Pandemic proves technological strain to Vassar online services

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News.

On March 12, 2020, Vassar College announced that all classes would be conducted online for the rest of the semester to comply with New York State COVID-19 guidelines. Since that day, Vassar’s technology has been essential to everyone in the community. However, during the recent resurgence of students back onto campus, computer systems have suffered a series of issues.

Vassar has relied on web services to accomplish its day-to-day tasks for several years now. Students use Ask Banner to register for courses, Moodle to access course materials and their Vassar email accounts to ask professors questions after class. This amount of digital systems is not easy to control, yet Computing and Information Services (CIS) does wonders daily to keep the many systems of Vassar College up and running. However, add a pandemic to the mix, and suddenly the school needs services such as a daily health checkup system, online classes and systems for scheduling swab tests. On top of all the other services that need to be maintained, it’s no wonder the school experienced so many early difficulties.

However, failures of needed services are still somewhat common. Failures with Vassar’s current services still unfortunately remain somewhat common. Issues with Moodle, hyperlinks to mandatory forms and Zoom are problems that originate from outside Vassar and cannot be fixed on campus, but still affect the ability of the student body to stay connected with their schoolwork. One notable example is Ask Banner, which has faced temporary issues with class registration and the ability to change your Vassar password. Part of what causes most of these issues is strain from high usage, and so is likely to not be a problem when traffic slows.

Brandon Hong ‘23 noted that Ask Banner functioned normally before it encountered heavy usage. “It was fine during the summer when I tried to use it. However, when everyone was using it at the same time…there were a lot of problems,” he shared. 

Vassar’s WiFi connectivity has never been perfect, and temporary shutdowns hurt more than ever now that all of our lives are online. Several students reported that their WiFi credentials didn’t work for one to two days after arriving on campus. Occasional total WiFi shutdowns occured, especially in the first weeks of students returning, but were quickly fixed.

“Tech is supposed to work when you need it to…when it doesn’t, it puts a break in your workflow,” said Jason Lee ’22. “You get frustrated wondering why it doesn’t work.”

Carlos Garcia, the Chief Information Officer of CIS, shares some of students’ frustration. “There is never enough time,” he lamented. Typically, CIS tests features and services for a period of time, before rolling them out to Vassar. Garcia said, “We had no such luxuries this time around, after the scramble to support going online in the spring and the aggressive timeline to prep for this semester.”

Part of the problem is also the services themselves. The Vassar Mobile app, released on May 18 on Android and iOS, is designed to provide users easy access to Vassar information and forms. During this semester, students have been encouraged to use the app to reserve spots in popular locations (e.g. the Deece or the Residential Operations Center, although neither has yet filled to the capacity to require reservation) and to fill out the mandatory daily health form. While load times have greatly improved after several recent patches, the app was initially notorious for being slow to load.

All of Vassar’s services, however, have performed remarkably well in comparison to Healow, the mobile app students must use to schedule medical appointments and speak with medical professionals. Needing a way to schedule students’ swab tests, Vassar opted to use Healow as the service that would coordinate all of the mandatory tests provided for each student. Of course, manually sorting out appointment times would be very inefficient, so using an app was undeniably the right choice. The only problem with this strategy is that Healow is a chronically flawed and often unusable service, owing to its many technical issues (like appointment slots not showing up) and impressively slow loading times. Returning students were instructed to register for Healow and make a swab test appointment for the day they arrived on campus. However, most students never received an email from Healow they needed to set up their accounts, and so were unable to schedule their appointments.While the issue was eventually resolved,  the app still remained virtually unusable for a period of time. “There was a period where Healow was down or the server was really slow,” Lee said. “It was very frustrating trying to log in to see if I had COVID or not.” 

Lee wasn’t alone—on Aug. 25, the amount of complaints rose to a level where CIS put out a statement to the entire body. “We are aware of performance issues with WMC portal and Healow app,” CIS wrote in an email. “WMC is working with their server provider to improve performance.” Healow’s functionality eventually improved.

Vassar’s online services have likewise experienced this pattern of patchwork improvement. While the Vassar Mobile app has had its issues, the quality and performance of the app have improved drastically as CIS has unceasingly pushed patch after patch to improve performance and functionality. Ask Banner and Moodle have remained continuously functional and fast for several weeks now, and WiFi problems have seemingly disappeared. “The first few weeks were rough, but everything actually got a lot better,” Hong recalled. “At this point, there’s not much more left to complain about. I think we’ll be good.” Even though problems in systems are inevitable, CIS’ responses have been consistently prompt, with multiple instances of issues with Moodle and Ask Banner being fixed within a few hours. 

The time and patience these performance issues took from the students and staff is substantial. The technology built to streamline our new lifestyle is one of our larger current annoyances, but the issues that remain should be fixed soon. “Hopefully we are through the worst of it,” Garcia said. “Although we are prepared for more surprises during this unusual academic year.” For the time being, all we can do is hold on and pray these tech issues don’t come back to haunt us during midterms.

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