S1:E10 Houston Griffith – Keeping pace with changing student needs

April 5, 2021 |  Case Studies, Data, Remote Access
38 min

He also talks about how IT professionals can keep pace with changing student needs.


Derrick Hirschi  0:00

Hello everyone and welcome to LabStats Tech Talks. I’m Derrick Hirschi, Customer Success Manager here at LabStats, and I’m joined today by Houston Griffith, Senior Manager for Labs and Classroom Computing at Virginia Commonwealth University. He and his team maintain and support academic computing for computer labs, conference rooms and laptops. Thank you for being here, Houston. How are you doing?

Houston Griffith  0:20

I’m doing well. Derrick, thank you for having me. 

Derrick Hirschi  0:22

Good. Yeah, no problem, no problem. I’ve got a number of different topics I’d like to go over with you. We’ve got lab management, we’ve got COVID-19, we’ve got the LabMan conference. To start, can we start, lead in, with how you got your start in computer lab management? 

Houston Griffith  0:37

Sure. So I actually started my career in IT way back in like 2005. But fast forward a few years to 2010, I was attending as a student at Virginia Tech. And I applied for a position with the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. And as a lot of people I work with at VCU, got my start as a student worker. So I was responsible for a small computer lab there. And then we had some other kiosk style computing at a few of the other off campus departments. And that’s really where I got my start with computer lab management in general, in sort of the higher ed industry. From there, you know, I was at Virginia Tech for a few years. And then I transitioned to a role here at Virginia Commonwealth University, managing all of the central computer labs and classrooms for the university. On both campuses, we have two campuses, our Monroe Park campus, which is our academic campus, and our medical college of Virginia campus, which is tied to our hospital system VCU health. And just to be clear, during this interview, I’m giving my own opinions. Anything that I say is not representative of what Virginia Commonwealth University would be representing. 

Derrick Hirschi  1:58

Perfect. Understood, thank you. So let’s move into the future of lab management. Let’s starting, you know, kind of talk about the future, [let’s] start with the past a little bit here. Can you walk us through how your work has changed over the course of the career you’ve just shared with us? 

Houston Griffith  2:12

Sure. So, you know, like I mentioned, I started in a part time role as a student employee at Virginia Tech. And, you know, looking back over a decade ago, to where I am at now…a lot of what we did a decade ago, is either completely irrelevant or pretty much on its way out. Some of the big things that have changed, I think, are to do with how we’re providing services to students. Now, certainly with, you know, the impact of the pandemic, which I’m sure we’ll get into a little bit more later. You know, the traditional mindset of providing x, y and z to students has changed a bit. So, from my view, how my work has changed over the course of my career thus far. For me, it’s also kind of looking at the scope, and how narrow and small the scale was, when I started out, having supported, just as a single school, with a few departments, and over the years, as I progressed, in my career, now to managing basically services to support classroom technology and computing, for an entire university, multiple campuses. There’s a shift away, I think, from doing things that [are] smaller scale and thinking more about the big picture. And now, beyond that, not just managing systems, but also people as well. So, for me, that’s been one way that a couple of ways that my work has changed over time.

Derrick Hirschi  3:50

And so in the last, you know, decade or however long it’s been you’ve been doing this, what tools were you using, say a decade ago that you’re not using? Now, you mentioned a lot of it’s changed? What are some of the things that you don’t utilize anymore?

Houston Griffith  4:03

So the ones that come to mind are tools like Norton Ghost, that was an imaging tool that we used? Yeah. Okay. And I’m sure that a lot of the listeners here are probably familiar with Ghost. Certainly, that whole concept of, you know, create this base image or golden image and then deploy it to systems either, you know, lab computers, laptops, whatever, that has really, a lot of the practice has shifted away from that sort of concept into just install a base operating system and then layer things on top of it.

Derrick Hirschi  4:38

Yeah, using a mass deployment tool of some kind.

Houston Griffith  4:40

Exactly. So I think a lot of higher ed institutions have now shifted their focus away from that. At least IT organizations within higher ed have shifted their focus away from doing things that way towards more of a…I guess you could say ‘scripted’ approach. And that’s sort of a double entendre. They’re scripted, as in the sense that they’re actually writing code like PowerShell, or, or Visual Basic, or hopefully not Visual Basic script anymore. But PowerShell and things like Python, to be able to automate a lot of that.

