Transition to remote learning different but not overwhelming for campus IT

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The job went from providing technology services to a portion of staff and students to providing a way for all students and faculty to continue the semester.

By Noah Alcala Bach

Information Technology Director Usha Venkat has worked for the district 27 years, 12 of those at this campus. 

When Alamo College campuses were facing shutdown in March amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Venkat was responsible for making the transition to remote learning happen.

It was an abrupt change to her typical duties, but Venkat says it didn’t come with an overly intense workload.

Information Technology Director Usha Venkat. File photo

“I wouldn’t say that it’s significantly increased. I would say it’s just different,” Venkat said. “The role that our department plays is quite different and we want to make sure that our facility, staff and students have access to our online learning.”

While the district manages general systems the colleges use, such as maintaining Canvas or controlling the Banner system, Venkat and her team oversee technology needs specific to this campus.

Under normal circumstances, this includes providing training, making sure labs are properly equipped and overseeing the campus tech store.

Venkat said the team had to transform their thinking on how and what can be done remotely.

“My entire team has been very agile, very flexible with each taking on new roles,” Venkat said. “I’m really proud of my team and how they’ve all come together for the common cause of supporting our employees and students.”

Venkat said the biggest struggle is some students and staff members have limited access to technology. The college sought to address the problem with daily laptop pickups from March 31 to April 3 for actively enrolled students. They will continue April 6-9.

“We wanted to make sure everyone had the access to be able to successfully complete their classes online,” she said. “There are a lot of students and employees who did not have the technology to immediately jump into this phase.

But I think it’s sort of settling down, we are not getting as many requests right now as we did a couple of weeks back. We literally had tons of people needing laptops. That was the biggest need.”

Venkat said Dr. Thomas Cleary, vice chancellor for planning, performance and information systems, provided a lot of assistance and resources in addition to the laptops. The district also created “boot camps” to train students, faculty and staff on how to transition to remote learning.

Alamo Colleges existing online education presence smoothed the transition to remote learning.

“We are fortunate, unlike many other institutions we already have a big online education footprint,” Venkat said. “We have the online tools in place. It’s just a matter of expansion and leveraging it.”

Under President Robert Vela’s direction, Venkat designed a webpage called “Be Remote Ready” that includes resources and information on remote learning.

Visitors to the San Antonio College website are redirected to “Be Remote Ready” via cookies.

“Be Remote Ready” links to pages that assist students, faculty and staff with remote learning, including information about online meeting software Zoom, additional resources and contact information.

The pages can be found below the President’s Welcome section, which includes a video of Vela’s minute-long formal address to the college.

The webpage also includes district-specific alerts on COVID-19.

Remote learning is a temporary solution, but could remain necessary for a longer than initially thought. Venkat and her team are ready for that possibility.

“Once we understand the needs, then we’ll be able to frame a solution for them,” she said. “The most important thing is for people to be vocal about their needs and not keep it to themselves.”

Venkat also talked about how the IT world’s focus on disaster recovery has prepared her to work in this situation. The responsibility to keep remote learning operational motivates her and the IT team as they work through the pandemic.

“That’s the thing that wakes me up every single day and I feel like I’m really making a great contribution to society, and I’m feeling really good about myself,” Venkat said. “I’m just hoping that the whole world is safe at the end of this.”


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