By SUSAN JONES
Just as University faculty are adjusting to the new Flex@Pitt teaching model and the transition to the Canvas learning management system, another technology challenge is looming — the move from Box to OneDrive for file storage.
Updates on all of these issues were the topics of discussion at the Senate Computer and Information Technology Committee’s July 28 meeting.
While Mark Henderson, Pitt’s chief information officer, and Adam Hobaugh, deputy CIO, both think the installation of the technology needed to run Flex@Pitt is going “swimmingly,” Henderson still has concerns about the supply chain for the needed equipment.
“Every university in the country is trying to make the similar kind of pivot and lay claim to whatever technology is out there to achieve the same in their respective classroom spaces,” Henderson said.
Flex@Pitt involves having video equipment in classrooms that will allow for students and faculty to be in person or remote. For instance, a professor may be teaching from home to a classroom full of students as well as to students who choose to be remote.
Hobaugh said they’ve received positive feedback from a group of faculty members who were trying out the Flex@Pitt technology, including former Provost Patricia Beeson who is a professor in the Economics department. (See related story)
The Center for Teaching and Learning has created a Flex@Pitt playbook, is hosting more demonstrations this week and is creating videos to help faculty members make the adjustment to the hybrid learning system.
Pitt IT has partnered with Radiant Technologies for the in-classroom equipment, and Henderson said the company has been “a long time in the space and are really masters of their craft.”
“They’re building into each of the classrooms the ability to remotely monitor the technology in the classrooms and remotely start and stop,” he said. They’re also working with classrooms that already had technology installed, such as in the Swanson School of Engineering’s Benedum Hall.
“We’re able to dispatch at a moment’s notice resources to come where necessary to put hands on technology that needs to be restarted,” Henderson said. “We’re working through all of those things, and I’m feeling very, very confident as to where our teams are in delivering against those requirements. Is it fully baked? No. Will it be baked? I have every confidence that it will.”
Jeff Rhoades of Pitt IT said as of July 28, they had installed equipment in 42 of the 160 classrooms identified by the registrar for use this fall. The University purchased 200 units from Radiant. The registrar is expected to add more classrooms, but still should fall below 200. A list of the classes that will have the equipment can be found on the registrar’s website.
So far, the Radiant technology has only been installed in registrar-controlled rooms, Pitt IT officials said. Kenny Doty, online learning & technology services lead at the Swanson School, said he fears that some departments thought the Flex@Pitt technology also was being installed in department-controlled rooms.
He said the engineering school has been working on getting new tech for quite some time and had some quotes from a vendor, but they’re still going to have some trouble getting everything done before classes start. He wondered if it is possible for people in other departments to reach out to Pitt IT and get specs to purchase their own equipment for the department-controlled rooms.
Henderson said any deans who have approached the provost’s office with classroom technology issues have been steered directly to him, and “we have worked with those deans to explain what we’re doing and made recommendations on becoming part of the Radiant movement that that we’ve undertaken. But time is of the essence.”
Doty agreed and said he’s had a quote on equipment for two months, and “I just got a call earlier this week that we have to completely change one of the technologies we were using because of supply chain issues.”
Michael Arenth, director of educational technologies at the Center for Teaching and Learning, said as of July 28, there were 954 faculty members active in Canvas, Pitt’s new learning management system.
But he said it’s hard to track how many courses still need to be migrated from Blackboard to Canvas.
“It’s hard to tell how many courses that the registrar schedules are actually going to be taught; how many of them are team taught; how many adjuncts are to be hired,” Arenth said. “There are lots of faculty that haven’t been assigned to courses yet.”
Michael Spring, chair of the committee and a retired associate professor of Information Science, said sometimes people forget that the University can’t ask faculty who haven’t gotten a contract yet to look at new technology like Canvas.
Since the Canvas transition was announced, the committee has been asking faculty for feedback, Spring said, and there have been a variety of responses from “It’s a snap” to “It’s a nightmare.” But overall people who have made the transition says it’s OK.
“I think right now we’re a little bit more confident that it’s going to work, but I don’t think I’m yet assured that we could not face a kind of catastrophe on the 19th of August, whether it be because of adjuncts or this or that,” Spring said.
Arenth said the teaching center is ramping up resources to help faculty members, including reallocating some people to consult with those transitioning their classes and hiring three new people for the next six months, who have extensive Canvas migration experience “to help, especially with folks who are really struggling.”
He said they also are conducting a communications campaign to let people know that resources are available. And faculty will have access to their Blackboard courses through Dec. 11, Arenth said. “They won’t be available for teaching, but they will be available for you to access.”
Box to OneDrive
A good portion of the committee meeting was focused on a more distant problem — the need to move away from Box cloud storage.
Historically, Box has given a 95 percent discount to academic institutions, but will stop doing that next year. Henderson said Pitt currently pays $242,000 a year to Box and will be able to renew at that rate for another year through August 2021. After that, “our costs will go up by at least a million dollars a year. … And given the financial headwinds that we’re facing as a result of COVID and resulting budget cuts, we simply cannot afford to retain Box.”
The current plan is to transition to Microsoft’s OneDrive, which is already included in Pitt’s license of Microsoft Office 365. Not only will this avoid the $1 million upcharge, but also cut out the previous $242,000 annual fee.
Henderson said Pitt may retain some Box presence for faculty who need it to do critical work with colleagues around the world.
Andrew Labuda, Pitt IT’s service owner for Box cloud storage, said many universities are dealing with this same problem. “We’re sort of all scrambling at the same time to figure out whether we’re going to continue; how we’re going to pay for this; and, if we’re going to move, what platform are we moving to and how can we make it easiest on our users.”
Pitt is a heavy Box-using University, Labuda said. “To tell people you’re not using Box anymore, you’re using OneDrive for Business isn’t as easy as just moving files and folders over and keeping the status quo going.”
Labuda said they’ve found four or five features that Box has that there is no equivalent in OneDrive or any Office 365 product, but they have started to identify other solutions. These include:
FTP access. In Box, you can upload FTP directly to a Box folder from any machine that might not have an interface to any of the typical Box migration paths.
Emailing to folders. In Box, you can create a unique email address on a folder and send an email with an attachment that will get sent automatically into that folder.
Blind Dropbox-style folders where the person who’s uploading into the folder doesn’t have permissions to do anything to the folder, but they’re able to drop a file into that folder.
Vanity URLs. With Box, you can create a URL specific to a file or a folder that will be easy to remember.
Pitt IT sent out a survey to all Box users in early July and the responses are now being reviewed. They’ve already discovered that 100 of Pitt’s 5,100 Box users represent 76 percent of the University’s 2.7 petabytes (1 petabyte = 1 million gigabytes) of Box storage. Of those who responded to the survey, 24 percent said they store critical research data in Box, and 23 percent said they use it frequently to work with external collaborators.
To help prepare for this transition, Pitt IT has a comparison of Box and OneDrive on its website, as well as some suggestions for current users:
Do not transfer your Box folders or files to an alternative cloud storage solution, as this step is unnecessary at this time.
Reduce the amount of data you are storing on Box by deleting any unnecessary files and folders.
Remove yourself from any shared Box folders or files to which you no longer need access.
For new cloud storage needs, consider using Microsoft OneDrive or contact the 24/7 IT Help Desk for guidance.
“We don’t plan to leave anybody out in the dark,” Labuda said. “We’re not expecting individuals who have several hundred terabytes out there, or even 10 gigabytes out there to move their own data.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.