UO Launches new loaner laptop program

Information Services keeps the UO humming during COVID-19

In early March, UO Chief Information Officer Jessie Minton traveled to Florida with her husband to visit family. But COVID-19 quickly changed their plans, transforming a social visit into a working trip to help Minton’s in-laws — and the university — prepare for the rapidly emerging crisis.

On the flight home, Minton was using inflight Wi-Fi to stay connected in leading the university’s technology response, including the purchase of 150 Chromebooks, from 35,000 feet. Within five days, the university would launch an entirely new program to make sure every student who needed a laptop could borrow one.

The laptop loaner program was just one example of how Information Services responded quickly to a rapid change in how the university teaches, learns and conducts research.

“Technology is critical for our community and our mission,” Minton said. “However, it’s kind of like plumbing. You don’t really notice it until there’s a problem. If you turned your tap and no water came out, you’d be horrified.”

The water has been flowing for more than 22,000 students and 5,000 faculty and staff members on the UO’s 295-acre residential campus, as well as in Portland, Charleston, Bend and elsewhere. Despite unprecedented surges in demand, and dramatic shifts in how the UO operates, the university’s technology infrastructure hasn’t missed a beat.

“We were unified in accomplishing what would normally have taken 18 months in about three weeks,” Minton said. “Because everyone understood the stakes. If we didn’t provide a stable network, Zoom for instruction, ways for students to remotely use the software they need, increased VPN capacity and access to laptops for all students, then we wouldn’t be able to deliver spring term.”

Tech teams increased the UO’s virtual private network capacity by 85 percent and associated firewall throughput by a factor of 10. They accelerated plans to provide Zoom for remote education and more, and to make Dropbox, a file storage and sharing system that is compliant with privacy and security regulations, available to all faculty members and staff. And they created a new virtual computer lab, which allows students to use software from home, including expensive, specialized programs such as AutoCAD.

For many IT staff members, Minton said, making those technology changes to enable spring term meant working 15-hour days and weekends. For example, the university had already been planning to upgrade the VPN over spring break to accommodate the expected increase in remote work. But the timeline for that project tightened up dramatically.

On March 16, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered the state’s bars and restaurants closed and banned gatherings of more than 25 people. As more faculty members and staff began working remotely, the VPN, which allows secure remote access to the university’s servers, quickly approached its 750-user cap.

At 5:30 p.m. the next day, the UO’s network engineering team started emergency measures. By 10:30 that night, they were finished. The next day, the number of users was pushing 900. Now the system can easily handle 4,000 at a time. 

“We went from most of us (working) on campus to working remotely in a day,” Minton said. “It was phenomenal. I’m incredibly proud of this group, not only the staff that currently reports to me but teams across campus. Without exception, everyone dropped what they were doing, worked toward common priorities, set timelines and worked together to make it happen.”

Gary Sullivan, who became the university’s first director of user support services this summer, led the initiative to create a new laptop loaner program for students.

“We were in this COVID-19 state of mind,” Sullivan said. “We scrambled to get everything set up, and it actually went very smoothly. I think this shows the value of what we do on campus. It’s allowed us to break down some barriers, work together and collaborate more effectively.”

Sullivan’s team quickly unboxed all the computers, took inventory, made sure they worked, tagged them, matched students to laptops and distributed them in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

“We carefully scheduled the pickup times to avoid overcrowding,” Sullivan said. “And we only let two people in at a time. They stood 6 feet apart. We wiped down every box and every place we touched. Students put their IDs on the counter, rather than handing them to us.”

The team originally planned to distribute laptops from the UO’s Portland facilities too. However, the demand was unexpectedly low, and it was more effective to mail them. Another 50 Chromebooks have arrived. So far, 200 laptops have been more than enough to provide one for every student who has expressed a need, Sullivan said.

As spring term continues, Information Services is working to answer questions and address new challenges. For example, they’re helping faculty members, staff and students use Zoom securely.

“You don't really know how resilient you are until you're faced with a crisis,” Minton said. “And what I've seen is all our teams rallying behind students and our mission and executing on a new way of operating on an impressive time frame.”

—By Ed Dorsch, University Communications