How the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions paved the way for the University of Birmingham’s technical teams to innovate and support students.
“Obstacles are not only to be expected but embraced. Embraced? Yes, because these obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and, ultimately, to triumph. The obstacle is the way."
- The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday
One of the things that struck me most, when we first went into lockdown at the University of Birmingham (UoB), was how much people were talking about what we could no longer do, in terms of working from home. It felt like the battens were being pulled down.
What I saw instead, across the core infrastructure team, was everyone figuring out what we could do, what opportunities there might be, and how this aligned with business priorities.
There is a lot of work that goes on in technical teams that is very difficult to do when the university is full of students. For instance, trying to find a suitable time to shut down banks of computers or other hardware for updates can feel impossible, but with students off campus during lockdown, we found the perfect time to undertake this kind of essential maintenance.
Teamwork makes the dream work
I was very impressed with the way the team took to the challenge – I expected they’d do really well, but they exceeded my expectation; not only finding ways to carry out maintenance, but actively looking for other ways to innovate and improve services as well. For instance, several teams came together and in less than a week migrated library machines to our datacentres and got them ready for students to connect to remotely.
I witnessed teams across the organisation instantly scale up their services for remote connectivity, and make sure they ran smoothly throughout lockdown.
Another common ‘expectation’ that proved to be unfounded was that there would be a drop in communication once everyone was working remotely. In fact, from what I saw the opposite happened. We have a great comms team at UoB and they worked hard to keep everyone in touch. In many areas communication even improved with everyone taking to Teams to not only talk about work, but to engage socially as well. It really highlighted for us just how much can be done from home, and that the team was even more productive than when they were working on site.
I also noticed a renewed focus on work-life balance. Because staff were able to be more flexible, I’ve had anecdotal reports such as being able to spend more time with children, or other family members. That’s helped enormously with mental health and satisfaction in the team, which all feeds back to improved productivity. We all know if we’re happy at work, we’re likely to get more done, and on top of that, to want to do more.
The university’s leadership team has been great in supporting that flexibility – senior leaders said from day one that they realised the organisation would have to make allowances for people’s home lives, and all managers were told, without hesitation, that we had to be understanding of that. The message was clear – families first. Needless to say, this has been very well received by staff.
Keeping students connected
Of course, lockdown hasn’t been without its challenges, but for us it’s been about framing them in a positive light and doing all we can to solve the problem. For example, we had a lot of students who were at home in China who needed to gain access to on-campus resources in the UK. We realised we were going to have to find a way to get them the access they needed, but we also had to respectful of the national legal and technical regulations in China.
So, with the help of Jisc, we started using the global education access framework, which allows students domiciled in China to reliably and efficiently connect to educational services such as course materials, support resources, and so on. The solution isn’t about providing unfettered access to the internet, or a way to bypass China’s firewalls, but about giving learners as much of a guarantee as possible that they will be able to access services they need for educational purposes.
A large part of that project involved making sure the right services were available via the solution, provided by Alibaba Cloud, and then using data analytics to understand how those services are being used, which will help us model for the future. Although it’s been an essential part of maintaining services through lockdown, it has also opened up opportunities beyond the pandemic, such as increased possibilities for transnational education.
Lockdowns and other COVID-related restrictions have really shone a light on the importance of reliable and robust digital infrastructure, and despite its overall devastating effect on the world, we’ve managed to find pockets of positivity as a technical team. We’ll definitely be taking what we’ve learned from this experience into the future – both on technical and personal fronts.
To hear more about turning obstacles into opportunity, sign up for Networkshop49, where Renyk will be discussing the topic further.
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