Seton Hall’s Paul Fisher Plays Crucial Role in Technology Evolution
The advancement of technology and the transformation of digital capabilities over the past 25 years have complicated how institutions of higher education implement their technology plans and oversee equipment, support, and development. Solutions are always being sought and new equipment or future-forward technologies are regularly being researched.
Seton Hall University’s Associate Chief Information Officer and Director of the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center Paul E. Fisher, Jr. has been a part of this technology evolution. He has worked at Seton Hall for 22 years, embracing the challenges of digital transformation and how they impact higher education.
“There are totally different solutions every time we turn around, so it’s challenging to keep up, but at the same time the process is so rewarding,” Fisher said. “Because as technologist, we get to go and figure out how technology can solve problems both inside and outside of the classroom. Sometimes we even get to create our own tools to help solve these problems. This problem/solution aspect is one of the most rewarding parts about my job.”
Fisher oversees five divisions within the Department of Information Technology, including instructional design, digital media services, classroom support, web development and user support. The Teaching, Learning and Technology (TLT) Center funds innovative teaching projects through the Curriculum Development Initiative and Faculty Innovation Grants and supports the University in the development and support of all its online programs.
He also serves on the TLT Roundtable Advisory Committee, the University Strategic Planning Committee, and the President’s Internationalization Initiative and the President’s Sustainability Initiative. He has held adjunct faculty positions at Seton Hall’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education and Human Services, where he has taught courses on multimedia development and project management.
Challenge of Integrating Technology Despite Diverse Needs
Each discipline or department has different challenges in how to integrate technology into their curriculum. The evolution of technology creates another sense of requests and requirements. However, the biggest task is supporting a diverse faculty.
“The faculty all work in a microcosm of their own discipline and sometimes it becomes even smaller than that,” he said. “What is really impactful to one discipline has zero application in another discipline.”
Over the past 25 years, foundational tools such as email and Wi-Fi have evolved and are used by everyone. Then there are vastly different requests. For example, Fisher helped the English department implement technology that allowed them to complete peer reviews. This technology, however, had no application to the biology department who required a different set of tools for recording their findings in a research lab.
Because of the diversity in technology needs and equipment, the Technology Department focuses on understanding each discipline they support. This process is especially true when questions come from the School of Medicine.
Fisher shared how in the anatomy and physiology lab, they work with human subjects. They need the capability to stream the view of the anatomist to each screen in the room. Each subject is different from the other, and they want to allow everyone to see unique discoveries in different cadavers, for example a metastasized liver or a lung filled with cancer. Obviously, the technology used for these incidences are vastly different from what other departments require for their curriculum.
Technology with the Largest Lasting Impact
One of the biggest, most lasting pieces of technology is obviously the Internet. Becoming popular in the early nineties, it has grown and changed into something almost unimaginable from its initial roots. During this time, educators recognized the value of the interconnectedness and the long lasting effects.
“The interconnectivity of the Internet is the foundational piece of everything we do today,” Fisher said.
The other fastest growing technology Fisher has seen unfold is Wi-Fi. He compares it to Christianson’s Disruption Theory, where one of the principles talks about how people learn about something and begin to adopt it.
Another form of technology that has developed and grown since the late 1990s is the learning management systems. Seton Hall has been a customer of Blackboard since 2001. Even today, 89 percent of Seton Hall’s faculty uses the learning management system as the course launching point.
“Having Blackboard doesn’t mean we don’t use other technologies, but the learning system is the foundational platform that professors start from as a part of the University wide standard. Placing an emphasis on one system allows for a consistent way for students to know where to start and find resources,” Fisher said. “Faculty can branch out from the core system and then incorporate tools both inside and outside of the learning system.”
A somewhat newer technology is lecture capture, which is continuing to increase in popularity in the classroom. Lecture capture has the ability to record what happens in the classroom and then make it available to students almost instantaneously. This functionality allows students to review and reinforce their knowledge based on what the faculty member said.
Leading Seton Hall’s Areas of Technology
Twenty years ago, Seton Hall created the TLT Center. The TLT Center has developed into the one-stop technology location for faculty, allowing them to gain assistance in classroom support, digital media services, instructional design, technology assessment, and web development. Each division has evolved over the years, along with the University’s technology plan.
The TLT Center was born from the idea that separate divisions shouldn’t be working at different areas of the campus. Before, the instructional design group was working on one side of campus, and the audio visual division was doing something totally different for faculty on the other side of campus.