Derrick Hirschi  5:15

Yeah. Awesome. Yeah, automation of these tools is huge now.

Houston Griffith  5:18

Yeah. So that, but also this in the sense that they’re thinking about, what does the deployment workflow look like from ordering, all the way through receiving and preparing a device for deployment to handing it off to an end user to getting it back and retired. So the concept of Lifecycle Management, there’s tools that can help do a lot more of that, rather than just laying down a base image or installing applications. So like, for example, some of the tools that we’ve kind of transitioned into are things like Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager, which is formerly known as System Center Configuration Manager, for Windows devices. And then for Mac devices: App jam Pro is another one that we’re using. So we’ve kind of shifted away from that idea of using something like Ghost to create that big monolithic, thick image, if you will, to this streamlined approach.

Derrick Hirschi  6:19

And it’s a lot more customizable. Now, you don’t have to have specific images for specific labs anymore, you can just say, “Yep, you need this, you need this, you need this, you don’t need that.” And it’s just that easy to have a more unique software footprint, you might call it.

Houston Griffith  6:36

Yeah, and we’ve seen that a lot. What we used to do was, even when I started at VCU, in 2014, we were still sort of in that, “Let’s create a base image” mindset. And everybody at VCU was still doing very much that same practice. But over the years, we’ve implemented MECM and Jamf. In some ways, we’ve been given a choice. And in other ways, we’ve been forced to adopt this new method, where we find that installing all of the software packages we have available into a base image, it’s not really necessary. I mean, sure, it’s kind of like a broad stroke, just cover everybody with every piece of software, but that’s not really efficient,

Derrick Hirschi  7:16

Gets costly, real quick.

Houston Griffith  7:18

Yeah it gets costly, yeah that’s right! So you know, measuring that software usage, obviously, is something that we want to be able to do, and we don’t need to deploy every piece of software everywhere. So that’s another aspect of it.

Derrick Hirschi  7:32

So we’ve kind of gone over how this has changed your ability to do your work, it’s easier to get more granular control, I suppose you might say over what’s available? What are some of the nuances of your work that have become more important to you over the last few years? Primary concerns, as a lab management professional, they change and everything. What problems do you face on a daily basis? And how do you solve them?

Houston Griffith  7:58

For me, at least, I think it’s, again, kind of going back to what I mentioned earlier. When I started, when I started out, in higher ed, I was just a student worker, and I was part-time. So for me the level of impact of my decision making was very small. Very localized, it was very isolated. It was one school that I was supporting, and serving as backup for a larger college. But fast-forward to where we’re to today. For me, a lot of the decision making is based around, “Well, we have to take into consideration potentially, every student, faculty and staff member who may end up using a tool or service or piece of software, or computer lab.” So for me, it’s also trying to think of all those different angles that we might get questions about. Well, can I use this piece of software in this computer lab or on this laptop? And on a daily basis, I would say, some of the biggest issues or challenges that we’re trying to solve have to do with the logistics of managing those services at that university scale. So certainly, I’m not alone in that regard. There are plenty of other excellent people who work at VCU, both in the Central Technology Services Group, and within the schools and colleges. And our focus is really on trying to understand what the needs of faculty and students and staff are, and [to] try and address those as best we can. But for me, at least, I think the biggest change has been that impact or that scale at which things are happening.

Derrick Hirschi  9:3

So how do you keep track of, let’s say, the needs of this building versus that building, or even this floor of this building versus the lower floor? Like you said, you have to kind of understand who’s going to be using these machines, whether faculty or students or staff. How do you keep track of all that information?

Houston Griffith  9:55

Yeah, so I mean, a lot of it comes down to like our work with different departments. And what software they’re going to need for their computer lab versus another. So just as an example: we use a service management type of approach for some of our customers who have classrooms that are not what we consider centrally supported. Which means it’s the department’s responsibility to find things like service hardware, communicate the availability of those resources to their students. It’s not managed as a central resource. So even though my team does manage all of our central classrooms and computer labs, we also have these non central customers. So, one way we do that is with that agreement, and we’re basically kind of spelling out, “Alright, here’s what we provide, here’s what your needs are, or what you’ve told us your needs are.” And here’s how we kind of go about approaching whatever challenge you have, and solving it with something that we can do within the scope of what services we’re offering.

