As the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent in March, officials at The University of Texas at El Paso quickly strategized how to help thousands of their students to become online learners for the second half of the 2020 spring semester.
Among the key people entrusted to ensure a successful outcome were the members of the campus’ Division of Information Resources, which includes Technology Support, the University Library and Information Technology.
Teams within that division formulated a plan to provide students with the necessary technological resources and support to effectively complete the semester from wherever they were located.
This plan included loans of 252 laptops, 333 hotspots and software to students, as well as the production of numerous web tutorials to help novice distance learners understand how to use Blackboard, a learning management system (LMS); and Microsoft Teams, a video conferencing platform.
With the recent conclusion of the spring semester and summer sessions on the horizon, those involved in the struggle to supply and support students during this unique time voiced their pride in how they helped the students who gave distance learning a chance to have a positive academic experience.
“The work that we did was unprecedented,” said Frank Poblano, executive director of UTEP’s Technology Support group. “Our ability to adapt was put to the test. The situation was stressful, but I had no doubt that we would be successful.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of UTEP’s faculty used Blackboard primarily as a content repository to distribute course materials and post announcements.
In February, the University offered 1,900 courses through Blackboard. By the end of March, that number had jumped to almost 4,100, with a significant increase in the use of electronic assignments, electronic exams and video conferencing.
While faculty transitioned their classes from face-to-face to online, the Information Resources teams distributed technology to students and prepared staff to answer anticipated questions.
“The entire Information Technology support team has done a tremendous — in many ways miraculous — job of quickly transitioning UTEP to an online university for the spring and summer semesters,” said Gary Edens, Ed.D., vice president for student affairs. “Their creativity, technical knowledge and high-quality customer service have made a difficult situation a bit easier for our students and campus community.”
Nadia Morales, a second-year doctoral student in rhetoric and writing studies, said that her only concern came early in the transition. She said that there were some glitches with a video conferencing app, which made virtual classes difficult.
She contacted her professor and UTEP’s Help Desk and the problem was fixed.
“I usually complain about service, but this (Help Desk representative) was impressive,” Morales said. “Her work ethic was amazing. She spoke to the professor and called me back to make sure everything was working OK.”
Erica Carrillo, a senior biology major, said that she was comfortable with online learning but saw how some of her classmates struggled with the transition. She was grateful that Tech Support was available to assist them.
“I think they did a good job,” Carrillo said.
Sadie Guerrero, who will graduate this summer with a master’s degree in social work, said her major concern during the transition was her initial inability to get a statistical software platform to work. She needed the application to generate, compile and analyze data. After struggling in vain to download the platform onto her computer, she contacted Tech Support. A representative walked her through the installation process.
“Tech Support was extremely patient,” Guerrero said, adding that one of the greatest lessons she learned during the spring 2020 semester was that one should never be embarrassed to ask for help.
Lupe Valencia-Skanes, interim vice president for information resources, said the positive University-wide outcomes were the result of intense preparation, tenacity and collaboration.
“This was a huge lift for everyone,” Valencia-Skanes said. “I am proud of every employee within the Information Resources Division. The teams are dedicated to continuously improve the student experience.”
Lizette Gameros, director of support services under Tech Support, said her team answered more than 15,000 support requests from March 16 through May 13, 2020. This was an approximately 30% increase from normal.
The requests, which came via calls, emails and virtual chats, nearly tripled during the first few weeks of the transition when the main concerns were about Blackboard and the introduction of new technology tools needed for online education.
“We are very proud of the time, work and dedication that each person in our division has contributed to help with this transition,” said Gameros. “We hope that our efforts to support the UTEP community during this time have been helpful.”
David Ruiter, Ph.D., associate provost for strategic initiatives, called this an amazing moment in UTEP history because so many University employees who often toil in the background pulled together under difficult circumstances and used their talents and expertise to support faculty and students.
He saluted the students who often adapted well and quickly to online education, and the faculty members who ensured that their students remained confident in their ability to do their work well.
Ruiter said the silver lining to the forced conversion to digital education was that it enhanced the capabilities of the students and teachers. What was learned will be useful to everyone, but especially to students who will use various forms of this technology as they continue along their academic and professional paths.
“Nobody wanted this, but we will come out of this with some real growth in terms of pedagogy and the development of our teaching and learning community at UTEP, making our students even better prepared to take their next steps confidently,” Ruiter said.