“We brought all of these units together to form one cohesive strategy for technology development. It didn’t matter whether it was the individuals creating multimedia, the instructional designers who are experts in pedagogy, or incorporating the audio-visual people who support the actual classroom,” Fisher said. “This partnership was a very important part of our growth in using technology appropriately in education, whether it was a face-to-face class, a hybrid class, or an online class.”
Since the TLT Center’s beginning years, a web development division was added to the group. Countless projects are created on the web, so this department helps with the University’s web presence and also maintains infrastructure. The same web developers also work on faculty projects, ventures created to enhance technology and learning.
The Universities leverages assessment to ensure that the needs of the faculty and the student body are being met. Through data gathering via focus groups and surveys the Department is always looking for ways to expand and improve services.
It’s asking questions such as, “Are we doing what you want us to be doing? Are we doing it appropriately? Where do we need more help?” The answers feed Seton Hall’s goals and objectives for the following year.
“Over time, I think Seton Hall has been one of the early adopters of putting all of these units together,” he said. “By bringing everyone together in a much more collaborative way creates the best results for faculty and students.”
Digital Transformation in Action
Fisher has watched digital technology transform higher education over the years. His department also realizes innovation comes in all shapes and sizes and may follow different time frames than other industries. The diversity and range of possible solutions and alternatives is why Seton Hall has an innovative technologies committee, whose job is to look for technology not currently being used at the University.
The committee asks questions like “are smart assistants like Alexa, Google Home or Cortana innovative technology in higher education?” Sometimes the answers are obvious and sometimes there is a deeper investigation or experimenter to determine a specific technology’s usefulness in technology and learning. Committee members look for cutting-edge tools, which could be five-years-old in the real world but haven’t yet been incorporated into higher education.
“Using certain technologies now could have a really big impact either on the student or professor’s life and eventually a discipline’s life,” Fisher said. He went on. “There are lots of people who are doing really good things out there, so my advice to somebody who thinks that their institution is behind the digital transformation curve is to get out there and ask your colleagues,” he said. “Get out there to the NJEdge Annual Conference, participate in EDUCAUSE, attend ELI, or other conferences across the country to find out what your colleagues are doing. Because if there’s one thing academia has over the corporate world is we love to share and let people know where our successes have come from.”
Fisher recently had a visit from the University of Southern California, where technology leaders shared insights about their work in making avatars. Seton Hall had faculty interested in this topic five years ago and had some good outcomes. Now, with technology changes and new interests, they are asking what’s next and are setting up collaborations with faculty from other schools.
“Knowledge gathering and sharing comes down to just getting out there to learn more about what’s happening around you. Every state has a consortium and conferences. We’re lucky in New Jersey to have NJEdge.”
Blackboard’s Helpdesk Solution
Seton Hall has been a Blackboard Learning System partner for the past 20 years, but three years ago they incorporated Blackboard Helpdesk Solution into the University’s technology program. This third-party helpdesk provides after hours support for the University, once staff has gone home for the day. In 2018, Seton Hall renewed their membership through NJEdge, rather than Blackboard directly based on the new availability of the service through NJEdge’s EdgeMarket.
The helpdesk aids students and faculty with their IT questions during off hours. In higher education, there are learners and teachers working at all times, 24 hours a day, and seven days a week.
Plus, online education has grown, so Seton Hall’s reach across the country and even internationally has increased student usage of the helpdesk. This expanded notion of online education means a student on the West Coast could have a situation and wants to reach out. A 24-7 fully-supported, internal helpdesk didn’t make sense for the University from a financial perspective. The University also realized it wouldn’t be the experienced IT personnel staffing the helpdesk in the late night hours, calls would get backlogged until a knowledgeable person could provide assistance.
“We tried staffing our own helpdesk for 24/7, and found that between 1 am – 7 am, the phones were quiescent. There were very few calls,” Fisher said. “When it’s this quiet, recruiting skilled engaged staff becomes very hard. It also was difficult to keep these employees engaged in their job or to cover hours when someone was out on vacation or sick. It simply didn’t make sense financially.”
Following on the heels of their own helpdesk ‘trial,’ Seton Hall contracted with a third-party, Blackboard. Fisher has found Blackboard to be a flexible partner, easily molding into the University’s process, procedures, and tools.
“I think Blackboard has improved our service to students and faculty in our off hours, to the point that they’re no longer just off hours. All of our first calls go to Blackboard now,” he said.
Seton Hall has analyzed the top three call drivers, with one of the top phone calls being password resets. Password resets are fairly easy requests, but the resets still require assistance. Fisher said he’d prefer the helpdesk to handle this question and keep his staff members working on more complicated issues such as when a student, faculty or staff member changed their name and accounts in all the ancillary systems need to be synchronized.
