Aug 11 2020

IT Innovation Helps Campuses Open Safely

See how Oregon State University is finding innovative ways to resolve some of higher education’s long-term challenges.

Ever since the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S. in early 2020, it has become more challenging to convince students that higher education delivers enough value to justify the risk and the price. But during this critical time in history, IT departments across colleges and universities are stepping into strategic leadership roles to boost their institutions’ relevance to customers.

A recent EDUCAUSE poll found that, in light of the pandemic, CIOs in higher education have gained new seats at the table: 73 percent of respondents said their school’s CIO has been a part of the pandemic planning leadership team. About half said they included the IT department in their institutional pandemic planning and oversight.

This is a natural progression, considering that technology is fundamental to higher education’s business continuity. Here’s a look at how one institution, Oregon State University, is leaning on its IT department to guide the university through uncharted territory.

Making a Safe Return to Campus Possible

The OSU IT department is a prime example of how IT leaders have become a vital part of the solution for higher education’s most pressing concern: campus health and safety.

Their team recently developed an application that assists with COVID-19 screening and contact tracing on campus. Taking advantage of pre-existing infrastructure, they used Microsoft’s Power AppsSharePointOffice 365Power BI, and Power Automate to create the app.

The team notes that the Power Apps were a particularly effective technology of choice because the data that Power BI’s dashboard generates can notify universities and colleges of an outbreak as soon as one occurs.

“Our mission was to make the solution easy to use, and seamless in everyday production. After all, the business needs drive the technology, and we strive to meet those needs,” says Charles Siebert, a systems engineer at OSU. “During these uncertain times, Power Apps allows us to deliver certainty with a low-code, agile solution to get a product in the hands of our users as quickly as possible.”

OSU’s screening app consists of daily self-assessments in which students, faculty and staff complete a comprehensive questionnaire that asks if they experienced any COVID-19 symptoms in the past 24 hours. Anyone can fill out the questionnaire from their phones or computers.

Power Apps also allowed the developers to streamline the app’s processes. After submitting the survey, people will receive an instant automated email with a QR code that confirms whether they can report to campus for additional screening. As they arrive on campus, they show the QR code linked with their survey results to gain access to facilities. An administrator can also easily scan the QR code with an iPhone camera.

Tim De Quilettes
Our goal was not only to serve solutions to higher education institutions...but to come up with solutions using readily available technology to help all industries — especially our small and local businesses."

Tim De Quilettes IT director, Oregon State University

Balancing Security with User Experience

Meeting Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requirements are major concerns for any developer working on education and health-related projects. And it is often difficult to balance compliance with user experience.

“We have achieved both by using technology provided by Microsoft,” says Tim De Quilettes, IT director at OSU. “Their cloud infrastructure meets not only the regulatory compliances needed to handle confidential and sensitive information, it also gives users a clean and reliable experience. It allows users to feel secure when they submit health assessments.”

SharePoint provides a secure way to store sensitive information in the backend database, he says. “It allows us to granularly set permissions and access to the privileged groups who report incidents to the state if there were an infection recorded in the organization.”

Power Automate also allowed De Quilettes’s team to program additional logic to ensure confidential data is never leaked back to users. “This level of automation prevents unprivileged access, and heavily reduces the risks of manually screening people,” he says.

READ MORE: Learn how higher education is taking a hopeful approach to an unprecedented year ahead.

Thinking Big: IT Leaders Embrace Entrepreneurial Spirit

When it came to contact tracing and saving lives, De Quilettes did not want to limit the app’s usefulness to only higher education.

“Our goal was not only to serve solutions to higher education institutions like Oregon State University, but to come up with solutions using readily available technology to help all industries — especially our small and local businesses that are struggling to find ways to open their doors,” he says.

Since OSU’s contactless solution launched in May, De Quilettes and has been taking on both government and corporate clients. While his own company, Security Technology Solutions, handles government clients, the other clients are generating revenue for the university.

In fact, it is this entrepreneurial spirit that is making it possible for OSU to reopen its athletics and veterinary sciences departments amid a pandemic. Allowing certain OSU departments to reopen has helped the university maintain revenue streams during hard economic times.

This was largely made possible by Power Apps’ flexible design, which helped De Quilettes and his team mold solutions to meet each department’s and client’s particular needs.

For example, one of De Quilettes’s clients needed an app that could trace which rooms in a facility a potentially infected person had visited, and the team was able to accommodate that. “The design is malleable to fit any kind of industry,” he said.

Looking back, De Quilettes is incredibly proud of how quickly his team came together to serve COVID-struck communities in higher education and beyond. “We are a high-performing, highly functional team,” he said.

metamorworks/ iStock / Getty Images Plus