were looking at $26,000 over the three month pilot, in terms of potential cost savings," said Li. He described the savings as potential "because we haven't let those folks go. We're waiting for attrition, so as those student assistants graduate, we won't be refilling those positions."

Response from Student Technicians and VSU Community

Of the 10 student technicians that were part of the initial pilot program, six have now graduated, and according to Sanders, the skills and experience they gained through the TRU program have helped them land jobs at companies such as Apple, HP and CareerBuilder. "Now we're empowering these students to be able to amplify their resume," said Sanders.

The VSU community has been enjoying the improved service, according to Sanders and Li. The student technicians prevent little technological annoyances by doing their regular rounds and going through their checklist, and when a problem does crop up, they arrive on site quickly to deal with it. The program has also freed up the Technical Support Services team to focus their time and effort on more challenging problems.

"By developing a system in which the student technicians can handle those repetitive checklists, it reduces the work order load on our Technical Support Services team and it allows them to focus more on the extensive services, such as having to install hardware components or reimage an entire lab or things that are really time consuming — and also get involved with more research and development and designing of our classrooms and labs," said Sanders.

"One of our goals as a university is to be able to recruit, retain and complete as many students as possible," said Li. "By ensuring that the technology is functional for both the faculty teaching in the classroom as well as students working on their homework in a computer lab, it really makes a difference in them being satisfied with the IT services overall."

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