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UMass Lowell IT department prepared for remote learning

[Photo courtesy of UMass Lowell] UMass Lowell’s computer software is available online through vLabs.

Conor Dawson
Connector Editor

When normal life came to a halt last semester, it came as a shock to many people. UMass Lowell was able to run rather smoothly in large part thanks to Michael Cipriano, UMass Lowell’s associate vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer (CIO).

Cipriano started his career in the commercial sector, working for companies such as Honeywell, Prime Computer and EMP Corporation. He then started taking CIO roles in software companies such as Riverdeep Inc., based in Cambridge, which works on educational software.

He moved from there into consulting roles and found his way to UMass Lowell ten years ago as a consultant to help fix the computer network. Shortly after, he was brought in to help the university find a new CIO, as the old one was leaving.

“Once I got in, … I started seeing that things like networks things like data centers — that I’m very, very comfortable around — needed … some attention,” Cipriano said. He also saw an opportunity to work with academic software, which was something he had never done before.

Cipriano and his team designed vLabs, UMass Lowell’s virtual machine. UMass Lowell has two virtual VMware experts who work with Cipriano to make sure vLabs is running smoothly.

“Now you don’t have to go to a physical lab to do your homework or buy this expensive software, you can get at it from anywhere in the world. It’s been one of our crowning achievements, has been our vLabs infrastructure,” Cipriano said.

This infrastructure became all the more important with classes moving online, as most students no longer had the option to work in computer labs on campus.

UMass Lowell has had “other universities to come in to see how we’ve done it so, they might be able to do it,” Cipriano said. Some of those universities include Notre Dame and MIT.

With the coronavirus pandemic, UMass Lowell had to change the way it handles many classes. “If you’re used to going into the classroom, you’re used to using presentation tools that are in the classroom, whether it be overhead projectors, or electronic whiteboards, whatever it might be. That has turned on its side,” Cipriano said. “We’ve been at this for five years with support from the academic community being driven mostly through an academic technology committee that was assembled five years ago.”

While the coronavirus pandemic was not foreseen, the university has virtual and lecture capture options that far exceed many other universities.

“We have 20 very committed faculty with a passion towards the technology side of things (who) we work with monthly on this committee. … They are in the forefront of technology usage —they have helped us push the lecture capture forward over the last six years,” Cipriano said.

Cipriano said that the focus on academic technology has “allowed us to leverage things that we thought were important before … COVID came about,” which put the university in a uniquely prepared place.

While last semester was extremely difficult from both a learning and teaching standpoint, Cipriano said UMass Lowell made sure to do what it could “these last four months in particular in working with the faculty over the summer with workshops” to make sure that classes would run more smoothly this semester.

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