How Ryerson is keeping data flowing during the pandemic
As chief information officer, Brian Lesser leads Computing and Communications Services (CCS) and is responsible for making sure Ryerson stays connected and safe online. He and his team played a pivotal role in shifting in-person classes to virtual and alternative modes of delivery, and in the transition to essential services on campus.
RT: When did you first realize COVID-19 was going to really affect how Ryerson operates?
BL: It was a gradual process that started when we began updating our pandemic plan in January. That was when Chinese authorities first confirmed the novel coronavirus was spreading from person to person. That seems like a long time ago.
RT: You had a plan specifically to keep Ryerson going during a pandemic?
BL: Yes, there was an IT plan that came out of our experience with SARS in 2002, which was updated again after H1N1 some years later.
RT: When did your team ramp up preparations for Ryerson’s COVID-19 response?
BL: In February we ramped up by identifying essential systems, making sure they could perform under increased load. Our teams started meeting online even though most of us were still onsite at that point just to make sure everything worked. We did a survey of our IT employees and found almost everyone was well equipped for working at home.
RT: How has the pandemic affected your team’s workload?
BL: Many of our staff are putting in a lot of extra hours – especially our helpdesk and instructor support staff. The Digital Media Projects team, which is part of Ryerson’s Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, started work at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 14 and have been working relentlessly since. They have been working hard to provide guidance to faculty and instructors and help them figure out and implement alternative ways to deliver their courses.
RT: How did things go during the transition week?
BL: The transition week was a great idea because it provided time for everyone involved in teaching to develop alternative approaches for completing their courses. They could experiment with setting up meetings in Zoom, try creating a variety of online tests in our learning management system and ask our support staff questions.
All things considered our services ran as they should so people could continue working with them much as they had in the past. Our staff have been fantastic. They’ve risen to all sorts of challenges. They’ve shown great thoughtfulness, resilience and determination. That’s been wonderful to experience.
"The truth is that everything has to be monitored all the time. Failing hardware has to be replaced, software updated, cyberattacks detected and responded to."
RT: What misconceptions do you think persist about what it takes to keep IT and communications networks going in extraordinary times?
BL: Some people have the misconception that IT services and hardware run themselves. The truth is that everything has to be monitored all the time. Failing hardware has to be replaced, software updated, cyberattacks detected and responded to. A lot of effort has gone into automating everything we can, but we still have our hands full.
RT: What are some challenges with working from home that people might not realize?
BL: Working at home can have real benefits. Some people are relieved to not have to make the long daily commute and are grateful to spend more time with their family.
But there are other situations where working from home brings extra challenges, for example, where both parents are working from home and have to take turns caring for very young children because their daycare is closed. For staff whose work is centred on maintaining classrooms and other equipment on campus, working at home may mean doing unfamiliar work.
In a time of crisis people want to really help out and go the extra mile. When circumstances beyond their control make that hard, it can be frustrating for them.
"In a time of crisis people want to really help out and go the extra mile."
RT: What were some of the difficulties you faced leading up to the transition to essential services only on campus?
BL: The shift to essential services was challenging in other ways. Staff and faculty were taking equipment home in anticipation of having to work remotely. Our end-user computing team was very busy getting equipment ready for them and gradually shifted to remote troubleshooting. It’s been an adjustment for the people who depend on us to keep working as well. Many are used to the in-office, personal service our staff provides.
RT: Do you have any tips to help community members remain safe online or maintain good digital practices while working from home?
- Now is not a good time to take risks by installing pirated games, downloading pirated movies or clicking on links in emails you weren’t expecting. Having your computer compromised is much more serious these days when you can’t go to a repair shop or to campus for help.
- If you don’t have antivirus software, go and get it. If you do have it, update it now and keep it up to date. Do a full scan of your computer.
- Make sure all your software is always up to date. Auto-updates are your friend.
This is one story in a series about how Ryerson University departments have successfully faced the challenges presented by COVID-19.
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