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April 27, 2020

Waddell Helps CMU Zoom to Online Learning

By Bruce Gerson

Stan Waddell knows what teamwork, collaboration and, of course, technology can do.   

As CMU’s associate vice president, chief information officer and head of Computing Services, Waddell saw them at work first-hand as a leading member of the team that quickly and successfully transitioned more than 2,400 classes on the Pittsburgh campus to remote instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We mobilized early as an institution and pulled together groups from the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Operations, Enterprise Risk Management, the Eberly Center, departmental information technology units and Computing Services,” he said. “We engaged early and often, and that allowed for a very effective response.”

Waddell said small groups formed to tackle many concerns, from necessary software licenses and loaner laptops for students, to last-mile connectivity — how well home internet service would handle remote work — virtual private networks and computer security.

“Our brainstorming sessions yielded calls to action and marching orders,” he said. “In many cases, we had a sense of what to do, if not precisely how to do it. At one point, we were tracking more than 40 discrete issues.”

Waddell said there was a distinct level of coordination between the groups that allowed them to illuminate and solve challenges together.

“We engaged early and often, and that allowed for a very effective response.”

“There wasn’t an actual playbook for how to respond,” he said, “but CMU was in a very good place regarding disaster recovery and business continuity, and this made responding significantly simpler.”

Waddell said his biggest concerns revolved around students’ internet connectivity at home and their ability to access online materials from their personal computer. He said a campus survey prior to the start of remote instruction allowed the team to identify and respond to those student challenges. Some of those issues involved working with vendors to ensure software used in computer labs were made available to students.

A little more than a month after remote instruction began on March 18, Waddell said things are going great and feedback from students and faculty has been positive. But, he expects “second-tier issues” to arise.

“We have solved the foundational problems, and now we are getting to issues around more sophisticated use of technologies,” he explained. “The rapid shift to remote work and online education delivery has created some winners and some losers in the technology landscape.

“Those that are rising to prominence are experiencing some growing pains and the pressures of being in the spotlight, which magnifies shortcomings and shortfalls. Part of what we will have to do is stay vigilant and make sure we educate the campus on how to use the technology effectively and securely,” Waddell said. 

One of those technologies in the spotlight is Zoom, the popular web-conferencing platform, which has been experiencing privacy issues when uninvited guests join the session. 

“We have solved the foundational problems, and now we are getting to issues around more sophisticated use of technologies.”

Zoom bombing is a real thing, but it is also easy to prevent,” he said. “We can use Zoom with our Andrew ID to limit the possibility of anonymous bad actors spoiling our events.”

Zoom and other security controls are available on the Computing Services website.

The daunting task of moving to remote instruction came a few weeks prior to Waddell’s one-year anniversary at CMU. He joined the university on April 1 of last year after serving in leading technology roles, including chief information officer, at the University of New Hampshire, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He was an aviation electronics technician in the U.S. Navy for nine years.

Upon Waddell’s appointment, Vice President for Operations Rodney McClendon seemed to have a premonition, stating in a university announcement that it was imperative to have a strategic leader to help advance the technical infrastructure that supports the university’s exceptional teaching, research and administration.

Waddell said CMU is weathering the unprecedented move to remote instruction in expert fashion. 

“All aspects of the university community are pulling in the same direction, and as issues arise, we are working collaboratively to solve them,” he said. “I have heard from many external groups about various challenges and how we might solve them, and I can happily say we have already thought about that and have a workable solution.”