Senior Staff Writer
It is common to overhear someone venting frustration over how his or her device has a slow Internet connection. It is also relatively common, when checking Davidson’s Yik Yak feed, to see a post with complaints about slow Internet speeds, or Information Technology Services (ITS) in general. While such outlets of frustration reveal a campus-wide attitude, they generally do not help constructively solve the issues they address.
“Our team once received an after-hours voice mail,” ITS Director of Systems and Networks Rob Smith said, describing one instance in which a student vented frustration. “It was near midnight. The person just cursed on the message for
two or three minutes about his Wi-Fi experience. And the saddest part about this story is that it was all avoidable. This individual’s devices had been blacklisted for a file-sharing violation, and he hadn’t responded to our requests to help him clean his computer.”
Offering a student perspective, Lead Student Tech Björn Ordoubadian `16 wrote via Facebook message, “People have only expressed positive feedback to me about my personal interactions with them. However, I have heard complaints about students visiting ITS where maybe the person on shift at that time may not have been able to solve their issues. Student Techs have different levels of knowledge of different systems. [They] try to compliment each other with their skill sets, but depending on who is on shift, that overlap may not always be there, so I can see how students get frustrated. As for the complaining on
Yik Yak, that’s more because they don’t know or are too lazy to go through the right channels. If we get a report that Wi-Fi is slow we will send out NetTechs to check out the issue, but the problem is no one ever contacts us! They just complain anonymously, so we have no idea where the problem is.”
In order to decrease the amount of unconstructive criticism, ITS has a formal complaint process through the ITS Help Desk and modes through which students can learn how to connect various devices. The most effective wasy to share feedback, according to ITS, are visiting the Student Technology Help Desk in the E. H. Little Library, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, call- ing 704-894-2900, texting 704-769-5444, or filing a request on davidson.service-now.com.
Common complaints from students include being forced to use up smartphone data and having overages because their smartphone won’t stay connected to Wi-Fi, slow download speeds, instances of Internet randomly dropping, and difficulty connecting to DavisonSecure, among others. Yik Yak posts include, “DavidsonSecure will be the death of my education,” and “Okay DavidsonSecure…it was funny at first but now it’s real. I have 2 papers due tomorrow. I need you.”
On Tuesday, the Internet stayed down for an extended period of time, inconveniencing students as they prepared for finals. According to Smith, however, network-wide problems are infrequent. “The whole-campus problems, frankly, are pretty rare, and we generally know about them before anyone else does; we’re working on a solution by the time of the first problem report.”
Smith did not respond to a last-minute request to describe Tuesday’s issue.
According to Smith, there are a variety of reasons that users experience an Internet slowdown. One is location. Wireless access points exist all over campus and have had to be continually added as devices aggregate. “Location is important in part because it’s the most complicated,” Smith explained. “If you’re at the edge of wireless coverage in your residence hall, for instance, and on your iPhone, it’s possible your Wi-Fi signal really is weak, or if you’re by a window [that’s] picking up a signal from outside, or [if] the Wi- Fi receiver in your iPhone isn’t strong enough for
your situation.” When Davidson introduced Wi-Fi about 15
years ago, only a few wireless access points were required for residents on a hall to maintain adequate access. However, that number continues to increase exponentially. Today, there are twelve wireless access points that provide good coverage on even the weakest of devices. Typically, every time ITS redeploys Wi-Fi in a building, they double the number of wireless access points. It is also important to note that the radio waves of Wi-Fi interact in each building differently, largely due to varying construction materials.
Time of day is another factor. Peak times are between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and during those times 75% of the network’s bandwidth is being used. For example, attempting to watch a movie, which uses a significant amount of data, on Netflix around 11 p.m. is the equivalent of downloading several PDF files simultaneously, as explained by Lead Student Tech Sophia Smith `16. ITS expects to continually increase the bandwidth and capabilities of the network as the presence of technology grows.
A third factor is the type, health, and age of the device. Smaller devices have decreased Wi-Fi accessibility, the weakest being the smartphone. Moreover, older devices, including those from four to five years old, often can’t keep up with demands in 2015 as well as newer models.
“If you don’t have the latest version of the operating system for your computer, tablet, or smartphone, or aren’t running any kind of antivirus software, or haven’t updated the apps you use for streaming content from the web—all of those issues of good computer hygiene come into play when performance is a problem,” Rob Smith said.
Improving Internet speed is a continual process. Rob Smith likened it to “trying to hit a target on a fast moving train: every time we settle on a solution, the technology changes just enough to cause disruption, moving the target down the track at the same time.” Wi-Fi has been recently upgraded in Martin Court, Duke, Belk, Irwin, Akers, Knox and Tomlinson in the past year.
Over winter break, plans exist to upgrade the rest of Dorm Row, with upgrades in Richardson set to take place in the summer.
Requesting ITS support, which requires reporting location, time, and device, helps ITS with long-term Wi-Fi upgrades, and every request is ensured a follow up.
“Making us aware as soon as there is an issue, and providing as much information as you can, are among the best ways to resolve issues more quickly,” Rob Smith explained. “When you experience a problem, we want it fixed as much as you do, but we can’t fix what we don’t know is broken. The more we hear about what isn’t working well, the better we can design future solutions.”
In addition, Rob Smith speculates that the negative attitudes from campus users are a product of their experiences with home Wi-Fi networks and larger networks. “Unlike a home network, our network is subject to security audits, must meet federal laws for maintaining privacy, and operates with complex, redundant connections to our Internet service providers,” Rob Smith said. “At your own home, there is typically just one kind of building construction to consider, a smaller square footage to cover, and fewer peoples’ needs to satisfy. Here, there is no straightforward one-size-fits-all design. We have the needs of almost 4,000 users to consider, plus a wide range of other considerations, from structural to legal.”
ITS has a history of responding to user feedback. This school year, ITS responded to specifically student feedback by removing the remediation network requirement to connect to DavidsonSecure. This change has replaced checking student devices for up-to-date software, such as Sophos Anti-Virus, with checking the network more generally for all suspicious activity. If detected, that user is contacted directly. The dropping of the remediation network has caused fewer students to come in to the Student Technology Help Desk, according to Sophia Smith.
ITS also requested student feedback in their search for a new Chief Information Officer. They invited all students via email to learn more about the position and the two candidates, and sent out a survey regarding students’ views of each candidate’s qualifications. On Monday, the College announced the hiring of Raechelle Clemmons, who worked at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin as Vice President and CIO for four years, to the student body. Clemmons will begin working on February 29, 2016.
In the email announcement, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Wendy Raymond wrote, “Davidson has already shown it can be a trailblazer in education technology with our faculty’s use and creation of technology and research, our digital learning research and design initiative, the burgeoning Digital Studies program and our partnership with edX. In these areas as well as all invisible and visible supporting technologies, Rae will bring her expertise and vision.”
After the announcement, a post on Yik Yak stated, “I wonder if the new lady in charge of technology will fix DavidsonSecure…I doubt it.”
Rob Smith ultimately wants students to reach out to ITS when they’re frustrated. “Talk to us,” he said. “We really do want to hear from you. We are absolutely committed to making the computing experience at Davidson as good as we can with the resources that the College has allocated to us”