Serving Up IT Help

Help desks are becoming faster, smarter, and stronger as new technologies--and security concerns--work their way into campus life.

When about 1,650 freshmen started their classes at Duke University (N.C.) last fall, they arrived bearing more than the typical tools of education. Each was equipped with an Apple iPod.

In a nascent experiment, the university has partnered with Apple Computer to provide each new freshman with a 20 gigabyte iPod. The handout was meant to create results such as those concocted by Peter McIsaac, a faculty member teaching "Berlin in the 20th Century." McIsaac had his students listen to old speeches downloaded onto their iPods; play German music from the 1920s, 1980s, and 1990s; and record interviews discussing American attitudes about Berlin.

 

While the iPod idea flourished instructionally, it presented new complications. How would IT employees, specifically those on the help desk, assist students who had trouble with the iPod and its computer connections? How would these staff fit this new responsibility into an already intense workload?

Thankfully, the iPod initiative did not create massive headaches, says Debbie DeYulia, senior manager of technology support. McIsaac says he heard few, if any, complaints about the device (although some students struggled with connecting the iPod to their computer).

The Duke project does exemplify a larger issue for IHEs: As technology usage grows on campus, how do the roles of help desks change?

A broad range of high-tech tools--from iPods to wireless networks to multimedia classroom equipment--are settling in on campus. Technology not only deepens the classroom experience but boosts the recruiting and retaining of students, faculty, and staff. Yet, its 24/7 presence adds new complexities. "Everyone's life revolves around this technology," says DeYulia. Mark Fitzgerald, incident manager in the Office of IT Service Desks at Brigham Young University (Utah), observes, "Technology is becoming fully integrated in the classroom. There is little space for down time."

Help desks are meeting the challenge on several fronts. While the new reality means longer to-do lists for help desks, it also means an increasingly valuable role in the IHE hierarchy. Here's how help desks are working things out.

In 2004 the Help Desk Institute, an association for service/support professionals, asked support managers and directors around the country if they provided self-service tools so users could solve their own tech problems. Of the 64 education sector respondents, 67 percent said yes. IHEs, like most organizations, are pushing the role of online self-service in order to increase help desk efficiency and save on costs.

"Self-service is not only to fix the computer. It's to provide a better result for the user community, too," says Rich Hand, executive director of membership for HDI. Registering for courses online, scheduling meetings with students, or even looking up health-care benefits from an employee human resources site are considered part of the self-service realm for students, faculty, and staff, says Hand.

Many organizations are creating online knowledge bases so users can resolve issues on their own. The popularity of these resources, which might include such tools as an FAQ section on a help desk's website, is up for debate: Some help desk managers believe end users would just plain rather have a person assisting them. At Duke, priorities include expanding the online knowledge base and promoting awareness of it, says DeYulia.

When a laptop stalls, today's help desk employee won't likely come jogging into the room to fix things. These days, help desks are relying on networked systems and the web to accomplish scores of tasks remotely.

Arizona State University employs AMX Remote Control to make remote problem solving possible, says Mary Aniuk, director of classroom planning and technology integration in the Office of Classroom Management. The system allows help desk personnel to operate technology in the classroom without actually reporting to the site.

New networks allow IHEs to handle scores of needs. "Universities are always pushing the envelope on trying new and different things," says John Ragsdale, vice president and research director for Forrester Research, the technology and market research firm.

Today's smarter help desks rely not just on technology smarts, but also on people smarts. Many on-campus support teams are improving their communications. "We're seeing a lot more interest in training and certification," says Hand. Enhancing customer service often involves gaining understanding of the different end users on campus. A humanities professor and computer science student have different needs.

"You can't try to be one thing to everybody," says Phil Verghis, president of The Verghis Group and a consultant who advises organizations on service and support. "You have to understand the profile of your customers."

As communication skills evolve, the composition of help desk staffs changes, too. Since computers first became a mainstay of the college world, IHEs have relied on students to fill spots on support teams. Some institutions are now migrating to the use of full professional staffs, or are using a combination of students and full-time employees.

Fairleigh Dickinson University (N.J.) outsources its first tier of support. "We opted to capitalize on professional call center agents who are trained in both the technical and customer service skills necessary to be an effective first line of defense," says James Lebo, assistant university director for computing services and project management. "Knowing there is only one chance to make a good first impression, understanding the challenges associated with filling the extraordinary gaps of capabilities between students, faculty, and staff, having a goal to close support requests at the completion of the initial call, freeing up internal technical resources to address more significant issues, and doing so 24 hours a day helped drive the decision to outsource."

At Duke, only a small chunk of help desk staff comes from the student body, says DeYulia, although the university relies on a SWAT team (that is, Students With Access to Technology) to get things going before and during the start of the school year. Brigham Young, on the other hand, continues to count on students year-round (a practice that many IHEs employ). The university purposefully uses students to give them experience for the working world, says Fitzgerald.

At Arizona State University, support responds to classroom issues in five minutes or less.

As help desks face complex demands, the need to track data grows. The University of New Hampshire uses software for a number of tracking purposes, from documenting incidents to ensuring prompt customer service, says Petr Brym, director of telecommunications and client services in the university's Computer Information Services group. "We also rely on software to help us manage call volume and shift staffing and for automation of self-help tools that clients can access on the web while being guided by the help desk agents," he says.

At Baylor University (Texas), use of Front-Range Solutions' HEAT system means that all relevant information about a caller--equipment being used, version of operating system, physical location, and phone number--automatically appears on screen. "None of this information has to be retyped," says Vicky Gerik, director of client services for Baylor's Information Technology Services group.

Some IHEs are restructuring their support groups to smaller help desks that specialize. ASU, for one, launched a service department devoted solely to classroom technology. That structure simplifies the user experience and streamlines the help desk's capabilities, says Aniuk. It also allows support to respond to classroom issues in five minutes or less. With strategic support centers located around campus, a person near the caller's classroom can get there fast.

Brigham Young, meanwhile, has broken out its support functions to separate help desks for students and employees. "The division really allows us to focus," says Fitzgerald.

When Brym of UNH looks down the road, he sees several developments for help desks. He predicts rapid growth of the complexity of services being provided, formalization of cross training, formalization of shifts, dynamic staffing based on real-time call volume, further automation of self-service, and increased use of call-management systems.

Security may also overtake user satisfaction on the priority list; in fact, for many IHEs it already has. "Security is a high priority for us right now," says Gerik of Baylor. "All servers on campus must meet specific requirements by our networking group or they are not allowed on our network; firewalls and policies have been implemented."

In simple terms, help desks have a lot to do these days. For many, that means chances for growth and recognition. They are "no longer considered a necessary overhead, but can be considered a differentiator," notes Lebo of FDU. While IHE help desks may not have as direct a link to the bottom line as their counterparts at corporations do, they're critical to every person who steps onto a campus today.