Using Technology to Keep a Campus Safe During COVID-19

Helen Norris

VP & CIO at Chapman University

Learning Objectives

Please Join the VP & CIO of Chapman University, Helen Norris in this Executive Interview where she will discuss the challenges of working and teaching remotely and hope to protect all of your data.

"Canvas is something that we use that's been critical to us in delivering great education to our students."

Helen Norris

VP & CIO at Chapman University


Hello, everyone and welcome to the CIO visions leadership virtual summit hosted on quartz network. My name is Britt Erler QN executive correspondent, thank you so much for joining us. I would like to welcome our executive speaker, Helen Norris, VP and CIO of Chapman University. Welcome, Helen. 

Well, thank you, Britt. It’s great to be here. Even if it’s just virtual, I’d rather be in person. But hopefully at some point in the future, we’ll be able to do that.

Definitely. It’s a pleasure to have you here as well. And I appreciate you taking the time. I know it’s been very hectic, especially for people within education, the pandemic and this new virtual environment has really put a interesting twist on things to say the least. So before we dive into this topic today, I would love if you could give the audience some context about your current role. The chat? 

Sure, sure. Well, as you mentioned, I’m the Vice President and Chief Information Officer, I’m responsible for all technology. At the University, I’ve been at Chapman since about 2014. So I’ve been there almost seven years, which I can’t believe it went by this fast. And I’ve spent the last, you know, two decades I think in in it and higher education. chaplain is a midsize comprehensive private university, we have about nine to 10,000 students, about 65, or 7000 of which are of whom are undergraduate, we have about 1200 faculty, including full time faculty and the part time or adjunct faculty and we have staff probably roughly roughly the same size, some of the things we’re known for, we have a great film school. And we have a great pharmacy school, we have a law school, we have a business school, and some of those, you know, interesting programs, dances and other really competitive program here at Chapman. And so you can imagine some of the challenges we might have had teaching dance, and making movies in a virtual environment.

No question. I mean, for just teaching in general. Yeah, very changing time. But for, as you mentioned, things like dance and film that really require that in person experience. It’s really difficult. So let’s talk about that a little bit more, you know, not only are you having to now teach remotely, but also work remotely, what challenges have you faced?

So, you know, like everybody else, part of the challenge with, with what we’ve experienced was, how little time we had to prepare, right? I think everybody’s had this experience for us. I feel like the President made the announcement on Tuesday that we’re going to be teaching remotely on Thursday, and then we’ll be working remotely the week after that. We’re, as I mentioned, we’re a private university, we have a pretty high price point. So our value proposition to our students, the reason students come to Chapman is because they’re in small classes, close to their faculty. So we had not this was new to us, right? We didn’t have a model where we were looking to teach online, we did not have a model where we had many people, even on the staff who were working remotely. So some of the challenges for us is it wasn’t something we’d done before. Now, my department was a little bit different. We had introduced a telecommute program a couple of years before the pandemic, where people were telecommuting a couple of days a week, you know, but in general, we did not have remote work happening broadly at the university. So from both a working remotely and a teaching remotely perspective, we had a variety of levels of experience. We had some people who were like, okay, I do this, I work, you know, some of my team and some of our strategic marketing team. We work at home a day a week, you know, today’s week, it’s just not that big a deal. We’ll just be home all the time. Others we had groups who provided very what’s the word? I’m looking for very direct service to students in an office setting where students walk in and learning to do that virtually was was quite different. So we had a very variety of levels of comfort and experience with working remotely. We had a equipment issues because because we weren’t kind of a remote campus. Not everybody had a laptop. So you know, prior I recall, you know, about this time last year, probably you know, we’re ordering as many laptops as we could from our colleagues all across the The global economy and dealing with some of the supply chain issues that everybody dealt with now, so it was challenging. But you know, a lot of things went well. And some of the reasons that I feel like, even though as I said, it was like, okay, two days from now, we’re going to be all working remotely. We actually did, you know, and I recall

