An opportunity for change
Having gone from crisis management to emergency planning to preparing for a return to campus, Instructional and Information Technology Services (IITS) has been at the forefront of change in what became a virtual world at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Over the past year we’ve had to pivot from in-person to online and, despite the challenges, we began to think about things differently, broadening our minds and turning to technology to help adapt to our changing circumstances,” says France Bigras, associate vice president of information systems and chief information officer.
After an initial burst of activity at the start of the pandemic to supply the Concordia community with the tools and equipment necessary to continue working and learning in a virtual environment, IITS began to lay the groundwork for the months ahead.
Collaborating across many different units at the university, IITS helped train both students and teachers alike on pre-existing virtual teaching and learning tools such a Zoom, YuJa and Moodle. IITS also launched COLE (Concordia Online Exams), an online platform that includes electronic proctoring and allows students to do their exams remotely.
A major transformation to support new ways of working in a remote environment was accelerated through the availability and promotion of Microsoft 365 online-collaboration tools including video conferencing, telephony, file sharing and chat.
Virtual event hosting capabilities were developed in collaboration with Hospitality Concordia which allowed events such as Open House and convocation to continue despite lockdowns and travel restrictions. It also provided senior administration with the tools necessary to communicate to a wider community via monthly virtual town hall meetings.
As one of the first groups at Concordia to host a virtual conference, IITS brought in record-breaking attendance at the Canadian University Council of Chief Information Officers (CUCCIO) annual Canadian Higher Education Information Technology (CANHEIT) Conference, which brings together higher education IT leaders from across Canada. It even featured Bigras as a hologram, fitting well with the “Artfully Innovative” theme.
As the virtual world evolved, so did the ever-increasing threat of cybersecurity attacks.
As the pandemic wore on, explains Bigras, “Cybercriminals began to use the chaos and confusion surrounding the pandemic as a way of infiltrating IT systems, and the education sector became a prime target, considering the sheer volume of extraordinary valued digital assets that we collect, produce, distribute, share and manage in our institutions as part of research and academic activities.”
Fraudulent emails about vaccine registration, COVID funding, back-to-work policies and more became more prevalent and more convincing than ever.
“With the pandemic, we realized the potential weaknesses in our infrastructure and information security systems, and this allowed us to meet those challenges head on,” says Bigras.
In lightning speed, Concordia accelerated the adoption of multi-factor authentication for a wide variety of public-facing systems. A new information security policy was launched in conjunction with mandatory phishing training for faculty and staff, to sensitize and educate the community about the wide variety of cyberthreats facing the university.
Additionally, a new end-point security platform was installed on all university-owned devices, protecting individual computers and the Concordia network.
“We’ve worked hard to adapt to our changing circumstances and continue to evolve to the new and ever-changing cybersecurity environment,” she says.
Working with Concordia's data governance stakeholders, IITS has initiated a significant data-driven transformation by providing a modern cloud-based business intelligence and data-governance platform to provide easy access to data, leverage that data to support analytics and predictions and meet data-protection requirements.
Despite the pandemic and the required demands the new virtual environment placed on IITS, the team continued to move forward on several key university projects.
In collaboration with Human Resources and Finance, IITS continued to be a major contributor to UNITY, Concordia’s new finance and HR system, helping with design, configurations, system interfaces, data conversion, testing, security and disaster recovery.
An electronic signature solution based on Docusign was deployed to improve user experience, reduce delays and our ecological footprint, and improve security when approval/consent signatures are required from employees, students, faculty members and external parties, such as vendors and partners.
Additionally, working closely with University Communication Services, IITS assisted with the development of a new mobile app for students and a new user-friendly online platform allowing students, faculty and staff to find the information and resources they need. Carrefour, for faculty and staff, and the Student Hub, for students, replaced MyConcordia, which was initially launched in 2002.
The newly vacated campus also presented IITS with a unique opportunity.
“Thinking ahead to the possibility of a hybrid in-person/online future, we began upgrading the technology in numerous classrooms and meeting rooms across campus,” says Bigras, conceding that it hasn’t been easy given global shortages of certain products.
On-campus internet and Wi-Fi capacity was significantly increased to support hybrid learning and hybrid work, where videoconferencing is now the norm.
Despite the challenges and sometimes daunting workload, Bigras has seen this crisis as a chance for innovation.
“Our situation has presented an opportunity to be visionaries, reimagine the future of universities and apply what we’ve learned and how we’ve adapted. Things will certainly be different, and IT and technology will be the backbone of this change.”