Technology-driven community: Coming together in the digital realm

by Elizabeth Jenike, IT Services

In these uncertain times, it helps to know that you have a group of people around you who provide support and encouragement.

And while we may not be able to meet in person, the Miami community has shown summarily that we are able to come together -- to get on the same page and step up for each other through these challenges.

David Seidl with a moose on his head.“One of the best things about being here at Miami is the tightly knit campus community,” said David Seidl, VP for information technology and CIO. “When COVID-19 struck, we moved to online instruction and remote work within a handful of days, all while focusing on that community feeling.”

Let’s take a look at a few ways we’re focusing on that community aspect of being alone together:

Collaborative victory: Undergraduate Research Forum 2020

A ready example of the power of technology to bolster the community is the Undergraduate Research Forum.

The 26th annual Undergraduate Research Forum took place on Wednesday, April 29, after several weeks of collaborative work undertaken by eLearning, IT Services, and the undergraduate research office. The entire forum took place via Webex, and our students adapted to the technology quickly, displaying their research and hard work to an interested audience.

Historically, the forum was only open to current students, faculty, and staff -- since it’s usually held in person on campus. Now, however, due to the virtual nature it was able to be opened up to alumni and interested members of the community, including some of the students’ parents. They are even thinking about hybridizing the event in the future so that Webex could be included in planning even when social distancing is no longer necessary.

"I'm impressed that we pulled off what is a mega-annual event for the Undergraduate Research Office," said Joyce Fernandes, director of undergraduate research. "A commitment to this collaboration from the IT Services team, as well as the work of Jennifer Keplinger in eLearning, played a key role. There was complementary expertise, and we were making progress on multiple fronts simultaneously."

In all, 382 students participated as presenters and co-presenters, and 1,389 attendees were recorded over the 23 presentation sessions. That alone makes this event a resounding success.

“I’m proud to say that IT folks across campus helped make [the work-from-home transition] happen, using technology to keep our community vibrant and engaged via video conferencing, our Canvas learning management system, remote softphones that moved our desk phones to cell phones and laptops, and a host of other means,” Seidl said. “At the same time, we’ve learned to do new things at larger scale, like moving our Undergraduate Research Forum and our University Senate meetings online.”

We’re all in this together (virtually)

Another key way we are seeing technology make a difference in how we interact as community members and friends is by providing space for after-work engagement. Groups are doing virtual happy hours, visiting friends, and sitting in on beer-making days -- all from behind their computer screens.

A fire overlooking a golf course at sunsetBob Black, assistant director of IT process and planning, has been maintaining the Wednesday evening happy hour that he organizes. The only difference is that it’s now online!

“Bow Tie Tuesday, O'Pub Wednesday has been a stable tradition that began in January of 2013,” he said. “It's been great to give people a venue to connect and engage on topics outside of work -- politics, sports, tv, movies, et cetera, although a bit of shop talk is known to creep into the conversation from time to time.

“We've kept the tradition going with a virtual pub meet. Some of the regulars continue to join, well, regularly, but a fantastic side effect has been folks that have moved away from Oxford have been able to join in this virtual format.”

Sharita Massie pushing a lawn mower

Another technology that is helping us stay together? Cameras, of course! More specifically, the chat applications that allow us to send our photos and react to others’. In IT Services, we hosted a stay-at-home photo contest with several categories, and a scavenger hunt that had folks searching for specific items around their homes. 

New norms, new forms -- same friends

While it’s definitely not the same, it’s keeping us all connected. At work, we use technology to inform, instruct, and organize. At play, we use it to keep in touch with friends and family and hold on to a semblance of life outside of quarantine.

“Across campus, technologists stood up, identified needs and problems, and worked to keep Miami strong,” Seidl said.

He’s right.

If you’ll allow me one indulgence, I’d like to honestly say (as the writer of this piece and as an employee of Miami) that I have never seen the kind of resilience, positivity, compassion, and strength that we have experienced over the past several months. I posted this to the MiamiUIT Twitter account, and I mean every word:

Thank you to my colleagues in IT Services who work hard every day to keep us connected, and thank you to the Miami family for showing the world that we are Miami strong.