Keeping Illinois connected remotely




  • CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Since universities sent students and employees home in mid-March as part of the greater societal effort to counter the COVID-19 pandemic, online platforms have become essential for teaching classes, meeting with colleagues and getting the institutions’ work done.

    In the first couple of weeks, the technology got a bad rap because of some well-publicized issues – instances of hackers infiltrating videoconferences and problems uploading content, for example. But “we’ve had a lot of good successes with the phenomenal increases in usage,” said Drew MacGregor, the director of enterprise applications and development for Technology Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    “We’re able to deliver to students in a suboptimal environment. There are a lot of positives,” he said.

    Technology Services has been keeping detailed data on the use of various online platforms since the beginning of March. The week before spring break, there were almost 31,000 hours of Zoom sessions at the U. of I. with 57,500 participants. The week after spring break, those numbers had increased to 192,000 hours and almost 298,000 participants. Kaltura usage saw similar increases, from 12,000 hours of viewing time to 34,300 hours. In the following weeks, it reached more than 40,000 hours.

    MacGregor and his team have spent many long days making sure U. of I. faculty members, staff and students can access the technology and campus resources from remote worksites, and staying abreast of daily security changes.

    Here are a few of the ways the U. of I. is using technology to maintain its mission and keep students, faculty members and staff connected while they are away from campus.

    Therapy sessions move online

    Therapists at McKinley Health Center continue to meet with students for virtual therapy sessions through an encrypted videoconferencing account and private online meeting rooms.

    “I feel extremely fortunate that we have this as a resource to still be providing mental health services to students,” said therapist Lauren Boucek. “McKinley administrators have been nudging providers to get trained and equipped to provide telehealth for at least a year. Our IT department was really ahead of the curve in terms of getting familiar with the online platform and how to use it in a health-care setting before we were dependent on it.”

    Providing therapy online has its challenges, including shaky internet connections and students finding a private, quiet space at home in which to talk to a therapist – crucial to having an effective therapy session, Boucek said. But having a video platform helps her assess and connect with her patients.

    “We really need to be able to see a person in order to do a thorough assessment. Are they shaky, jittery, can’t sit still? What is their affect like? Does it match what they are saying? Have they not showered or done any personal hygiene in the past two weeks? It can be really diagnostic for us,” Boucek said.

    She has a full calendar of appointments and, she said, “Students are grateful and relieved this is available to them.”

    Library hangouts

    University Library staff members have been getting together online since late March for a weekly lunchtime video chat. University Library Dean John Wilkin began scheduling them to keep his staff connected, and more than 100 people have been joining.

    “There are bound to be things I can update them on, but for the most part I want to use this as an opportunity to get together, share strategies and talk about how things are going,” Wilkin said.

    His colleagues share stories through the chat window on topics spanning pets to cooking to mental health resources.

    “It’s been really uplifting. We talk about what’s been on our minds and how we’re getting through the day and keeping busy. Ninety percent of the call is just checking in on each other,” said Heather Murphy, the library’s chief communications officer. “We consider ourselves a close-knit family, even though we’ve got 400 employees in the library.”

    Making library materials available

    Before classes moved online, Wilkin assembled a group to look at how the library could help faculty and students continue with instruction. While most of the library’s spending is for electronic resources, “our collection is famously large. We circulate a half million volumes per year,” Wilkin said. “I asked them to focus on the gaps.”

    The U. of I. is part of the HathiTrust Emergency Temporary Access Service to provide online reading access to print materials that are currently unavailable, including those still under copyright protection. HathiTrust has digital copies of 46% of the library’s 9 million print volumes.

    If someone requests material that is essential for teaching or research and is not available digitally, library officials try to purchase a digital version. If that’s not possible, the print version is scanned and provided digitally, such as an engineering manual recently scanned for one course. The last resort – which happens rarely – is for someone to retrieve the print copy for the requester.

    Latino students stay connected

    The Latino Student Association’s spring events moved online this year. The organization recently held its election on videoconference, with 22 candidates giving speeches live during the remote meeting or providing a link to a recorded video on a video-sharing platform. Members voted online via a digital form.

    Last week’s alumni panel was on videoconference. Alumni who would usually come to campus instead met with students through video breakout rooms to talk about careers.

    The student organization’s meetings also have continued online since students left campus. Senior Ana Bermero, the president of the Latino Student Association, said the online meetings have offered comfort for students.

    “The first time we met, it was such a breath of fresh air. We were all really unsure of everything that was happening,” she said. “We’re trying to be a community for the members. There’s not much incentive anymore to be at our meetings other than wanting to be there. I’m glad they are there to hear other people and laugh at the jokes.”

    Housing continues classes, training

    University Housing used online interviews to hire its residence hall coordinators for fall move-in day, and they now are being trained via videoconference meetings. They are learning their responsibilities for recruiting and overseeing several hundred I-Guides and for the logistics of move-in day, and they are getting to know each other and practicing leadership skills through interactive exercises, said Kim Otchere, the assistant director of social justice and leadership education for housing.

    Housing is also using videoconferencing for an education course focusing on cross-cultural communication that is required for its resident advisers and multicultural advocates.

    “This class is dialogue-based, so the switch to online was particularly concerning. Video breakout meetings are nice because a lot of the dialogue we do is in small groups,” said Nathan Sanden, the assistant director for academic programs for University Housing.

    Many of housing’s Living Learning Communities offer free music lessons taught by graduate students in music. All of them have continued the lessons virtually, Sanden said.

    Other classes offered through the Living Learning Communities are also continuing, even lab-based courses, Sanden said. A photography instructor has switched from darkroom work to a digital photography format, and students who used a campus music studio for an electroacoustic music class are now doing projects with music software.

    Editor’s notes: To contact Drew MacGregor, email To contact John Wilkin, email