Ohio University

OHIO student employees engage campus, community tech needs remotely

Published: October 7, 2020 Author: Nick Fraunfelter

If there were any question about the significance of technology in education before the arrival of COVID-19, the value of devices and connectivity in learning is now unquestionable. In Athens, OHIO’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) has empowered its student employees to continue to address the digital learning needs of students and educators while working remotely.

The Student Software Engineering Program (SSEP) made a smooth transition to off-campus student work. A cohort-based program that partners with the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, the SSEP provides students studying computer science the opportunity to gain hands-on experiences that enhance job placement after graduation while supporting and improving university services.

When OHIO announced in March that it was closing campus to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus, SSEP coordinator Robert Foreman shifted the program fully online.

“We didn’t lose a single student through the transition,” says Foreman. “Most did not miss any previously scheduled hours.”

Students in the SSEP develop skills in a variety of technologies, computer languages, and applications including GitHub, Python, Node.js, and TypeScript. Following the transition to remote learning, the cohort, along with the rest of the OHIO community, added Microsoft Teams to their digital toolkit.

“Since moving online, we’ve had to make better use of Microsoft Teams and JIRA for collaboration with the students,” explains Foreman. “Each cohort is assigned a mentor from my Software Engineering Team, and, on average, students work between 10 and 15 hours per week throughout the school year depending on their academic schedule.”

Student works at OIT Service Desk
Ohio University student Keaton Huffman works for the IT Service Desk repairing hardware on computers of faculty, staff, and students.

SSEP students not only learn valuable skills that prepare them to enter the workforce, but also engage with professional mentors and participate in customer meetings with university constituents, all while earning a paycheck. In fact, some students in the program were able to increase their work hours to offset COVID-related cutbacks of summer internships and employment.

“The internship that I had planned to last three months had been shortened to one month [due to COVID], but luckily SSEP was able to have me in the other months,” say Tyler Warner, a senior computer science major. “Working remotely has been seamless, and my favorite part is that we’re working on actual applications to be put in production and used by students like us.”

Another OIT team has expanded not only its work modality, but also its clientele. OHIO’s IT Service Desk employs both full-time staff and student employees to assist campus members with technology needs, from laptop setup and repair to software installation and tutorials. While some OHIO students and employees venture to the Bobcat Depot for in-person assistance, the IT Service Desk is used to fielding calls to solve tech problems, a skill that has been put to good use amid the coronavirus school closures.

In mid-March, when higher education institutions around the country closed their campuses, Athens City Schools also moved coursework online to combat the spread of COVID-19. Students of all ages, and their families, were tasked with navigating technology like Chromebooks and WIFI hotspots, many for the first time. Enter the OHIO IT Service Desk.

“When the pandemic hit in April, not only were we able to move our entire staff to full-time remote work, we decided to offer assistance to Athens City Schools for their technology needs as well,” says Mary Jeffreys, OIT Service Desk Manager. “We fielded questions and calls through the end of May, and now that classes have resumed, since early August.”

The OHIO IT Service Desk has received over 70 calls from Athens City School constituents since the program began in the spring, and the student employees are experiencing customer service on a new level.

Student working on computer
Student Tara Purdy repairs computer hardware.

Lauren Scurlock, a junior biological sciences major who works for the IT Service Desk, has valued her remote work with the local community.

“My experience has been positive, and I feel thankful to have kept my job during this difficult time,” says Scurlock. “I am happy to do what I can [to help the Athens City School District]. And with the switch to online classes, we’ve been extremely busy. Everyone has been patient with us as we are all learning and adapting to this new way of learning.”

On Sept. 8, Ohio University announced the second part of its phased reopening, which safely returned more populations to campus for in-person instruction, including faculty, staff, and some students. This new dynamic presents a new set of challenges, however, as faculty work to engage both on-campus and remote learners, sometimes in the same class section.

In addition to solving individual tech inquiries, the IT Service Desk is training its student workforce to assist faculty with the potential technology pitfalls of hybrid learning. After completing the OHIO Pledge and the university’s mandatory online coronavirus safety training, OIT Service Desk student employees will be on call to help connect webcams and microphones, initiate Microsoft Teams meetings, and record lectures and labs.

“OIT as a whole helped prepare the classrooms for hybrid classes,” says Jeffreys. “Now our student employees can keep them running smoothly.”