From the CIO

VCU Technology Services

Happy Halloween!  Hopefully, the first item below, a change in which the way we operate the Blackboard system, will be anything but scary.  And I know the other item, an update on some of our service improvement initiatives, is definitely not scary (though there are major changes coming):

Blackboard SaaS Migration – Starting 12/19/19

Expected Outage Timeline: From December 19, 2019, at 8am to December 21, 2019, at 8pm

 In 2014, Learning Systems at VCU migrated our Blackboard courses from the University Computer Center to new, offsite infrastructure with Blackboard Managed Hosting. While this has served us well and has allowed us to leverage new tools and resources that were previously unavailable to us, we are now planning another migration for December 2019. Although generally, we are satisfied with our current hosting arrangement, Blackboard’s SaaS (Software as a Service) solution provides benefits worth the migration.

What will change?

  • VCU will continue using the “Classic” interface (what Blackboard refers to as the “Original Experience”) that we have now, so faculty and students will see only minor changes in the look and functioning of the system.
  • We will be enabling the 2016 Theme in the original experience. The Learn 2016 theme for Blackboard Learn is a modern version of the user interface that incorporates elements from the new Blackboard design language including color, fonts, and spacing for greater consistency between Blackboard Learn, Collaborate, and the Blackboard app. The theme is the first step in improving the experience for mobile users.
  • Blackboard will be delivered on a modern cloud computing architecture for increased stability, data recovery, and faster roadmap delivery. While the platform will undergo a few enhancements, there are significant benefits that may not be as obvious:
    • Zero impact to students and faculty during updates. New features, fixes, and enhancements are delivered with no downtime or routine maintenance windows.
    • Scalability – The platform easily scales during high usage periods and utilizes 2 data centers for recovery and backups.
    • Monitoring – Blackboard support of the system is 24/7/365 with hosting on Amazon Web Services.
    • Integrations – Utilizing industry standards, SaaS hosting allows for tighter integrations between third-party technologies, tools and publishing content.
    • Blackboard will still manage our systems but they will move from Blackboard’s data centers to Amazon Web Services data centers. Since we will be moving to the same version in the SaaS environment as in the Managed Hosting environment, the move is easier in some ways but will require significant downtime. Our plan is to schedule the migration between final grade submission and winter break, a time when most users, we hope, will be occupied with thoughts other than Blackboard. Our goal is for the system to be available in time for faculty to begin preparations for Spring 2020 courses.

We will be communicating this more widely and extensively as the semester winds down, but I thought this was an opportune time to begin communication on this.

Customer Service Improvements

As I have previously communicated, we received positive results from the annual community satisfaction survey conducted by the VCU Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory (SERL) for the VCU Division of Administration. Technology Services led the division in positive responses to the questions posed, with 88% of respondents being ‘Satisfied’ or ‘Very Satisfied’ with TS in general (a small improvement over the previous 2 years). These results, coupled with overall highly positive post-ticket survey responses, demonstrate that TS continues to be viewed as customer-focused and delivering services the VCU community needs and appreciates.

In reviewing the details behind some of the results, respondents did identify some areas in which they would like to see improvement:

  • A more user-friendly Technology Services request or ticketing system.
  • More timely and easy to understand communications regarding system outages and changes.
  • Less complicated search engine to help find answers on our website as well as points of contact for supported systems.
  • Improved handoffs and communication between TS and other IT support organizations.

The themes above support the following initiatives we have already undertaken:

  • Technology Services is actively implementing a new service/ticketing system that is both browser and mobile-friendly.  The new Cherwell system will be making its debut December 4 and many people in Technology Services are actively configuring and testing the system.  Many in the distributed IT units are also participating in testing and we expect that at least some of those areas will utilize Cherwell, which will help enhance our ability to provide seamless service to the end-user community by improving the handoff process and ensuring accountability across organizations.
  • The Strategic Communications Workgroup continues to evaluate communication channels and tools to better inform the VCU community about system status and changes.  Our implementation of Cherwell will improve our ability to communicate across VCU at multiple levels utilizing multiple channels.
  • Technology Services replaced the old Google Search Engine with Funnelback, a flexible, pre-assembled concierge-style dashboard (all results, website, employees, social media, news/events).  Along with the new search engine, we will continue to streamline our website with new ways to help you find the answers that you need.
  • We continue to collaborate with VCUHS IT, SOMTech, HASTech, and other organizations to improve communications and share tools where possible.

I greatly appreciate everyone’s efforts in continuing to deliver excellent customer support as well as in improving our processes and tools.



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