As Vice-President for Information Technology & Chief Information Officer at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, one of the largest and most impactful educational institutions in western North Carolina, I have had a front-row seat during the COVID-19 crisis and have perhaps a unique perspective on the challenges encountered and lessons learned during the College’s (and community’s) adaptations to this changing environment.
By virtue of a decade of reinvigorated attention to the value of technology within modern higher-education, A-B Tech entered the crisis is a stronger position than many of sister colleges within the North Carolina Community College System, and a stronger position than many other corporate entities and governmental agencies in the region. When NC’s community colleges were instructed in March of 2020 to switch operations to 100% online, A-B Tech was well situated to make this transition and already had much of the infrastructure in place to facilitate that transition. That’s not to say that considerable investments of money, time and labor weren’t needed on a very compressed timeline or that everything had been figured out ahead of time but A-B Tech was fortunate in being able to rapidly make adjustments and deploy resources to quickly resume operations in a radically altered format. As we assess the hurdles already overcome and the difficulties which remain, one of the most universal and foundational challenges is connectivity.
As an institution, A-B Tech can implement solid systems and processes to provide for efficient and effective remote instruction and support, we can deliver software and hardware to enable home-based employees and students alike, we can offer training to facilitate the use of such technology – but we are very restricted in our ability to provide employees or students with the fast and reliable Internet access which necessarily underpins all such remote-working arrangements. We have implemented web-based and cloud-hosted solutions, have deployed laptops, webcams, headsets and mobile WiFi hotspots, have instituted new policies and procedures to adapt operations to fix demands, have established COVID-conscious computer labs and have invited the community to use our parking lots for connectivity from inside one’s car, etc. Only in limited situations, however, have we been able to solve a connectivity challenge with cellular access points or other workaround approaches. Cutting across socioeconomic lines, crossing the urban/rural boundaries, impacting people without regard for educational attainment or financial situation, the very real challenge of high-speed Internet access throughout western North Carolina impacts students, faculty, staff and senior administration at A-B Tech, as it similarly impacts our local businesses and our regional K-12 schools. Broadband Internet access has quickly proven to be a core requirement of “the new normal,” as fundamental to modern life as electricity and running water.Brian Willis, VP of IT/CIO Information Technology, A-B Tech Community College