“This kind of problem can be hard to determine where the problem started. ‘Did the request flow through to the identity management system?’ ‘Is the information correct in the ERP?’ These are all things that Blackboard doesn’t have access to, so it is more effective to have on-campus staff step in,” Fisher said. “We’ve taken the burden off of our staff for the routine calls and put those on Blackboard. Blackboard can manage the requests just as well as we can and having them as a partner has allowed our staff to make a greater impact on the people having more complicated problems.”
Using Blackboard has also increased response time to those needing assistance. Routine calls are solved quicker and the hold time has gone down. Together, they have discovered more questions can be solved at the same time. Fisher said call backs have also decreased and questions don’t have to escalate to another agent.
“I believe that we’ve improved all of these steps since partnering with Blackboard, eliminating frustration,” he said.
Fisher’s staff remains in close contact with the Blackboard Operations Center. They analyze calls that went awry and figure out why they couldn’t be solved. For instance, when a ticket escalates and is sent from the helpdesk to on-campus staff, the first question asked is “Why couldn’t it be resolved?”
“We ask, ‘Why couldn’t they do it?’” he said. “Then we start diving deeper and look to see if there’s a way to give the Blackboard team the ability to fix this issue. The answer isn’t always yes, but we always consider it nonetheless.”
These incidences are when Fisher may not want the helpdesk in a part of the University’s system or if IT security policy won’t allow it.
“We measure their performance consistently, but I want to know what they can’t accomplish on their own and ask the question why we can’t give them the access to handle it,” he said. “Ultimately, this process is what supports our community better and continues to free up time for our IT staff to deal with the harder issues.”
Helpdesk Supports Online Program
Incorporating the Blackboard Helpdesk into the IT department has allowed Fisher and his staff to focus on other areas of technology at the University. The virtual helpdesk also helps with the development and support of Seton Hall’s online programs.
Seton Hall has had courses online since 1998. The brand was once called Seton Worldwide but most students have been within 150 miles of the University. Recently, the University wanted to focus on reaching beyond this distance and reach students throughout the country. The bridging of these distances is taking place through the assistance of an online program management partner and with the help of the virtual helpdesk.
The helpdesk can aid the person calling in at 3 am ET from Alaska or Hawaii. If there are adult learners taking online courses, it is likely they aren’t starting their homework until after work and the kids are in bed. It could be 10 pm PT.
“I can’t keep employees onboard and engaged. There are countless hours that then require coverage making it challenging to staff accordingly,” Fisher said. “This wouldn’t be possible without the virtual helpdesk.”
The Help Desk provides assistance in all types of areas. If the online interface has been updated and changed, students are calling about where things can be found. They have questions about where to find library resources or how to pay their bill. The technology helpdesk receives all sorts of questions throughout a day and having the virtual assistance helps the online program become successful, especially when reaching beyond the region.
Seton Hall Partners with NJEdge
This year, Seton Hall partnered with NJEdge to renew their Blackboard services. The decision saved Seton Hall money but it also brought them unreplaceable collaboration with other nearby institutions. NJEdge provides a community of practice where stories can be shared whether by a planned meeting or at the NJEdge Annual Conference, EdgeCon.
“We gain a collective power when we work together, because our buying power together is more important to Blackboard than my buying power individually,” Fisher said. “From a whole slew of different perspectives, this partnership creates more opportunity for our University to service our community better. I also get colleagues that I know and trust, using the same service. I can bounce ideas off of them and ultimately we get a better influence.”
Seton Hall was a founding member of NJEdge and has been partners with the organization for decades. They have watched NJEdge evolve and transform, along with the New Jersey academic enterprise. Fisher values the relationships and the ability to share ideas and services.
“The more the network grows and more services are offered, we’ll see more value in the membership and the NJEdge partnership,” he said. “It’s hard to predict what services are going to be offered in the future but if it’s advantageous to the University, we’ll certainly be onboard. Partnering with Blackboard was one of those incidences.
”Fisher has been a part of the evolution of technology at Seton Hall University. Whether he’s problem-solving or creating his own set of tools to bring about a solution, Fisher is looking at how future-forward technologies can be successfully incorporated into the University’s technology infrastructure and framework. This leadership is why others look to Fisher for assistance and insight.
For more information on how to incorporate Blackboard into your own technology infrastructure, contact EdgeMarket at njedge.net/solutions/edgemarket/.