Keeping Pace with Changing Student Needs
May 25, 2021 | Students
Houston Griffith, of Virginia Commonwealth University discusses how campus management has changed over the years and how IT professionals can keep pace with changing student needs.
Houston Griffith is the Senior Manager of Labs and Classrooms Computing at Virginia Commonwealth University. His long career in IT has evolved over time, in a similar way that IT on college campuses has evolved over the years.
Higher ed IT is becoming more focused on student needs, more agile to change (in part because of the pandemic) and leaning into big picture thinking.
Houston shared his thoughts in a recent interview with us. During this interview, Houston gave his own opinions, which are not necessarily representative of Virginia Commonwealth University.
Change over Time
Houston has been working in higher ed IT for over a decade. He got his start as a student worker at Virginia Tech, and now manages all the central computer labs and classrooms for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
The way higher ed organizations provide services to students has changed significantly over his career. A lot of what was done a decade ago is either completely irrelevant or on its way out.
According to Houston, the traditional mindset of providing X, Y and Z to students has moved from a small-scale focus to big-picture thinking. He started his career in IT with just a few departments in a single school, working at a small scale. Over the years, he has broadened to managing services to support classroom technology and computing for an entire university with multiple campuses. Houston’s career path mirrors the way a lot of schools are transitioning their IT services from siloed tasks to broader responsibilities across campuses.
“There’s a shift away from doing things that are smaller scale and thinking more about the big picture.”
The field continues to evolve, as now working in higher ed IT isn’t just about managing systems, but also people.
And the tools have changed too. When Houston started at VCU in 2014, the IT department’s mindset was still, “let’s create a base image.”
The whole concept of creating a base image or a ‘golden image’ and then deploying it to systems (lab computers, laptops, etc.) has changed. Houston, like many others in higher ed IT, used to use an imaging tool called Norton Ghost. But the practice has shifted away from creating a base image to installing a base operating system and then layering things on top of it.
They found that installing all of the software packages available into a base image was not efficient. Also, covering everybody with every piece of software gets costly real quick.
A lot of higher ed institutions have now shifted their focus to what Houston refers to as a ‘scripted’ approach. They’re scripted, as in the sense that they’re actually writing code in PowerShell and Python to automate mass deployment. Over the years, VCU has implemented MECM and Jamf.
From ordering, to receiving, to preparing a device for deployment and handing it off to an end user, and then eventually getting it back and retiring the device, tools can help do a lot more now rather than just laying down a base image or installing applications.
“We’ve shifted away from that idea of using something like Ghost to create that big monolithic, thick image, to this streamlined approach.”
Houston’s streamlined approach includes Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager (formerly known as System Center Configuration Manager) for Windows devices and App Jam Pro for Mac devices. They also measure software usage, so they don’t need to deploy every piece of software everywhere.
Making an Impact for Individuals and at Scale
As Houston puts it, a lot of his decision making is based around how people interact with the technology and services they offer:
He considers all the different angles that he might get questions about.
Like many university IT staff, some of the biggest challenges Houston is trying to solve have to do with the logistics of managing services at the university scale. The focus is on trying to understand the needs of faculty, students and staff, and trying to address those as best they can while making an impact at scale.
After managing campus shut-downs and loaner laptop distribution in 2020, Houston and his team are now working to solve for sustainable software delivery and supporting students’ BYODs (bring your own devices).
The university needs a way to deliver software to students who bring their own laptops, while also realizing that sometimes a laptop just isn’t going to cut it.
“No matter how powerful [the laptop] is, you may need a workstation desktop computer.”
Sometimes there’s a good option in the cloud with virtual desktops, but in a lot of cases, it requires remote access to an actual desktop computer.
Houston is currently supporting a department where students need to be able to run things like ArcGIS, City Engine, Photoshop and Illustrator, and the students either don’t have a laptop, or don’t have one that can support that software.
For instance, ArcGIS is not able to run on a MacBook, so the students need to be able to access a PC computer lab remotely. Houston is using LabStats’ Remote Access Dashboard to solve for software delivery, which is a big challenge for a lot of universities right now.
Shifts in Computer Lab Management
Houston believes that there’s going to be some shifts in how computer lab management is thought of in the traditional sense.
It’s no longer: buy computers, put them in a room, hook them up, load software on them, allow students to use them, or give students access to them.
The traditional model of managing computer labs will will shift to:
“Let’s demonstrate the need for these systems based on demand. And let’s find out if that is the best solution moving forward.”
Houston thinks there will always be a physical computer lab that students access either remotely or in person due to budget restraints. It’s still cheaper, especially if you have high requirements for performance, to buy and set up workstations for students who need to render video or work in 3D.
Rather than trying to do that with a cloud solution or a VDI solution, a computer lab is still the most economical choice.
Houston also shared that there will be far more generalized lab computing and a higher focus on students having a device of their own. And for the students that can’t have their own devices, or where software licensing is limited, universities need to be able to provide some of those additional resources.
Universities don’t always have a lot of flexibility when it comes to software license agreements with vendors. So installing certain software programs on lab computers is the only way to provide that resource to students.
However, Houston does see a lot more flexibility in terms of how computer labs will be managed in the future, especially with shifts to online learning.
At VCU, Houston and his team saw almost all of the student body and faculty move to using Zoom and Microsoft teams within a couple of weeks. That kind of flexibility needs to be ongoing as we move forward to the future.
Shift to Flexible Delivery
University IT teams need to make a transition from traditional management to flexible delivery of learning and technology. This shift might require a change of thinking:
- If universities can’t provide every technology resource students need, can they provide guidance?
- If they can’t buy the software, can they provide a pathway for students to buy that software?
- If they can’t provide a laptop for every student, can they partner with hardware vendors and manufacturers to obtain a discount at the university level?
It may not be reasonable to expect that a student can show up at a university and automatically receive a laptop that’s installed with all the software they need, but it’s something to aim for. And along the way, a lot of needs can be met with a little creative thinking.
Ultimately, flexible technology delivery should bleed into the competitive nature of higher education.
As IT in higher education continues to evolve, streamlined processes, a student focus and flexible delivery will likely be top of mind. Have you seen higher ed IT change over the course of your career? We’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.