Summer 2018 Communicator
Vol. 26, No. 2 [pdf version]
Love of working Help Desk earns Ratliff Employee of Year honor
Ironically, Brian Ratliff was tricked into receiving MTSU’s Technical Service Employee
of the Year award in person by being asked to do what he loves—provide tech help.
Ratliff has worked 15 years on the ITD Help Desk, and said the honor just came from
doing what he loves best.
“This is just what I do daily,” said Ratliff. “I guess I was just put on this earth to help people. I think I’ve found my niche. . . . There is a new problem every day, so it’s not mundane.”
“I like the problems no one can resolve—the hard ones that others can’t figure out and they come to me,” he added. “When I get it fixed it makes me feel good.”
Ratliff earned a Computer Information Services degree and Masters in IT Security Assurance. He started on the Help Desk in 2003 while an undergraduate student then in 2005 began working there full time. He said his favorite thing is to take on the most vexing tech challenge that comes in.
“I like to try to figure a problem out,” he said. “I think when I was 8 years old I tore apart my toaster and my mom was wondering what I was doing. I just told her I wanted to take it apart and put it back together.”
He received the honor in April in a surprise orchestrated by Alan Franklin, ITD director of Client Services, who “took advantage of my helping nature,” Ratliff joked. Franklin told him he had to go help set up for the awards ceremony because no one else was available.
“He knew I would volunteer,” Ratliff said with a laugh. “So as soon as he said that I said ‘I can help you with technical support, whatever I need to do.’ . . . He said, ‘oh by the way it is a formal event so dress up a little bit.’ I didn’t get suspicious at all.”
Until he showed up in the Tennessee Room of the JUB and saw nothing but a sound system and asked: “where is all the technology?”
“They got me,” he said.
Soon after he was presented the award. Ratliff said it wasn’t for any one particular project, although he is very proud of the work he did setting up Closed Captioning technology on campus. The University was required to get CC capable for live-streaming on campus by 2021, and he helped get it up and running last fall.
“They came to me and asked me, ‘hey the University doesn’t have Closed Captioning, is there any way we can do this?’” he said. Ratliff was quick to thank a number of others for helping get CC ready for graduation ceremonies this year.
Ratliff lives in Dismal, Tennessee, but said his life has been anything but that lately although he has had some dark periods. He has had to overcome two major medical problems. He broke his back when he was working in the private sector before coming to MTSU—then re-injured it later. It was while going through rehabilitation that he learned of financial aid for going back to school and took advantage of it at MTSU.
Then about four years ago had a heart attack at home and had to drive himself to the hospital. After having gone through that, he said “Every day is a blessing, nothing gets me down.”
Raised in Hendersonville, Ratliff joined the Navy at age 17 before even graduating from high school and served on the aircraft carrier USS Midway.
“I was a flight deck director, so I directed $50 million aircraft and I had to park them within a half inch of each other. It was a very high-stress job. In fact it was the most dangerous job in the world in 1987, when I was in. It was an adrenalin rush and I loved the excitement,” Ratliff said.
More recently another deck has been a big part of his life—he built a 1,400-square-foot wooden deck attached to his home and "man cave."
"You can see it on Google Earth," he said.
While the Help Desk isn’t quite as high stakes as landing Navy jets as a teenager, he said that background allowed him to direct traffic to set priorities for tech assistance.
"I believe that really helped me to do damage control here. I believe that really helped me to use my ability in emergency situations.,“ he said.
"Every call is an ‘emergency,’ so I have to determine what really is an emergency and how I can go about fixing this?"
ITD grants used to teach Virtual Reality, Digital Signage
Faculty Instructional Technology Innovation grants are being awarded again this year after a five-year break. ITD reallocated funding to bring back this grant program for support of innovative teaching environments. Following are two of the recent winners:
Immersive Tech makes impression
It’s fun to spend some time playing Fruit Ninja on your smartphone. It’s quite another to flinch as you swing Samurai swords at realistic produce flying at your head.
And more seriously—it’s one thing to read a news article or watch a TV report about a fatal domestic violence case. It’s quite another to be standing in the middle of the incident as it escalates all around you.
“We’re after creating the stories, because storytelling is really the thread that connects our college—that’s what we all do between Recording Industry, Media Arts and Journalism—what we’re trying to do is tell better stories,” said John Merchant, associate professor in the Recording Industry department.
Merchant and Stephanie Dean, assistant professor of Media Arts, want to offer virtual reality experiences to the MTSU community and, in doing so, create a real-life program for teaching how to make them.
A group that also included Professors Marie Elliot and Alison Sultan were awarded the grant for the "Immersive Storytelling Techniques and Technologies" project—a collaborative effort between the Media Arts, Recording Industry, and Animation programs.
The project is starting to take shape in a Bragg Building lab with computers, a headset and handheld controllers, and an octagonal treadmill that will eventually be used by people moving around inside VR programs.
Bringing the idea to reality required “the right tools, and the tools are pretty expensive.
“That is why we were so blessed to get this grant from ITD that can help support this,” Merchant said.
Merchant and Dean said they can hardly keep up with all the fantastic ideas for using the technology that they are getting from students, faculty, and the community.