Derrick Hirschi  10:57  

So kind of a joint effort, then working with the departments or with the people who are kind of more in charge there and saying, “We provide these things, you want this stuff that’s up to you.”

Houston Griffith  11:06

Right, and it’s always sort of a give and take. There’s always some level of negotiation on what you’re being asked to do versus what we’re able to actually do. So, in some cases, it comes down to, “Alright, well, we can procure the hardware, and we can set it up for you. But there may be something that you need to do on your side to either assist your students or your faculty, and getting them additional support they need.” One of the big things we’ve been dealing with recently is we’re working with our School of Medicine to find a creative solution for their exam, and testing events. And that’s the sort of example where you’ve got a bunch of different programs for people who are going to be physicians very soon. And they need to be able to take this really high stakes examination. So we’ve been trying to set up an agreement with them, where they can just simply reach out to us and provide some very basic information, we can get the software that they need, from their Accreditation , install it, certify it, make sure it’s good to go, and then the students can actually take their exam. So it’s, a lot of it to me is less on the technical side of things and more on the logistics, how do we actually communicate that this service is…this is what the service that we’re providing covers, and the things that we’re doing versus the things we’re not able to do.

Derrick Hirschi  12:30

Well, and not to mention managing the testing environment, you know, making sure that there’s limiting opportunities for something like cheating or things like that. There’s a lot of factors that would go into that, that require a lot of coordination, I imagine.

Houston Griffith  12:42

Yeah, absolutely. And again, that’s kind of going back to the: what are our responsibilities as a service provider? And what are the responsibilities of…we’re providing that tool for them to use or that toolbox of tools. And you know, it’s really their job to actually pick the tools up and use them. So that’s kind of the way that I view the relationship from my point of view.

Derrick Hirschi  13:04

Interesting. Interesting. Let’s change track  a little bit. Let’s talk a bit about the Covid-19 pandemic? Can you once again, let’s start at the beginning. Can you walk us through the first few weeks of the pandemic at VCU? What were the action items? What emergent items need to be addressed? And how did you navigate those?

Houston Griffith  13:22

So it was sort of a scramble, as I’m sure it was for everyone.

Derrick Hirschi  13:27

(Laughs) You’re telling me.

Houston Griffith  13:29

We were actually in the middle of spring break when that announcement came down. And the university’s first action, I believe, was to limit in-person classes. And basically, what we did was we sort of transitioned from this model of, “Oh, we’ve got all these projects in the pipeline. And we’ve got all of these tickets that we’re still working on for classroom or computer lab issues” to “Stop, drop everything, do nothing but prepare loaner laptops.”

Derrick Hirschi  14:00

Yeah, they didn’t matter anymore. You know, you gotta fix these desktops and no one’s gonna use them.

Houston Griffith  14:06

Exactly. So, you know, we reached out to a few of our departments that we had been working with, through the service agreements, as mentioned and laptop carts, a few of them did offer to donate their laptops to us temporarily. So that was great. You know, we had the ability to prepare more laptops to meet the demand from students who actually needed them. And we continue that program, even though today, we’re still loaning laptops.

Derrick Hirschi  14:31

So did you guys have enough for those early days?

Houston Griffith  14:34

Uh, no. You had to reach out to those other departments. We did purchase some Chromebooks, but what we found is that initially we had, I think around 60 or 70 laptops to begin with, and that just wasn’t enough to meet the demand.

Derrick Hirschi  14:53

That doesn’t sound like very many.

Houston Griffith  14:56

A lot of them were already checked out, you know, and we had students who just held on to them and we told them, that’s okay, go ahead and keep them. But the students who didn’t have one, we only had really, I think two days of on-campus actual support available. And then from there, it was just: everything transitioned to shipping. So we were literally taking requests in, triaging our IT Support Center, our help desk, folks, they helped us immensely with triaging and checking eligibility requirements and all these other things.

Derrick Hirschi  15:27

It’s unheard of what everybody had to do just to get by, it’s crazy. 