last year, and I, it was a Saturday, and my boss called me and we were talking about, you know, what are we going to do about the staff? And he said, you know, are you are you? Are you ready? Are you? Are you 100%? Ready? I’m saying, I’m not, no, but we’re ready enough, you know, and that’s the thing, we were ready enough people could go home. So we, my group, I think really rose to the organization, we did a lot of immediate reshuffling of my team to support both teaching remotely. And working remotely, we actually took everyone in the IT organization and my group, that’s about 85 people. We took, we stopped every other project with two exceptions, you know, and pulled people to work either on a team that we call teaching remotely, supporting faculty or teaching, or a team called working remotely. And so, you know, I had my security team and my data architect, basically handling support, and it was actually really great. We, we had seven days a week, lengthy hours, which we adjusted, as we saw, you know, nobody’s calling us after nine o’clock, you know, and we adjusted as as we needed it. I think one of the other reasons that we had success is prior to the pandemic, a couple of things we did prior to the pandemic, when I came on board, one of the things that I needed to do was really, my part of my mission was to build great relationships between the IT organization and the rest of the organization. So we haven’t really invested in the past, you know, five or six years in building those relationships with the deans, with the faculty with the rest of the administration. So that was really helpful to us during the pandemic, and it’s at the beginning, in particular, you know, I could pick up the phone and call my colleague, the CFO and say, you know, I just really need to get this order through, you know, there’s more risk to not get the done, then, you know, go on through the, the things that we typically do to minimize risk and have worked. I also had a person, I have a person on my team and my leadership team, who have maybe two or three years before the pandemic, I can’t quite remember that far back. I had, he took on kind of infusing a customer service attitude through the IT organization. And so when we went fully remote, and really like every other IT organization, we were in the eye of the storm, everybody was depending on us, that customer service mentality that he has really worked into the organization really helped us and helped, we provide a great service. And because we did that, we were able, you know, the University was able to be more successful. In fact, I just had a little story. You know, we’re gonna I know, we’re going to talk about tools that we use, we use, like everybody else we use Microsoft Teams. I know, some people use slack. But same thing, right. And so I, I’m on a lot of the boards within, you know, a lot of the discussions within teams, and maybe, you know, a month or two ago, I noticed that he had put in the discussion, remember to sign up for one of the two telephone etiquette refresher trainings. And I was like, okay, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. And he is taking the time to ensure that his team I could I was blown away, he has taken the time to make sure that his team is practicing good telephone etiquette. And that, to me, it kind of is, it kind of demonstrates the commitment to customer service. And and that really, I think, served us well during during definitely,

that’s that’s incredible. And I think such an important piece to note. When we switched and made everything virtual, it was really how do you communicate with the best way and collaborate? And you sometimes fail to remember those little things like etiquette when you’re trying to move all the pieces so quickly, but that’s incredible. And I can see why that made such a difference for your service. And in terms of the tools I want to touch back on that you mentioned slack and I believe my shirt off well us Aside from those two, what are some of the other tools that were really helpful during this time?

Well, you know, it’s interesting with those teams, as good example, we had tools. Again, it’s some of the preparation for the I mean, we weren’t there going, oh, let’s prepare in case we all have temp work in the office for a year, but we were putting some infrastructure in place to help us work together better. So we had actually implemented team teams prior to the pandemic. And I actually recall before the pandemic talking to you know, my, one of my leadership teams say, well, that’s great, I’m glad we have it, how are we going to get people to use it? And it’s like, well, let’s just have a pandemic, because that everyone knows us, you know, so. So teams has been really a big deal for us, both in it and across the organization. Interesting thing that I wouldn’t it, you know, wouldn’t have expected, as part of, of some of infrastructure upgrades, we also put in the infrastructure to do soft phones. And, again, I before the pandemic, I was like, how am I going to get people to give up their desk phones and move to soft phones, and, uh, you know, we had a town hall for all our staff, right before we send them home. And I mentioned, you know, we got the soft phone option you’ll be able to get, and I think they had 150 requests within, you know, 15 minutes of me saying that, so the soft phone thing, I know, it sounds like a trivial thing, but that that’s been really helpful for us. On the teaching side, we use zoom in the classroom. And we spend a lot of time over the summer, building out our classrooms with some high end zoom technology. Because it is, we want our students to have a great experience. Now you can tell I’m in my home office, my home office is in my spare bedroom right now, you know, and I’m fortunate, I don’t have kids at home, you know, but some of our faculty don’t have or our other staff, you know, they don’t have maybe a space that’s quite as conducive to teaching a class. And so we put technology in the classrooms, so that faculty could come in and teach from using a kind of a zoom panel, and teaching from one of our kinds of zoom rooms, so that that would be a better experience for them. And for the students. I mentioned that when the pandemic hit, we canceled all of our other projects except to, and one of the projects that we were working on, most universities use a tool called a learning management system to deliver pedagogy, you know, the faculty share materials, their and their discussion boards. And actually, in the beginning of 2020, we had begun a project to convert from the tool we’ve been on for many years to a new tool called canvas. So Canvas was critical to us. Now we had a lengthy timeline before the pandemic for our conversion to Canvas, I was kind of, in fact, our timeline, read that we would get 25% of the faculty onto it and spring 2020. And then maybe we’d get up to 75% by the end of 2020. And then finish it up in spring 2021. Well, then we have the pandemic. So by the end of spring, we were so far ahead of where we needed to be that we actually pulled it’s a kind of joke, I was like, It’s the first time I’ve ever had a big project cut then like six months early, you know, because was an all it took was a pandemic. So Canvas was was something that we use, that’s been critical to us, delivering great education to our students.

