Staff prepare and ship loaner devices to minimize learning disruptions

Margaret Moses
Brice checking contents of a laptop boxes
Glenna Emel

Brice Alford verifies the contents of boxed laptops before they are shipped out to students, faculty and staff in need of technology.

March 27, 2020
Technology may unite us, but when we lose access to it, it rapidly divides us. That's the situation hundreds of students, faculty and staff found themselves in when the University moved to remote learning and statewide closings abruptly ended access to campus facilities. Those without available technology to continue their studies and work began sending requests for help to the IT Service Desk and to campus and college IT leaders. Staff rapidly sprang into action, developing a workable model to find available devices, prepare them for distribution, and send them across the state and the country where they were needed. 
Environmental Health and Safety recommended delaying for seven days the repurposing of any devices that had been in use. To avoid any potential concerns, Ryan Wellar, director of Enterprise Support Services in User Success, said they started with 389 brand new laptops from Finance and Business IT (F&B IT). Those devices had been purchased to move F&B IT staff from the virtual desktop environment but had not yet been distributed. After the equipment was taken to the Shields Building, about two dozen staff from User Success and Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT), quickly set up an assembly line of sorts on March 13 to prepare the devices for distribution.
John Tyndall, manager of TLT's Digital Learning Environment, created an image to automate the process of setting up the devices and loading Windows 10, Microsoft Office 365, the Penn State virtual private network (VPN), Zoom, and Chrome onto the machines. Additional software added to each device allows IT to manage the computers and enables the users to install other software, such as Adobe Creative Cloud, if needed.
"This standard image is all of the things we assume everyone will need to use the computer,” explained Dan Coughlin, department head for Library Strategic Technologies with University Libraries. “The image is preloaded on to the machines, which minimizes the number of hurdles the user has to jump in order to begin to work on it."
With the image loaded onto multiple thumb drives, staff began the imaging process, verified everything transferred properly to each device, and then moved on to repeat the process until all of the laptops were configured. Wellar said they prepared the initial 450 laptops in one day.
Each device was then entered into an asset management database in ServiceNow to record which individual it was assigned to. This will help with smooth returns once the loaner device is no longer needed. 
The final step was reboxing the equipment. As requests are filled in priority order, the machines are taken to the Multimedia & Print Center and shipped out for next day delivery. Tim Arnold, manager of the Enterprise IT desktop support team in User Success, said devices have been sent as far away as Florida.
Other units also stepped up to offer available equipment, including more than 100 each from Outreach and Online Education, and the Pattee and Paterno Libraries. Those devices are going through the same process and will be distributed beginning next week.
"We asked for volunteers, and everyone who helped out chose to do this," said Wellar. "It has been great seeing the collaboration among all the teams to make this work for our students, faculty, and staff."