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Colleges Streamlining Their Help Desks

Campus IT support centers are ditching paper and turning to software solutions for their help desks
University Business, June 2013
Advances in help desk technology means users' problems are solved more quickly.

Students, faculty, and staff turn to campus help desks when their work has come to a standstill because technology isn’t behaving as they think it should. IT support centers at colleges and universities across the nation are ditching paper and turning to software solutions to help get frustrated users back on track more effectively and efficiently.

Greg Franseth, director of support for University of Kentucky Research Information Services, says it’s hard to believe his office was using a paper-based system for help desk tickets just about seven years ago. “With what we’ve implemented, that feels like decades ago.”

In the past, when users experienced a technology issue, they would come into the IT office, fill out a form, and eventually have the problem fixed. The paper trail invited lost requests, and it was difficult to spot trends or larger issues related to specific departments or certain pieces of the technology mix, Franseth says.

University of Kentucky administrators turned to a software suite that expanded the functionality of its help desk to better support users. “The difference between our old system and our new one is light years apart,” he says, adding that users are much happier with the digital system that’s now in place. The process lowered resolution time and gave campus constituents more options for support. There are an array of vendors making help desk support and functionality more efficient. Here are some main features that streamline a university or college helpdesk system:

Self-Help for Users

One distinctive aspect of many help desk technology suites is user empowerment. Since today’s students can be deeply tech savvy, giving them the tools to solve their own issues can relieve the IT department of some basic help desk tasks. Allowing users to check the status of their support tickets can reduce the number of calls to the help desk.

“Certain problems can be solved if we just make the information available to users,” says Alexander Milne, technical director of student support at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. “The more educated we make our user group, the more likely they’ll be to try addressing their problems before they come to us.”

In 2004, Wharton implemented a stronger help ticket system with software from Parature. Before that, the school had tracked IT requests via email, and sometimes up to six IT techs would be cc’ed and multiple people would answer a single query. Anna Kent, Wharton’s senior IT project leader, says the volume of email for a single event meant it was easy to lose track of a particular message.

The switch to Parature allowed the school to implement a system where nothing gets missed, and tools like the self-help knowledge base have been folded in easily. Kent notes that students, who are used to self-help systems, can speed up the process by taking a first crack at a problem and eliminating several potential causes before contacting IT.

A key feature in the self-help portal is chat functionality, Milne says. Students can talk in real time with an IT support professional, who work to guide them through problem solving. The system gives students expert help, but still allows them to troubleshoot on their own.

“We’re seeing an increase in usage of the self-help portion of the site over time,” says Kent. “Students are relying on it more and more. That helps them become savvy in solving their problems and reduces the number of help desk requests for us.”

Remote Control

Taking control of a user’s computer can be a powerful way to resolve issues. Many help desk professionals use this function to catch small problems before they become larger ones.

Kathryn McTaggart, who handles support for the Child Care Resource and Referral Network for Mississippi State University Extension Service, uses BOMGAR’s remote software to support 14 sites across the state. In the past, if a piece of technology was broken, users would have to drive to her location and drop off the equipment, then wait at least a few days before getting it back—and sometimes up to three weeks.

Using the software suite to do damage control has allowed McTaggart to address problems before they escalate into a meltdown, she says. “When people knew they’d be losing their projectors or laptops for weeks, they wouldn’t tell me about problems, and then they’d just get worse. Now, they’re not afraid to call and say their computer is running slow. It’s helped to resolve a lot of major malfunctions because I can catch them earlier.”

Another BOMGAR user, the University of North Dakota, has also experienced speedier support turnaround through remote technology. Joshua Jones, associate director at the Center for Instructional Learning Technologies at the university, says that as a user is explaining a problem over the phone, a tech can jump onto the computer in question and guide the user through problem solving. The university implemented the technology about two years ago, and users have been in love with it ever since, Jones says. “We can get them back up and running really quickly, and they feel like they don’t have to waste time on getting support. That’s made a big difference in user satisfaction levels for us.”

Centralized Functionality

At many colleges and universities, help functions are handled by specific IT employees. For example, one person might be in charge of AV equipment setup and troubleshooting, while another handles software upgrades and security patches. Integrating all aspects of a technology system has been a challenge in the past, but software tools are making that kind of centralization much easier.

“We used to have a more traditional service desk where people would log in a request or come into the office and fill out a form,” says Gordon Stankavage, technology manager for the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers. “But requests would sometimes be a multipart engagement that involved several people, and it was difficult to put all those pieces together.”

For instance, whenever a new faculty member joined the school, there were multiple steps to getting a laptop ready, and each step was handled by a different IT professional on the five-person team. Now the department uses ServiceWise from TechExcel and Citrix GoToAssist. “This type of system creates a better flow for us,” Stankavage says.

Trend Data

Centralized functionality can also lead to better trend analysis, according to Steve Creager, technical support manager at University of Kentucky Research Information Services.

About five years ago, UK implemented Kaseya, IT services management software that allows for remote troubleshooting and problem identification. At this point, about 90 percent of all support calls are handled remotely, Creager says.

Because the calls are routed through the Kaseya system, IT administrators can spot issues more quickly and, in turn, provide help in a timely manner. That has led to more support across campus for a breadth of technology, including mobile devices. There has also been a shift in IT roles at the institution, changing one employee from a support tech to a server administrator. As a result, the university has scheduled less downtime for its servers, because monitoring is better.

That type of ripple effect is expected to continue, Creager says. “We really see the system being embraced at every level. You lose something when you don’t have face-to-face contact with users, but at the same time, you gain a lot of efficiency.”