I couldn’t agree more. And I actually use Canvas back in my college experience, and it’s a fantastic platform. And it really does provide the students with a lot more engagement than they would normally Yeah, incredible good for you guys feel to kickstart that ahead of the pandemic, ahead of the curve. Another big aspect of the pandemic and working virtually is how you protect not only the students, your staff, but also the organization as a whole. And working virtually makes that a little bit more difficult. So talk to me a little bit about how you use data to really protect your university communities.

Yeah, yeah, there’s a couple of things. You know, again, when this is not news to anyone when the pandemic occurred, we didn’t think we’d be here as long we thought it was a sprint, but you know, it’s a marathon. So we’ve been doing this for a long time. So one of the things we started to prepare for pretty quickly was how we were going to bring people back to campus and so we worked very closely with local authorities and with the state of Texas. fornia to kind of meet all the criteria. So a couple of things that now I’m gonna get some of these things, I’m not sure if it was a state requirement or a local requirement, but that we’re required to do, we have to provide training to, to our community about the COVID, and how to stay safe in a COVID environment. So we deliver that through Canvas. And then we tracked the data to make sure that people were doing the training that was necessary, especially if they needed to come onto campus. Even if they were coming onto campus to work alone in a single classroom, we still needed them to do that. We also put in place a screening, a daily screening, so that a person coming to campus before they come to campus, they have to complete an online questionnaire that basically says you don’t have symptoms, you don’t have a temperature or you’re not coughing, you haven’t been around a person with COVID. And then we track that for our entire community, our 10,000 students, our faculty and our staff on a daily basis. And then, as we got deeper into the pandemic, I you know, I think some of the research or the data shows us that the way universities that were able to bring students back safely, the thing that made a difference to them was frequent testing. So we moved into going to try to remember it, but But eventually, we ended up doing weekly testing, we didn’t start with weekly testing, but now anybody who’s in our community, who wants to be on campus is required to be tested weekly. And so again, we manage in partnership with our Student Health Center, our student health professionals, as you can imagine, have been working around the clock. And they administer, in fact, I just spoke to our director today, and she’s like, I’m so sorry, we did over, I think they had done, you know, almost 1000 tests yesterday, and we track those tests, so that then we can report back to the community, you know, as to the percentage of positives we have. But we also use it in a very operational way. Because we look at the person and say, they’ve been tested, they’ve been screened, they’ve done the training, they can, they can come on campus, and then we automatically provide them any access that they need. So my data team has really gotten focused on managing this new set of data that we needed to put in place. Now we’re going to, we’re planning to actually I think we’re past the planning, we’re about to kick off adding vaccination information in there. So that, you know, as our community members become vaccinated, we’ll be able to track you know, what percentage of our community has been vaccinated. And I, you know, I believe, and we’re waiting to hear I, I don’t want to get ahead of the CDC or anybody. But, you know, if you’ve been vaccinated, you still need to be tested, you know, we’ll kind of work through some of those issues within our community. So it was really, really kind of an interesting way that we need to look at data and, and serve it up to maybe communities that hadn’t been working on such a daily basis with, with data the way the way they need to right now.

It’s really incredible, especially how quickly you had to pivot and really implement all of that in order to make it safe for your faculty and students to come back on campus. And it’s not even over yet. It’s not still day by day, there are so many changes.

