The Michigan Daily sat down with Ravi Pendse, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at the University of Michigan, over a phone call on May 22 to discuss remote learning, online safety and mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: To provide some context, what is the role of ITS in the University community? What does the job entail?
Ravi Pendse: It’s about creating new knowledge, it’s about sharing that knowledge and it’s about archiving that knowledge. And when we think about all three of these activities, one of the themes that ties them all together is the technology that is needed to do many of those things and also enhance the many things that we do…. So what Information Technology Services does is, it provides the resources and support to the entire U-M community to help them do the amazing research that occurs and the incredible teaching that happens everyday.
TMD: The University has now completed the winter semester, transitioning from in-person to remote learning. What has ITS’ role been in the transition to remote learning amid COVID-19? What were some of the challenges that ITS has faced and overcome to ensure students can access a safe, secure educational experience?
RP: Within a matter of a few days, we literally held hundreds of Canvas and all other technology training sessions so that our faculty members and students who needed help, had help available. We created a remote resources working website that contains all the information about working from home, what tools are available, what training sessions are available through video format and live sessions….So, typically a person could just go to one site and have all the information that they needed. And ITS has really been at the frontline to support the digital learning environment.
When the University changed their grading policy to Pass/(No Record Covid) in the winter semester, our ITS student administration team had to reprogram the system to allow for that. We spent many hours in the Help Center so that people can call in and get help. Our accessibility group worked to make sure the content that we produce is accessible to those with hearing aids and other challenges by turning on speech recognition in the video.
TMD: Zoombombing has become a widely known concern across the country since shifting to online learning. What precautions is the University taking to protect its students online? How do you plan on ensuring these breaches don’t occur in the future?
RP: First of all, Zoombombing is not necessarily a breach. It’s basically someone coming into a meeting that they were not supposed to. And the reason why they are able to come in, is because in some cases, these are public meetings, so the information is publically shared. And for that, we shared special training in how you can secure your call.
I always like to say that “it takes a village to keep us secure.” So I want to say again, it takes the entire University of Michigan to keep us secure. Our security is as good as each one of us, so everyone of us is responsible … If you see something strange happening, you’ve got to report it right away so we can take the proper action and make sure that if there’s a problem, we can fix it. The only way we can stay secure is by working collaboratively with the entire University community.
TMD: Students from the University are now living in different places with varying access to internet, technology and resources necessary for remote learning. What steps is ITS taking to ensure that all students have equal access to these resources, and therefore equal educational opportunities?
RP: In our remote resources website, we identified many providers, in many different areas who have made internet service available for free. We also enhanced the Wi-Fi coverage in many outdoor parking lots, so people can potentially access the internet from their car. So, not the most ideal environment but these strange times call for all types of things we can do. We also worked with some providers to provide cost-effective access to Wi-Fi hotspots….We saw this as an opportunity to bring the community together, work together and support each other.
TMD: What are some tips that you would recommend to the University community to protect their identities online, especially now when their connection to the world is almost entirely through their laptop screens?
RP: Make sure that if you are doing any banking transactions that involve personal identifying information, that you’re using all security precautions available, meaning two-factor authentication for example. If you’re on Facebook or Instagram, I usually encourage people to not put too many things on social media that could personally identify themselves because oftentimes, malicious individuals are also well-trained (and) can try to pick up a data point from Facebook, another data point from Instagram and a data point from a third common site, and try to connect those data points to learn more about you. And that can really compromise your identity. Using strong passwords is important … All this information is available on our website for how to stay safe online.
TMD: How do you see the use of technology in higher education changing in the coming years and how do you think the pandemic has altered its use?
RP: What I do believe is that it is going to make us all stronger in terms of how we do everything. And it’s going to actually enhance how we create knowledge, how we share and apply knowledge. Technology enables instruction and makes us all stronger. What I feel is that technology-enabled instruction will never replace the residential experience when we all are together because there’s things that you learn in-person, such as having that discussion in a seminar class face-to-face, having those arguments and making your point. While online is playing a great role, the residential experience is very special. Both have tremendous value and, going forward, we might combine parts of both online and in-person experience to create a hybrid experience for all of us that will enhance our world and how we learn.
TMD: This COVID-19 pandemic has raised multiple concerns surrounding mental health problems. How do you suggest the community remain mentally positive during this remote period?
RP: When you are isolated, one has to make an effort to reach out to people that you normally hangout with and make a phone call or video meeting. Have the meeting with others if you are able to socially distance yourself. From time to time, I will reach out to many of my staff members and simply ask them, “Hey, how are you doing?” It’s only two minutes of asking them if they’re fine, but it can make a world of difference to the other person because we don’t really know what the other person is going through. These kinds of touchpoints are really important for each other.
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