A Journey to the Center of Technology

If you’ve ever had a problem with your laptop, then chances are good that you’re familiar with the help desk, located under Christ the King chapel. What you may not know about, however, is the room across the hall where a majority of the work is done.

Last Monday, I had the opportunity to enter this office space and meet with some members of the technology center, who were more than willing to talk about the work they were doing on campus and share a few laughs in the process. From the very beginning, I felt welcomed by the staff there. One woman, whose name I regrettably missed, greeted me at the door and helped me find my way to Jim Anderson, the Chief Technology Officer on campus, who led me to his corner office in the room and offered me a seat.

As a student at Loras in today’s society, it can be often too easy to find fault in technology. After all, many of us come from homes where the wifi flows freely and Facebook loads without a problem. But on a campus where roughly 1,500 students, faculty, and staff members are all fighting for the same connection, problems begin to arise, which is where the technology center comes in.

For the size of the campus, the technology staff is small, hiring only a small handful of people to serve the Loras community in a number of ways. Some common duties for the small crew include making sure that all areas of campus are covered by the wireless connection, repairing broken technology, and the general maintenance associated with running large servers. Services such as IQ and Inside Loras are all maintained by the technology center and used by virtually every student on campus.

In today’s world, where technology is constantly changing and evolving, simple upkeep is not enough. Upgrades are a frequent necessity, particularly in a time where the demand for wireless Internet is so great. Tablets, gaming consoles, and outside laptops are all constantly connected to the campus’ guest network, wGuest, and as a result, few are able to use the data necessary. At some peak hours during the day, even wLoras is sluggish at best, frustrating students and faculty alike.

In the coming months, the technology center hopes to change that. If all goes according to plan, students coming back after Christmas break will be greeted by a connection equipped with twice as much bandwidth, effectively doubling the data the campus has to work with. In addition, the extra data will be purchased from a separate source, meaning that if one provider has an outage, then chances are good that the other will not, and the campus will never truly be without Internet.

While Jim hopes that the addition of more bandwidth will relieve many of the problems students face, he admits that the problem is not as simple as that, especially in regards to wGuest. The dream condition would be for everyone to have all the data they need, both for work and for play. Unfortunately, such an option is not viable at this point. As he said, “They don’t give away the Internet for free.”

What does that mean for students? The technology center’s first priority is to make sure that the academic space does not suffer, meaning that wLoras must be maintained to ensure undisrupted learning. To do so, the technology center uses a method called “shaping,” which allows them to place limits on the way data is used. For example, in order to make sure that professors have the access to the data they need for class, services such as Netflix or Facebook may be intentionally slowed down. There is a constant battle for bandwidth real estate, and certain priorities must be met.

If all goes well with the bandwidth upgrade after finals are over, then there is a good chance that an improvement to wGuest will also be made. So long as wStudents is accessible and capable of providing the campus with what it needs, they would love to give students more access to connect with alternative devices such as iPads, smartphones, and other laptops.

Another large concern for many students is the technology fee of several hundred dollars every year. Some view it as an outrageous fee, indicating that for the price they pay in the end, they could potentially buy several laptops that work better than the ones being forced upon them. What many fail to realize, however, is that there is much more to the fee than simply renting a laptop. The money paid goes directly to paying the staff, maintaining the servers, purchasing the bandwidth for campus, providing the students with software, among a number of other critical roles on campus. While the price tag may seem high to outsiders, the reality is that it provides nearly all of the services you enjoy on your laptop, and likely still isn’t enough to make everything the technology center wants to happen a reality.

One of the big surprises so far this semester was the chance to voice an opinion for the next laptop to be used on campus. Some were dismayed to see that Lenovo laptops would once again be offered, a concern I voiced to Jim Anderson and one he was more than willing to address.

The staff has been working with Lenovo for eleven years now, and in that time, they’ve enjoyed a great relationship. By having a trained staff on campus, the technology eliminates the need to send your laptop to the company to have it repaired by doing the work on campus, a service few other campuses provide. Other names have always been considered when the discussion begins each year. Companies like Dell, HP, and even Apple have been tossed around, but ultimately, it’s a matter of choosing a device that stands up to the way it will be used, particularly on a college campus. While the inner-workings can sometimes fall into a state of disrepair, you would find it very difficult to smash a ThinkPad laptop. Several of the staff members I talked to lovingly referred to the device as a “brick,” a tribute to the thought that if you were to drop a ThinkPad laptop, the pavement would likely crumble before the laptop did.

“The hard thing to consider about a tablet is that it doesn’t cover an entire academic department,” Jim said when asked about the option of a tablet such as an iPad being used in place of laptops. While such devices are beginning to make their way into classrooms, they’re not at the point where they solve everyone’s problems with technology quite yet. Until then, laptop-tablet hybrids, such as the Lenovo Edge Twist, showcased earlier this week, are always a possibility. The concern wasn’t for Apple alone – the same applied to a number of other companies.

“There’s no anti-Apple or Mac people around here,” he added with a chuckle.

At the end of the day, the technology center relies on the thoughts of the campus to make sure they’re doing their job right. Most students assume that they are aware of the problem and simply aren’t doing anything to fix it, but the reality is quite the opposite. If a particular area of a campus has a weak connection or you’re unable to do something at a particular time, simply contact the help desk and let them know. The solution might not be instantaneous, but they will keep your problems in mind and do everything they can to solve them in a manner which will please everyone.

“We’re looking for what people want,” Jim said with a smile. “We’re excited that people care, one way or another.

Next time you experience a problem with the technology on campus, take a moment to remember that there is a hardworking staff made up of some of the nicest people you can imagine working to make things go as smoothly as possible for you. Sometimes things may not fit your specific needs or wants, but no one is out to make you upset or frustrated. Don’t be afraid to approach them and start up a conversation – you may just find that you’ll walk away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the way our campus works.

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