Celebrating the people and projects of TU's Division of Administration and Finance

TU Innovation: OTS & TechHelp

By Eric VanLieshout & Michael Bachman

In August 2012, OTS began phasing in a new Web-based service called TechHelp. The key goals were to better manage and track technology-related service requests, solve problems faster, and deliver service more efficiently and effectively. TechHelp is now in full production, and while the implementation stage is complete, the system will continue to evolve and expand to meet campus needs. To say that the goals were met would be an understatement – the new TechHelp system has exceeded all initial expectations. So far, this system has handled 14,457 requests.

The TechHelp project was headed-up by Mark Addy, Director of Enterprise Services and Michael Bachman, Director of Information Technology Client Services. Both report to Jeff Schmidt, AVP/CIO. Bachman recently explained in an interview that TechHelp is more than an issue reporting and tracking tool. The system has powerful features that facilitate communication between solution providers in OTS and their faculty, staff, and student users. “TechHelp empowers our clients through features like self-service problem reporting, ability to check progress of requests, and dynamic FAQs that can answer common questions without having to wait for a response” according to Bachman.

If anyone is unfamiliar with using the TechHelp system, here is an overview of how the self-service feature works. Towson faculty, staff and students log into the system at http://techhelp.towson.edu with their NetID, then select the role associated with the “Request Type” (either employee or student). Successive drop down menus present options that help the user narrow down and pinpoint the specific problem or topic. A problem report from a faculty member in a classroom can be tracked right down to the building, room number, and specific device.

Once the Request Type is complete, users can type in additional notes and information, if necessary, attach a file, and then click Save to send the report directly to OTS. Once submitted, users can view the entire conversation or email thread and not only track but also interact with the processing of their request. This also does away with fractured, incomplete and disjointed email threads and the miscommunications that go with them, a troublesome phenomenon Bachman has termed “efail.”

The system is available 24/7. During business hours, staff members in the Faculty/Staff Help Center, Student Computing Services, and other intake points in OTS use the system to record telephone and email requests, providing a comprehensive history from initial report to resolution to client satisfaction. The ultimate use of TechHelp, in Bachman’s view, is to collect incident data that can then be used to identify recurring problems and patterns—then, using this information, develop solutions that prevent problems before they arise. OTS can create reports with TechHelp that sort requests by type, building, location and other criteria; this allows OTS to pinpoint a problematic room or building, or discover another specific pervasive issue and address the overarching problem, instead of responding to numerous individual service requests about the same classroom or building.

The TechHelp system is also astoundingly user-friendly for those without much knowledge of computers and technology. Bachman, Addy and the OTS team are serious about service excellence and effective communication and with the campus community; all the menus and options in TechHelp are expressed in layman’s terms, in plain English. You don’t have to know the entire OTS organizational chart to use the system. For example, “Enterprise Systems Engineering” is not on the menu, but you will find “Email, Outlook, Exchange, Calendars, etc.” which most people can relate to.

Classroom and Computer Lab Technologies (CCLT) was one of the first areas of TechHelp to go live. OTS administers the $3+ million Student Technology Fee budget which funds an enormous amount of the audiovisual and computer technology that students and faculty use daily in any of Towson University’s 400+ smart classrooms and computer labs. Maintaining the innovative CCLT program is paramount in facilitating the academic pursuits at the university, and teachers and students need the full advantage of this technology to provide the modern education expected at TU.

Recently, TechHelp allowed OTS to work with a TU Biology professor on a way to capture his in-class audio descriptions of the slides in his PowerPoint presentations so students could review and study class material. He plans to link the presentations through Blackboard. He submitted his original request through TechHelp as a general question on what type of microphone he should buy. OTS met with him shortly afterwards, reviewed his needs and goals, and then identified a small USB microphone to use with Microsoft Lync. The microphone is on order, and within a week or so, OTS plans to turn it over to the instructor to try in his classes. If it works, it could solve not just the professor’s capture need but also provide a solution for people with medical conditions or disabilities who need an easy-to-use portable amplification solution in the classroom.

The success of TechHelp lies in the way it facilitates collaborative solutions. As they planned and ran the project, Bachman and Addy worked to get people from all areas of OTS involved in developing the TechHelp system. The implementation project, originally given the codename iTraq, was an extensive in-house effort, instead of relying on outside development companies. This allowed Bachman and Addy to designate project teams that took advantage of their colleagues’ unique skills and apply them to the greatest effect. For example, those with a background or interest in English worked on communication, etc. etc.

To put it simply, Bachman and Addy let their OTS colleagues shine and work to their full potential. Perhaps, Bachman admits, an outside developer could have launched the system in less time; TechHelp was huge, sprawling effort. But faced with the task again, he says, “I wouldn’t change a thing. Sure, there are things we could improve as a project, but the distribution of work, ownership, teamwork, and collaboration throughout the process was a unifying exercise that brought people together from diverse areas for a common goal.” In the end, TechHelp is by Towson, for Towson, and those who built it understand the needs of the university as only an insider can.

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