When a Concordia University student opens her laptop and logs on to my.concordia.ca at a café to check on her mid-term grades, she probably doesn’t think of Andrew McAusland. The executive director of Instructional and Information Technology Services (IITS) at the Montréal university is the point
man when it comes to the technology services that aid students and staff at the post-secondary institution.
If the 30,000 students at Concordia and the faculty and staff that support them think about the IITS department, it probably means there is a problem.
More often than not, McAusland finds himself awake at night thinking about how to avoid hiccups in the system and what he can do next to improve what has become an always-on infrastructure.
“”The demands on our systems are absolutely 24/7,”” he says.
As just one example, the school often has several thousand hours of video streaming to students who want to view lectures they missed or need to review again. The peak hours for that are between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., and 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.
“”It’s not unusual to see 30 videos being watched at 3 a.m.,”” he says.
More and more, universities such as Concordia in Montréal rely heavily on the workings of the instructional and instructional technology services department, of which McAusland is director.
“”Five years ago the communications infrastructure wasn’t used the way it is used today. Now it’s the same as hydro — if people come in in the morning and it’s not on, they notice. So you have to strive for this transparency where people don’t even think of you.””
McAusland has worked within the technology department at Concordia for 20 years, and in that time many services have become part of the fabric of learning at the school.
McAusland holds an educational technology degree and a philosophy degree, but much of his education has been on the job, observing how technology can best serve his constituents.
As a graduate student he developed a computer usage course and continues to teach it along with a statistics class, in addition to his role of executive director of IITS, a role he assumed two and a half years ago. Prior to that he was director of academic technology in the arts and science faculty, where he did a lot of streaming video development. He also runs a private company called eConcordia, which offers credit courses on the Web.
The IITS has a staff of about 145 people, depending on the time of year. For a while, that number was in decline, but it is increasing considerably now because the university is growing on a student basis by six to nine per cent a year. In addition to its 30,000 full-time students, Concordia has another 5,000 in continuing education. As the school community grows, McAusland says there is a need for a larger, stronger and more reliable infrastructure.
And despite the constraints of funding in a post-secondary environment, McAusland says if he can prove its worth, he gets the green light to deliver the service.
“”If you have a project and a demonstrable return on investment, then you go ahead. There’s got to be some reason to do it — it can’t be experimental when you’re working on the business infrastructure side. For example, voice over IP — it’s a completely self-funding project and we rebuilt our entire data network with that project.””
McAusland says replacing the school’s aging analogue phone environment this past year with voice over IP was the biggest challenge he has taken on in the last few years. The implementation made Concordia the first university in the country to have such a system.
“”The complexity and enormity of that boggles the mind, and the reason is when most people think of a phone system they think of it as a static system that just sits there, and it’s not,”” he says. “”It’s in constant flux. There are moves, adds and changes being deployed all the time. In order to deploy this project we had to freeze the whole thing — take a snapshot — and not allow any moves adds or changes for about two months. That created a huge backup we are just cleaning up. It was very challenging to get around that, and also we had to re-wire the entire building infrastructure (there are more than 70 buildings on campus) and build in double and triple redundancy. It required all new switches; there was fibre everywhere. It was a huge project.””
With 3,800 phone lines, mainly in a Centrex III environment, Concordia was paying rental fees of about $1.2 million a year or $30 a month. As well, three large new buildings were set to come online including a new computer science building.
The new system cost about $4.6 million which is being paid for by the reduction in telephony costs, and will be paid for in less than five years. The number of phone lines has been reduced from 3,800 to 300.
McAusland is currently working on implementing IP video surveillance at the university which will address critical security issues. It will also be used to assist professors who run into problems with audio visual equipment during a lecture. In addition, he wants to further develop the school’s videoconferencing and IP/TV capabilities which will improve e-learning services and provide the ability to watch experts lecture from abroad.
Those who work with McAusland say his team shares the kind of vision he exhibits: to not only implement a new technology, but take it the next step, says Anne-Marie Curatolo, a spokesperson for the school.
An example of this has been his involvement in launching the school’s portal, www.my.concordia.ca, which gives every student and staff member a Web page, providing access to information such as grades and course schedules.
The portal, which has about 100,000 active accounts, also allows the school to alleviate lineups during registration and other peak periods, says McAusland.
“”At the beginning of the year when there’s 20 people lined up at a desk for help, out of those 20 maybe three of have a problem that requires actual problem solving. The rest are for information. In rolling out the portal — every student who applies has a portal account they can use to track their application.””
“”The portal is huge. It’s our main communication hub with students.””
McAusland believes students are making their choice of post-secondary school not only on academic offerings, but on how technologically advanced the campus is.
“”Many would disagree with me, but I, in fact, believe they are. They don’t want their university to be an online university because a university education is about coming to class and learning in a class context, but they like the services that surround that. The occasional online course that can support that within their schedule is a good thing as well as the ancillary services: the network, the wireless — it is becoming more of a deciding factor.””