Campus life is the beating heart of any great university. Students hurry to their next class, ideas are exchanged over cups of coffee, and chance meetings spark friendships that last a lifetime. The past 12 months has, in many cases, put this bustle of social and educational collaboration on hold. But at the University at Buffalo, that vibrancy has continued relatively uninterrupted.
A well-respected and metropolitan higher educational institute, UB is split across three campuses, where close to 32,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students from 105 countries study, conduct research, and engage in experiential learning and extra curricular enrichment. Technology plays a key role in ensuring all students and faculty get the most from their UB experience, “from the student in the fifth row, all the way through the student that might be learning remotely in the Bronx,” says Brice Bible, Vice President and Chief Information Officer (VPCIO).
Bible helms the university’s digital transformation programmes and helps steer the overarching position of technology as a tool to enhance the experience of everyone on campus. He is also an emphatic proponent of inclusivity and ensuring that students have equal access to resources wherever they choose, or are forced in today’s circumstances, to study. It’s a philosophy that is wholeheartedly supported by an exemplary leadership team, he says. “The University President has established a great leadership team around him and has built camaraderie and collaboration between the Provost, the Deans and my fellow Vice Presidents into the institution,” Bible says. "So, right off the bat, I’m fortunate enough to work with a leadership team that is high performing, and has the skills and capabilities, and collaborative mindset, to effectively meet the needs of the institution.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020, UB was already well prepared to respond as the result of this pragmatic approach to continued development. “It's obvious, but as a CIO for around 20 years, I still have to remind myself that it's my job to not just be serving today's needs, but to project what those needs are going to be in three to five years,” says Bible. A pandemic was, of course, never a core focus of that planning, but UB’s strength as a “multidimensional” learning institute by design gave it a strong foundation from which to react.
Bible considers the simple matter of maintaining lines of communication between students and faculty: “They needed simple, robust, synchronous video capability for their classes.” But a one-size fits all approach did not work. Zoom was not ideal for performance-based classes, for example, which needed a platform for high-speed, real-time video. “So we would work with them to build a solution for those kinds of things, and we could then expose that to the rest of the faculty, who would look at that and go, ‘Hey, that kind of fits me so I can use that too’. Those faculty members were the best. They know what they're doing, they know the content they need to get across to their students. That's their role, that's their expertise. And our job was then to listen and help them find technological ways to effectively do that.”
This is just one example of a digital ecosystem that fuels UB’s hybrid approach, where students can study on campus and off in disparate but equally rewarding fashion. While maintaining social distancing was of paramount importance to the university’s leadership, so too was retaining the fundamentals of its tight-knit culture of collaborative, hands-on learning. “We're an on-premises campus, and we want to be that,” says Bible. “We’re a research school, we are hands-on collaboration, and we want our students to have that multidimensional relationship. So during the pandemic we never went 100% remote. We did not at the end of spring semester, and we did not all the way through the fall semester. Our students are actively engaged in out of class activities, whether clubs for student groups, or a host of other things. And so we wanted to provide technology tools that helped them stay connected and still feel part of the institution.”
Students and faculty have access to a broad array of digital resources to expand their learning and extra curricular support beyond the confines of the lecture hall. Many of these services can be accessed through the UB portal, a secure and intuitive platform that ties the online learning experience together, underpinned by a fast and reliable infrastructure. Partners have been integral to that seamless hybrid approach learning at UB, “and I can’t thank our vendors enough”, says Bible. “Many of them have put profits a little bit aside and focused on need. And you remember who those people are and we appreciate it very much.”
“Our underlying infrastructure is HP Aruba, our wireless network of choice with 7,000 access points. I appreciate HP Aruba’s immediate assistance, not just with making sure that it runs, but also with regards to data: where are the students, how many are there? That was data that we had not typically used, other than performance-based, and they aggressively worked to help us in that space.
“And I can’t say enough about Blackboard. We moved to Blackboard in the cloud more than a year ago, so that put us in a good position. When our faculty and our students are accessing our LMS of choice here, we ensure they've got robust access, not just from campus, but also when they're away from campus somewhere. As you can imagine, the data and the content that's inside of Blackboard has dramatically ramped up.”
Bible says that he was “so impressed” with the creative ways faculty and students have been using these tools. But he admits that they are not as intuitive as plug-and-play solutions like Zoom, and as a result learned a fundamental lesson that has helped refocus UB’s digital transformation.
“We need to ramp up that personal relationship with the student,” he says. “We need that AI tool that will help guide faculty through the complex questions that they may have about using technologies, or even pedagogically, to be able to change things in their classroom.”
UB has partnered with Ivy.ai to bring artificial intelligence to campus for the first time. “I appreciate Ivy in their role because I think they've helped us, as with other schools, in aggressively transitioning to meet the one-on-one needs of our institution. And can I say that's one of the big challenges, is retaining relationships, retaining the connected feel of the institution.”
This is a critical point in Bible’s vision of the role technology will play for UB classes of 2025 and beyond, illustrated during an autumn forum, in which the UB President was interviewed through video conferencing, and joined by 300 IT staff members online.
“His face was this close,” Bible says, motioning to the size of his own head in the Zoom window through which the interview for this report was being conducted. “And the staff on the call could all see that the President has a sense of humour, that he’s personable. Typically most people would see and interact with him in a formal setting, much further away, and with a more rigid structure, depending on what the occasion is. So one of the benefits that's come out of this is, by using these technologies, are opportunities for closer relationships to be formed. That applies with the faculty and their students, because now each student in a class of 200 sees their faculty member as close as sitting around a table.”
What is clear is that people will continue to be the central focus of UB’s digital strategy. Bible outlines two disparate, but very likely scenarios for students learning remotely during the pandemic. One retires to a cosy cottage in Cape Cod, with all the amenities and luxuries one could desire. Another moves back into a cramped co-living environment in the city, above a busy shop, and with limited access even to high speed internet.
“Why should one have better than the other?” he says. “The technology then becomes the decision-maker of who's going to be successful. So that's shame on us. As the CIO, I'm kinda technical,” he says. "I have problems when I'm at home connecting and I get frustrated by it. And so if I'm frustrated by it and I know who to call to get help, what about the faculty member or the student? This is somewhere I think we need to, and will work towards, being better.”