Houston Griffith  15:34


Derrick Hirschi  15:35

So, we talked a little bit about loaner laptops as something you guys are still doing. Are there any other challenges you guys needed to address to accommodate students? Did you have other ways of getting resources to students other than these loaner laptops?

Houston Griffith  15:48

Yeah, so one of the bigger things that we’ve been kind of working on in the background is this idea of solving for, you know, software delivery, not just for the BYOD side of things, the bring your own device, that concept that students bring their own laptop, and the university is in some way able to deliver software to those devices. We’re not just trying to solve for that, it’s also we realize that sometimes a laptop just isn’t going to cut it. No matter how powerful it is, you may need a workstation class desktop computer.

Derrick Hirschi  16:23


Houston Griffith  16:23

And sometimes, there’s a good option for cloud, for virtual desktops to be able to do that. But in a lot of cases, it requires remote access to an actual desktop computer. We have one scenario with that for a department that we support under a service agreement, where their students need to be able to run things like ArcGIS, and City Engine, and Photoshop and Illustrator in some of these other tools that they’re using. And their laptops, either they may not have a laptop that supports that software. So for example, with, you know, tools like ArcGIS, they may not be able to run it on a MacBook. So they need to be able to access that computer lab remotely. And we are using LabStats for that. So, okay, we’re using that tool to be able to enable them to solve that need.

Derrick Hirschi  17:19

And so the interesting thing, and this is something that I’ve said, in a few different tech talks, I’ve said it to a number of different people is that: Personally, I feel like a lot of students are going to look at this and go, “Hang on this whole remote school thing worked just fine. Why can’t we just keep doing this?” Do you think some of these changes were things that were going to happen anyways? Or do you think the pandemic was kind of really the catalyst for a lot of this stuff that really wouldn’t have happened otherwise?

Houston Griffith  17:52

Yeah, I mean, I do think that some of these things were on their way to more full exploration of the challenges and what solutions would be needed to solve them well before the pandemic. So, for example, we saw the increased demand for loaner laptops well before the pandemic began. In the in terms of, of how we’re providing that service, obviously, we had to kind of think up a new way to do that we had closed, but now that we are open again we were kind of going back, and I guess, re-evaluating, and adjusting some of the offerings to meet students where they are. We realize that there’s going to be some cases where, for example, a student simply can’t come to campus because they live too far away, and it would take hours to get to campus. Or, maybe they live with someone who’s immunocompromised, and for them, it would be putting that person at unnecessary risk. So there’s cases where we have to deal with that sort of thing and adjust our services to better meet those needs. And, beyond that, there’s there’s certainly other cases as well. So software is certainly a big one. I think that’s a big [one]. Software delivery, specifically, I think is a big challenge for a lot of universities right now. 

Derrick Hirschi  19:13

Yeah. Do you think the changes…like I was talking saying earlier, do you think these changes are kind of permanent in a way? I mean, it’s like we see nationwide, we see people are now calling, “Well, work from home has worked wonderfully for us. No need to go back to the office,”. Do you think there’s going to be a similar movement for students on campus, or off campus? Maybe as the case may be.

Houston Griffith  19:36

I think there’s the potential for some of these changes to become permanent, but I think it’s going to be more [of] instead of an industry wide trend. I do think that some of it is going to come down to what the culture of that particular institution is. If the culture is very hands on, then they may return to in-person learning, but if there’s a good case to be made, that students can learn effectively from home remotely with maybe a less of a focus on in-person learning. I think that’s definitely a possibility. I myself don’t, obviously, have any authority to make that call. But you know, at the same time, I do think that in some ways students might end up looking at that as an opportunity to kind of assess: “Alright, well if I wasn’t able to attend the school, because it’s out of state and, for me having to be there in person is not an option. But if I can, you know, learn online,”. Opening up those online learning resources, so that students can attend other schools remotely, and get their degree online, I think that’s definitely something that schools will likely look at in the future is the expanded presence of online only learning. We started to see that I think, with a lot of schools before the pandemic began. But now I think the pandemic has accelerated…

Derrick Hirschi  21:00

Accelerated. Yeah. 

Houston Griffith  21:01

…the desire by students to be able to learn online.

Derrick Hirschi  21:04

And it’s interesting, you know, you say, you know, you’re not an expert, and not not necessarily one to one guy to listen to you to make predictions, but you’re definitely the one who has to support it, if that’s the way that things decide to go.