Yeah, it’s it does, it changes every single day, you know, and it’s, it’s, that’s the thing, you know, one thing I meant to say at the beginning, you know, one of the reasons this went well, one of the reasons I feel like we’ve managed pretty well through this is because of that collaboration we’ve had with people, including kind of I mentioned our Student Health Center. And so that positive approach to finding you know, kind of the can do attitude of Okay, let’s let’s make this work has really helped us, you know, kind of help us keep people safe because our when we look at our testing numbers, we are far behind our local community and the number of positive tests a much lower percentage of positive tests for us.

That’s incredible. And I think that’s really the key to it is your university went in with the mindset knowing we are going to have to adapt quickly. It may not be perfect first time around, but we’re willing to give it a try if we make it right. So I think that’s incredible. And now another aspect I want to talk about you touched on it a little bit The beginning is the engagement factor, which I feel like has just been crucial for not just education, but every department, every industry across the board, how have you kept your faculty and your students engaged during this time?

Well, you know, there’s a couple of different things, I’d like to actually maybe talk a little bit first about how, you know, the people on my team, who are supporting faculty and staff, how we keep them engaged, you know, so we’ve done a lot of things to try to ensure that the the IT staff has remained as engaged as possible, because they’re working so hard, right, and we want to do things to make sure that they’re there, they’re feeling supported. So you know, we I have a regular weekly drop in session, you know, when we were on site, you know, I’m kind of a walking around person, I’d walk around and say, Hey, how you doing to people? And obviously, people asked that. So we do kind of a drop in session, on a weekly basis. At one point I suggested gone to bi weekly, and people were like, No, no, we want to do it every week. And so people will just check in with people, people will share photos of their home projects or their cats. So, you know, kind of keeping some of that set. Yeah, yeah, we love seeing the cats on the dogs and the kids, you know. So keeping some of that sense of community has been very, very important for us on it side. I also think that one of the things that’s worked well for us is, you know, I think it’s important to manage, in any case, to manage by gratitude, I think it’s really important to tell people Thank you, when they’ve done, you know, something, it doesn’t, you know, when they’ve done a great job. And so, one of the things that I’ve been fortunate with is we have a great program at Chapman where we can recognize our staff publicly. And I think they get a little gift card, you know, so it’s, that’s something I think that’s very important. We also I feel very fortunate that because they’ve done such a great job, every day, I opened my email, I have some faculty member telling me, this person did a great job, or that person did a great job. So we have a channel within t teams where we post, you know, expressions of gratitude that that I I’ve received from faculty. So I think it’s really important to keep the staff engaged on a, you know, on the detail level. Now, from a campus perspective, one of the things that I think we did exceptionally well, and this was our president and our strategic guard are, you know, Chief Marketing Officer, our VP for strategic marketing, our president has been very visible. So right from the beginning, he said town halls and Facebook Live of them’s, you know, aimed at students aimed at parents aimed at faculty and staff. And so he’s put himself out there for people to see him. And I think that’s been critically important. It’s hard, you know, but it’s, it’s something that he has done. To make sure that people know what’s going on, as you mentioned, things change on the day, you know, every every day something changes. He also at the beginning of the pandemic, he was doing a daily email to the campus, letting them know what’s what’s going on. You know, what, what we’ve heard. we’ve now moved that to twice a week, he doesn’t email on Tuesday, doesn’t email on Thursday. People love that consistency, two o’clock on Tuesday to sorry, two o’clock on Friday. Everybody knows it’s the President’s emails going to come out? people, you know, if I have something I want to share, I’ll kind of say, well, let’s get it in the presidency mail this Friday, you know, and so a lot of information sharing. I think our faculty have taken some really unique approaches are really to keeping students engaged in the classroom. We’ve been using, as we mentioned, we use Canvas a lot, but we do things. I’ve heard of faculty doing really creative things in the classrooms to keep the students engaged, whether it’s, you know, through using polls, using breakout rooms and zoom Trini to encourage I think, a little bit more discussion rather than just kind of play in a videotape, which would not be something we would want to do. But we also for some of those more classes that would be a bit more challenging to teach online lab classes are a good example. We’ve done a couple of things in lab classes. Kind of creatively, our faculty have to try to replicate that experience as much as possible for the student. For example, in one of our lab classes, we have faculty using GoPro devices so that when they’re leaning down working on an experiment, it’s kind of recording that, you know. So that’s a kind of a creative little way to maybe make the student feel a little bit more like, like they’re there.

