Massachusetts Daily Collegian

IT reports progress despite student complaints

By Isaac Burke

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Makoto Yabusaki/Daily Collegian

(Makoto Yabusaki/Daily Collegian)

About nine months into a network upgrade program that drew widespread student outrage for introducing a new Internet fee, the Information Technology department says it is making steady progress toward their long-term goals.

Despite vehement student complaints about faulty Internet connectivity this semester, IT maintains that these issues are only temporary, due in part to the influx of students and the number of connected devices they brought at the start of the academic year. However, the complaints have been compounded by anger at the new $250 Shared Infrastructure Technology fee.

Many students feel they have not benefited from the new fee, which was introduced this fall. The fee was approved to help fund the Network Infrastructure Project, which came about in part as a result of roughly 3,000 student complaints about the network in 2014.

IT is still in the first phase of their overhaul of the University’s network, dubbed the “core project.” This initial stage has used $11 million of the $30 million Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy committed to the network project last spring, along with money raised from the fee.

So far, the money has been spent on new fiber optic cabling, updated network access points in classrooms and dorms, and improved security at all levels of the network. In a network that is attacked by hackers “every day, many times a day” according to Julie Buehler, vice chancellor for Information Services and Strategy, the security of the network is a high priority.

“It’s not like your home,” said Buehler. “There’s more complexities in a large organization where you have so many people close together.”

However, many students have still voiced concern that not enough has been done to address technical problems across campus. A simple public Facebook search for “UMass internet” returns students’ complaints about their Wi-Fi getting dropped intermittently, or not connecting at all, and a petition on iPetitions.com called “Fix This Internet @UMass Amherst” has gotten 342 signatures and 98 comments since Sept. 24. The introduction to the petition reads: “We payed (sic) an extra technology fee this year in our tuition, and our internet is worse than ever.”

Several student comments on the petition spoke of being unable to complete online Moodle quizzes because of dropped connections, preventing students from doing their homework.

“The amount in tuition 24,000+ undergrads pay to go here should be enough to cover the costs of acceptable Internet,” wrote Sarah Bouffard on Sept. 27. “It’s ridiculous that it takes me a half hour to connect every time I turn my computer on or that I have to worry about the Internet dropping out when I’m taking a timed quiz on Moodle. In a world where virtually all of our homework is online, it is imperative that the Internet is reliable and quick. Fix it.”

Julien Olsen wrote on Sept. 25, “It’s not worth the extra fee right now. We need to fix this.”

But James “Jim” Mileski, Director of Data and Infrastructure, maintains that the problem in September wasn’t so much the Internet as the servers, which got overloaded with traffic when students came back for the fall semester. The amount of server traffic, he said, was over double what it was at the same time last year.

In response to the spike in connected devices, the IT department beefed up their server capacity and began working on solutions to students’ problems, with technicians sometimes working 14-hour days and upgrading classrooms on the weekends. Buehler likened the process of combing through all the glitches to filtering dirty water: each time a problem is resolved, a finer filter is added to catch the next one.

Mileski and Buehler find the results of their work to be encouraging so far. The number of error messages logged by the system during the first month of the fall 2014 semester was 1485. This year that number is down to 1015, cut by almost a third, even with the increase in the number of connected devices. That number is also expected to drop as the upgrades continue.

“You’re going to see significant improvement each and every month,” said Buehler.

Buehler expressed a desire to be more transparent with the student body. In response to the petition, she brought its two creators into the IT department to show them the progress that’s been made toward resolving connection problems this semester. The students then began updating the petition as IT released more fixes, praising them for their work.

The department also recently put up a page on their website that breaks down the modernization project by areas of campus, each with a status bar to show how much work has been completed. In addition, they plan to set up a Facebook page to connect with students, and may make an IT Twitter account.

Buehler asked for advice from a Student Government Association advisory board, and says that IT is looking into ways to make their website more accessible for students. Part of the problem IT is facing she says, is that students who are having technical problems often don’t report them.

However, there is still a long way to go before the modernization effort is completed. The student fee is expected to raise about $5.1 million per year toward the remaining $35 million needed for the project, which will take years to complete.

“It will take us time to do this,” Buehler said. “There’s a lot of work here.”

Students who are having technical problems are encouraged to report them to the IT department by emailing [email protected].

Isaac Burke can be reached at [email protected]

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