Houston Griffith  21:17

Yeah, and in a lot of ways, what we’re trying to do, I think, is temper, what we’re able to provide, in terms, not just from a technical point of view, but also there’s, there’s always this sort of, I guess, balancing act of you have the funding to be able to provide a technical solution. But do you have the support staff from the logistics point of view to be able to actually support it.

Derrick Hirschi  21:39

Can you maintain it? You’re right. 

Houston Griffith  21:40


Derrick Hirschi  21:42

So you mentioned that your campus was open again, it? Was that my understanding? Or did I misunderstand?

Houston Griffith  21:50

We actually return to in person learning on some in person learning and hybrid classes on March 4.

Derrick Hirschi  21:57

Oh, so just like this last week, then. 

Houston Griffith  22:00


Derrick Hirschi  22:01

What did the return to campus plans look like as you guys were gearing up for that? And what’s the plan going forward?

Houston Griffith  22:08

Um, well, I’m not really authorized to talk about the return to campus plans that would have to come from our University Relations.

Derrick Hirschi  22:13

Okay. Understood. 

Houston Griffith  22:14

My team’s point of view is trying to prepare to make sure that classrooms, the computers in the classrooms, were in good working order, and making sure that we were still keeping up with the requests that we were getting for loaner laptops, or Adobe licenses and things like that.

Derrick Hirschi  22:33

Okay. Do you think…we’ve touched on this just a little bit…do you plan on retaining some of these programs, you mentioned, loaner laptops, some of these other things, remote access, for example, or VMs, you might have set up. Do you plan on retaining these long term, do you think?

Houston Griffith  22:51

I think there is definitely a chance that we’ll retain some of the unique agreements that we’ve made with certain schools that we support. How does that get implemented long term? I think there’s definitely going to be a need to review how we operate. And certainly there’s going to be a, I think, a shift in strategy to how we do some things. For example, I keep mentioning software delivery. That’s a big one that we’re thinking about now. And I mean, I think what I would like to see is us being able to expand on some of those service offerings. But at the same time my concern is: “How are we going to do that, in the future?” Is it going to be that we go entirely one direction or entirely the other? Or is it going to be more of a kind of meet in the middle approach? And I think that it’s likely going to end up being that meet in the middle approach. 

Derrick Hirschi  23:49

Yeah. Yeah. So speaking of long term, what do you think the next five to 10 years look like? As far as the lab management space goes? Just if you were to give your thoughts on like I said, the next five to 10 years?

Houston Griffith  24:02

Yeah, I think once we get past the pandemic, and we’re five to 10 years down the road… It’s kind of hard to predict what a computer lab is going to look like 10 years from now. Right? Right. 10 years ago, it would have been very, very easy to predict what a computer lab of 2021 would look like. I mean, it would still to this day, kind of looks very much the same as it did 10 years ago. But now that there’s such an increased focus on some of these things that we’re doing during the pandemic like physical distancing, and dealing with capacity issues… 

Derrick Hirschi  24:03


Houston Griffith  24:04

…virtualization, right. I think that there’s going to be some shifts in how computer lab management is thought of, in the traditional sense of: 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. I think that the traditional model may shift to more of a, let’s demonstrate the need for these systems based on demand. And let’s find out, let’s find out if that is the best solution moving forward. It may or may not be. I mean, there certainly…I had this conversation with a colleague earlier today, I think there’s always going to be a component of there being a physical computer lab that students access either remotely or in person.

Derrick Hirschi  25:27


Houston Griffith  25:27

And I think the reason for that is pretty simple. Right now, it’s still, in a lot of ways…it can be cheaper, if you have very high requirements for performance. Like, for example: if you need to be able to render video, or anything in 3d, it may be cheaper for you just to buy a set of workstations for that computer lab and give students access to them. Rather than trying to do that with a cloud solution or a VDI solution for that matter. So, there’s some use cases, I think we’re always going to have in-person or physical computer labs that people access that way. But I think there will be for the more generalized lab computing, a higher focus placed or bigger focus placed on students having a device of their own, that can meet most of those requirements. And for the ones that they can’t, universities being able to provide some of those additional resources.

Derrick Hirschi  26:26

Or where the licensing is limited.