That’s really cool. And, you know, I’ve been so interested to hear, I obviously don’t have a lot of friends my age anymore that are in school or at university. And I wondered, you know, how really, they keep the students engaged, and also just excited to be there and still excited to whatever major they’re going into and still feel that they’re getting that same experience is close to it on campus. So I think that’s incredible kudos to your teachers for really putting in that time and effort to really figure that out and not say, I’m gonna turn on zoom today. And Right,

right. We, we have had also, you know, from the kind of student engagement side, we’ve helped had a lot of, again, it has to be mostly virtual, but events where we invite students, you know, we do, you know, I think one of the things that would spin and I hear this from all my colleagues that was really hard for students last summer, was we couldn’t do command spot, you know, so students who are graduating didn’t get to have that experience of walking across the stage, and having their family and friends in the audience. So we did a really nice virtual commencement. It’s not the same, not the same as being in person. But it’s, it’s, it’s, it gave the students something, our strategic marketing office did something very cool sending a packet to people’s homes, so that students at a certain time they open the packet and there was confetti, and I think a champagne flute and that kind of thing. So trying some some things to make it feel a little bit more like you’re there.

Absolutely. It is, it is the effort, I can tell you that counts. Yeah, really making that extra step. And now I want to finalize this interview with I think the question that everyone has been waiting for, in terms of when we eventually go back, what it’s going to look like bringing students back on campus fully bringing teachers back to work in classroom. What are your thoughts on that?

So, you know, well, first of all, I don’t think the governor of California used last year used an analogy that made sense to me, I don’t think it’s going to be like a light switch, it’s going to be more like a dimmer switch, you know, where we’ll have, we’ll be allowed to do do different things. So I fully expect, you know, at some point, we’re going to be able to bring up, bring students back at maybe at 25% capacity, and then move to a 50 and then move to 100% capacity. So I do I see a prolonged period of time when we will be in a very hybrid environment, both for for teaching. So you know, we anticipate having some students in the classroom while some students are still on zoom, or, you know, remote, and perhaps switching them so that if you’ve got 30 students in a class, and you can only have 15 in the classroom, you know, when one breath 50%, that every student gets an opportunity if they want to participate in person, I see that on the kind of the working side, I read an article recently that, you know, I don’t recall who it was, but was predicting that ongoing 98% of meetings will just always have one person, at least one person remote. So basically, all meetings are going to continue to have somebody be remote for for the future. And so then we have to think about we’ve spent a lot of time and effort at Chapman technology in the classrooms, right, so that we can do that hybrid, but we’ll need that for meeting rooms for our faculty and staff. So I expect a prolonged period of hybrid. The one thing I didn’t mention, you know, our facilities team has also done a great job, you know, amping up the cleaning and making sure that we have as much hand sanitizer as we need and that I think is going to continue. So those processes we’ve put in place, I expect that some of the things that my team moved to remote will stay remote, we do desktop support, fully remote. I don’t see a reason to change that, you know, so I think we’ll continue to see remote work. I I think there’s more and more of a demand. To will still have people working remotely will still support them remotely. I do think we’re going to be in a situation where we’ll be remote and in person. So kind of balancing the service we offer and that kind of mixed world is going to be a little bit of a challenge. But I think it’s going to be quite gradual. I think we’re going to be continuing to do testing and managing that data. You know, I think it’s going to be another year, you know, because it just, it would nobody wants to slip back. Right. And so I think we’ll be continuing to do what we’re doing now. And then going back to some of the in person pieces to, yes,

I agree. And it like you said, it’s going to be a day by day. You see how it all lays out. But I agree, and I think it goes the same for most industries that we’re always going to have this hybrid option now. Demand, there are people that now realize they can do certain jobs and duties just as if messily from home. So I completely agree with you. And, you know, my thoughts are with you and your team and everything that they have been doing to make this experience, you know, as well as it can be for the students, faculty and staff. So thank you so much for sharing. It has been incredible. The advice you have given I think, will be really beneficial to other universities and other departments that are really looking to make those changes internally. So thank you so much, again, for being here, Helen. And thank you to everyone who has tuned in today as well. If you have any further questions, there will be a discussion forum underneath this presentation. Thank you so much and enjoy the rest of the summit. Great. Thank you, Britt. Thank you.

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