BlueJeans Blog

Guest Blog: University of Michigan scales-up BlueJeans video conferencing to enable remote learning during COVID-19

We are honored to have Todd L. Austin, Videoconferencing Lead, Technology Services of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts of University of Michigan for contributing this blog post. We are grateful to Todd and the rest of the UMich team for being such a great partner for us and for sharing their expertise in rapidly transitioning to remote learning so that other schools and universities in the BlueJeans community can learn these best practices. To learn about how University of Michigan had been using BlueJeans for their Virtual Exchange program, read the original case study here. - BlueJeans

“The Great Earthquake of 2020”

There was an earthquake in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Wednesday March 11, 2020. No, it wasn’t the sort that our friends at BlueJeans experience in Silicon Valley from time to time. This one came in the form of an e-mail from University of Michigan’s President Mark Schlissel sent to the university community.

In the next two days, all classes were canceled in the university. Starting Monday March 16th, all courses on all campuses of the university would resume - online. Face-to-face instruction would cease for the rest of the semester. In our college, that gave us about 110 hours, just over 4 days, to virtualize 4100 courses. All areas of our Literature, Sciences and Arts (LSA) Technology Services team sprang into action. Here are some examples of the work that needed to be done immediately in order to facilitate this transition to online classes:

  • Instructional designers set to work consulting with faculty groups and creating web pages, FAQ docs, training videos, and webinars.
  • IT staff worked on configuring loaner computers for faculty or students with equipment that was not up to the task.
  • A/V technicians prepped rooms for unattended lecture capture and contacting faculty about their needs to execute their plans.
  • Our Loan Office worked to get A/V equipment into the hands of students and faculty who would need it to complete their work for the semester.
  • Web Services staff added new sections and content to our web site, often updating and redesigning on a daily basis as needs changed.
  • Our Engineering team worked to rapidly expand the number of classrooms where lecture capture equipment was installed.
  • Our Central IT staff quickly coded and posted a web-based tool with which faculty could set up office hours using BlueJeans Meetings.
  • The Videoconferencing Group worked long hours providing consultations, training, and assistance to move suitable courses onto tools such as BlueJeans.

Everyone was busy – very busy, indeed. Overtime became the norm as weekends became indistinguishable from weekdays. The stream of questions and tasks did not slow down for almost two weeks. This highly creative and imaginative group of people were putting all their years of training and experience in disparate disciplines to work in truly impressive and inspiring ways. Cathleen Curley, who heads our Technology Services group as College CIO, referred to this time as our finest hour, and I really must agree.

As we dove into the work, it became immediately clear that no one tool was going to be able to cover all the diverse range of instructional styles and class sizes we offer. Some professors deliver straight lectures and wished to simply record themselves, either in their now-empty lecture halls using the recording equipment installed there, or on their own computers from home (after shelter-in place was implemented in Michigan). Small discussion classes were a natural fit for BlueJeans and many faculty members set themselves up with very little contact with our staff, other than referring to the FAQs, documentation, tutorial videos, and recorded webinars we provided online. Project-based classes often found a home within the Canvas site for their courses. Some faculty with large lecture classes decided to recreate that environment live using BlueJeans Events. Requests for access to that service and training came in steadily. Larger classes in team-based learning (TBL) spaces often opted for BlueJeans Meetings, using the Breakout Rooms feature to recreate the small-group arrangements during class sessions.

What did all this mean for our use of the BlueJeans service? We added approximately 23,000 new BlueJeans users in March. Before the ‘earthquake’, we were using an average of about 250,000 participant-minutes a day during the week. On Sunday March 15th, we used 2.57 million participant-minutes. It’s mindboggling that participant-minutes increased 12-fold. We now routinely see the range of 2.4-3.2 million participant-minutes per day during the week.

BlueJeans did not even blink in the face of the extra traffic. In fact, the telephone network ended up being our only significant bottleneck. That’s because some of our users, concerned about the integrity of the data network, chose to call in to their BlueJeans Meetings by phone. We encouraged our users to connect using the app whenever possible. This issue was resolved within a day.

My new reality looks something like this: In my new ‘home office’, what was previously our spare bedroom, my work laptop sits in front of me. On it, I see one of our senior political science faculty delivering a lecture that we are recording using BlueJeans to later share with his 100+ students through our Canvas instance. To my left sits our home iMac, where I’m monitoring a Distinguished Faculty Fellow of the university as she delivers her live weekly radio show to an audience of 1,000,000+ in Russia. This stream is running on BlueJeans as well. In parallel with tasks like these, our group fields inquiries from faculty, staff, and Technology Services colleagues looking for guidance and assistance to recreate formerly in-person events using video conferencing.

In addition to the core task of teaching, campus organizers of symposia, conferences, and other large-scale events which were originally scheduled to be held in person are now working to reimagine them as virtual experiences. I expect that we will be using a wide range of online tools, and that video conferencing will have an important role to play in the solutions that are developed.

Looking ahead, it’s been now decided that all our courses at Michigan will remain online through summer. What happens in fall remains to be seen. Clearly, we’ll be rethinking and reimagining our instruction methods extensively between now and then. Much interesting work lies ahead. This crisis requires us to think about just what a community is. It redefines our common responsibility to ensure that institutions and communities can endure, even when their members are unable to gather face-to-face. The long-term effects of this disruption will almost certainly include substantial and important changes to the ways in which we live and work as a university, and as a society.

Stay safe, stay healthy, everyone.