Houston Griffith  26:27

Or where the licensing is limited. Yeah, that’s another use case where you may have this really esoteric kind of software license agreement with a vendor, and you don’t have a choice. But to just install that software on those computer lab systems. And then the only way you can provide that is in person. Yeah, that’s…you may not have a choice.

Derrick Hirschi  26:48

And, as we were going back and forth to see, you mentioned something in some of our materials, as we were getting ready for this interview, you talked about a classic “pick two” triangle. With the criteria being you know, you have cost quality and simplicity. And you can only pick two, and I thought that was an interesting take on it.

Houston Griffith  27:07

Yeah, it’s one of those sort of strange mental models, we used to think about things in terms of administering that type of support to students, like you get to, you’re exactly right, you get to pick two of the three, not all three. And often, in some cases, one of your choices may even be degraded from full support. So, you have to drastically simplify something, or you have to drastically reduce the cost, or find a way to do it cheaper, or you have to drastically improve the quality of a solution, or many of those things. Finding that balance, I think, is always a challenge. But, the other thing that strikes me as something we’re going to see in the future is a lot more flexibility in terms of how a lot of these computer lab solutions are being leveraged. Especially with that shift to online. At least for VCU, we saw almost all of our student body shift within a couple of weeks and our faculty to using Zoom. I’m not going to be the person to say it was easy, because I don’t have direct experience like faculty and students. But, from what I saw, there was this sort of immediate shift from in person to online. And if we had not had a solution to do that, we wouldn’t have wielded the flexibility to be able to continue offering classes, and I’m not even sure where we would be, or many other universities would be without the ability to do this online learning through tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. And there’s other tools that allow that.

Derrick Hirschi  28:54  

What was kind of interesting, I was in a similar situation, at least with my…I have two kids that are in elementary school, and all of a sudden, it was like, “Okay, we’re doing school from home over Zoom.” And it was like, you know, I’ve got a kid in kindergarten, right? To do kindergarten over Zoom. But everybody just kind of had to figure it out because there wasn’t another choice.

Houston Griffith  29:14

Yeah, absolutely. 

Derrick Hirschi  29:17

So jumping…pandemic aside, we’ve talked a little bit about how student’s needs are changing before the pandemic, let’s say outside of it. What direction… Like we said, we were kind of moving in that loaner laptop direction. You’re kind of moving in the direction of providing things to students, rather than providing a location for them to go to. If that’s how it was before the pandemic, and we’ve definitely sped up going that direction now. Has that…I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s changed, other than it’s just going faster.

Houston Griffith  29:52

Yeah, I think that’s true. There’s definitely a…to me, at least it feels like we have sort of made this…I guess you could say it’s it’s sort of a realization that we’ve made a shift from what we’ve done traditionally to having to figure out how to do this in a way that allows us to continue to be flexible on delivery of learning, technology, what have you. And the technology resources piece is one that I would kind of like to focus on. Just because if students don’t have access to those tools, what does that say about their path in terms of finishing their degree or finishing their course of study? And if they have to go and kind of figure that out for themselves? Certainly, there’s always a case to be made that there’s some things that university just can’t provide. We can’t solve necessarily for every single need, but at the same time, could we at least provide guidance? Even if we can’t buy the software? Can we provide a pathway for students to buy that software? Or, for example, if we can’t provide them a laptop, can we at least partner with hardware vendors and manufacturers to obtain a discount at the university level for them to be able to buy it at a discounted rate? So that’s the kind of programming I’m thinking of. Is it reasonable to expect that a student comes to a university and they automatically get handed a laptop with all the software that they need, already installed on it ready to go? And they don’t have to do anything? I don’t think that’s reasonable, necessarily to assume that that’s going to happen. But, you know, is that something to aim for? Certainly.

Derrick Hirschi  31:48

Well, the interesting thing that strikes me that you as you talk about: can we provide these things? What can we provide? If we can’t, how do we go about helping another in another method, but there are colleges out there, there are universities out there that may be taking this exact thing. It’s..you kind of end up with a traditional problem of, “Alright, can we do this, and if we can’t, will students…maybe maybe they’ll go find what they want somewhere else. A student who doesn’t want to go on campus may find that there are colleges that are more, maybe more equipped, or more positioned to offer that kind of thing. So that has to be a consideration as well, I would imagine.

Houston Griffith  32:28

Yeah. And I think that’s to the competitive nature, you know, in speaking into the competitive nature of higher education. 

Derrick Hirschi  32:34


Houston Griffith  32:35

Students choose their school, where they want to attend, where they want to finish their degree. I’m not sure that that is necessarily the criteria that they were looking at before the pandemic, but I think it will be in the future. And I think it’s something that speaks volumes to how we provide services to students now versus what we’re planning to do in the future. Certainly there’s a greater emphasis placed on some of that material technology support that we’re doing. Not just in helping students get the device that fits their course of study or their needs best, but also the after the fact kind of support. So are they going to a computer lab, but finding out that it doesn’t have the software that they actually need to run? Or that in trying to find where that software is available in a computer lab, that it’s not even available for them to download themselves for their own laptop?

Derrick Hirschi  33:32

Right? Is there a good way to tell them where they can find it? Even if that’s just: these are offers available here on campus. Something like that.

Houston Griffith  33:41

Yeah. And I think that that’s going to continually be a challenge, but I don’t know that students are going to get specific down to a piece of software to say, “Oh, I’m going to choose this school over another because of software.”

Derrick Hirschi  33:53

Well, right. 

Houston Griffith  33:54

But it may be more in line with their thinking about adding that overall technology resource availability, as something they think about when choosing. 

Derrick Hirschi  34:06

Exactly, exactly.

Houston Griffith  34:07

That might definitely happen I think.

Derrick Hirschi  34:09

So are there any student requests or use cases that surprise you, as you’re working through all these different situations? They come up and you’re like, “Wow, I never thought about that before.”

Houston Griffith  34:22

I’m at this point not really.

Derrick Hirschi  34:25

Seen at all, huh?

Houston Griffith  34:26

Yeah. Well, we don’t really get that many crazy requests, to be honest with you. It’s more that we see some of the trends shifting over time. Like a decade ago, VCU, a student population was primarily using Windows laptops. And I think it was almost like two thirds. Nowadays, it’s two thirds of MacBooks. 

Derrick Hirschi  34:46

That’s interesting. 

Houston Griffith  34:47

It’s a really interesting shift. I don’t know if a lot of that is driven by consumer behavior trends. I guess you could say people are shifting from one side of the preference spectrum to the other in terms of whether they want to use a Windows device, a MacOS device. [Or] not a laptop at all, like, maybe they just want to use their phone or a tablet. So I mean, there’s definitely expansion of choices. When I was a student, many, many years ago at Virginia Tech, we were basically told: “Buy this,” and there wasn’t really much in the way of the ability to factor in personal preference. So I don’t know if that’s necessarily so much as surprising as it is…I see the trend moving much more in a direction where, I guess you could say we’re trying to be flexible, more flexible with what technology needs students have. But also to me the biggest surprise is that shift in the overall preference of end users from one operating system to another? I mean, is that because we have more students who just simply prefer a MacBook to a Windows laptop? Or is there something else at play there?

Derrick Hirschi  36:14

And that kind of speaks to the answer to my next question a bit. It was: how you anticipate students’ needs changing in the future. We kind of talked about that a bunch already, where you’re saying delivering things in some of these different methods to make sure the students can get what they need, or what they want, in a way that makes sense, given the technology they have now.

Houston Griffith  36:35

Yeah, and you know, in trying to, I guess, understand how that’s going to change in the future. Even more I don’t know, I mean, it to me, it seems like there’s several different things in play there. So a big one being a lot of software vendors I think, are catching on to this idea that their product as a service or their product as a subscription. That certainly may factor into how universities do software management or software license compliance or even software delivery itself.

Derrick Hirschi

As much as we might shake our heads and be like, “Oh my goodness, not another subscription!”

Everything is a subscription, right?

Derrick Hirschi  37:19

Everything! Everything. Can we do this as a live service? “No, please stop.” All right, well, Houston, we really appreciate you joining us. This has been a fantastic [conversation]. I’ve learned a lot about your guy’s perspective on stuff. I think this has been wonderful. So once again, this has been Houston Griffith with us with Virginia Commonwealth University Houston, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Houston Griffith  37:42

Thank you for having me.


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