“We don’t want this to be a little hidden room that no one uses and say ‘It’s cool,
we’ve got our own little toys.' No, we want people back here making stuff.”
Professor Stephanie Dean
For example, the MTSU Women’s Center is interested in using it for experiences that help build understanding of domestic violence.
“That is my passion—the projects that have to do with empathy and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes are in my research wheelhouse,” Dean said. “So if you can put yourself in a situation and start understanding frame of reference, then you have to come to a conclusion.”
One VR program being viewed by recent visitors to the lab uses actual 911 calls, a recreation of a real neighborhood and real people involved in a domestic violence case. Several family members try to calm down a man who is holding a gun, while they wait for police.
The VR viewer is standing in the middle of the confrontation. Then the scene shifts to outside and when police arrive and begin to enter the house, a gunshot is heard from inside.
“You’re there, you’re next to the man who murdered her,” Dean said.
Even though it was not created here, it is an example of the type of collaborative effort they envision—with research and documentation by Journalism students, scene and character creation by Animation students, and use of real audio by Recording Industry students.
Some visitors from the Amazon region of Brazil tried out VR for the first time during a recent visit to MTSU. Guests of Sociology and Anthropology Professor Richard Pace, Bepunu and Pat-i Kayapo are indigenous filmmakers who are interested in incorporating VR into their work.
A group of MTSU students will work with the tribe this summer—including several filmmaking students.
Classes are being created to support the VR project. Dean has been teaching 360 Storytelling and Producing, an intro to making VR films. Merchant will teach one on Audio for Immersive Technology this summer, he said.
Part of the grant will be for a sound cage—a 24-speaker array that you can step inside of—to recreate this kind of moveable sound field without headphones.
“About half of what we know from before—from filmmaking, and radio and audio, those things still apply. But about half of it is all new. So figuring out this new half is what this lab is all about,” Merchant said. "In VR, the viewer has the power to look where they want. So in a way they are kind of directing. They are choosing where to put the camera, which is their field of vision.”
Professor John Merchant
Digital is sign of the times
Sheri Selph was on a trip last year when she discovered an idea for combining her love of graphic design with emerging technology for a new course at MTSU.
“Last year I did some traveling, and I started to notice how many touchscreens I was asked to interact with,” said Selph, assistant professor of Graphic Design in the Department of Art and Design. “I was just seeing them over and over.”
During the trip to Las Vegas, she used touch screens to check into her hotel, book restaurant reservations, and find directions on a local map.
“It seemed these types of screens were all over highly-trafficked public and private buildings. I started to realize how different the design of these screens were from the hand-held, personal devices we had typically been designing for in class," Selph said. "I wanted to incorporate this type of design into our program, but unfortunately, I knew we’d have no way to test these designs or for the students to really appreciate their impact.”
The trend back toward “signs”—in this case interactive digital ones—seemed to go against the flow of recent years toward apps on hand-held devices. Interactive digital signs have an advantage over apps by being more reliable because they don’t rely on wi-fi, and they are more accessible for groups of people, or visually impaired users.
“It was tough to decide—do we need something big? Is that the way the world is going to go? But the more research I did about it—you can’t always rely on your phone. At least you know the information coming through the hardwire from the server is going to be good information. I think that’s one reason why they are becoming popular,” she said. “There are definitely some plusses to having a big screen.”
Another thing that influenced her was a recent visit to a museum, where she saw an educational kiosk surrounded by students.
“Kids think all screens are touch screens,” she said.
What she needed was funding to teach how to create touch-screen digital signage as part of her Graphic Design curriculum. Enter the Faculty Instructional Technology Innovation grants.
The grant proposal is to expand an existing Interface Design course by adding a large-scale touchscreen monitor. The grant will be used primarily for new equipment.
She said the goal for ART 3400 Interface Design and ART 4440 Interactive III in 2018 is to be able to broaden the students’ classroom experiences by having them learn how to design and test on larger interactive screens using UI/UX (aka User Interface and User Experience) methodologies.
“Having a large, interactive screen in Todd Hall would allow students to mimic the commercial environment of designing for informational kiosks and the various applications of digital advertising,” Selph said.
An additional enrichment plan Interactive III involves a collaboration with another academic area at MTSU to create digital-learning tools for educational topics outside of Art and Design. Art and Design students would create digital, learning “exhibits” with content support from another department.
These digital exhibits could be displayed in other areas of the campus, city public buildings, libraries, and local museums, Selph said.
The last of her enrichment objectives is to have students explore interactivity in the Studio Arts disciplines.
“Currently within the Department of Art and Design, we are looking to add more 4D art learning pathways. 4D art is the practice of using different technical approaches within a single piece or show that often includes time-based or interactive media.”
Professor Sheri Selph
“I expect that by increasing our course offerings in digital art and large-scale UI/UX design technology, our students will gain the experience and confidence they need to enter these new fields. Through the collaborative initiatives . . . I expect MTSU and the Department of Art and Design to gain immediate local exposure to future students and further exposure to regional design and advertising industries”.
In researching how to acquire a touch screen, she discovered MTSU already had an advanced network of digital signage.
“I began to see that this project was entirely reasonable because technical structure was already in place. The grant supports adding the necessary hardware to provide one more touch screen in a department that revolves around figuring out how things work visually and digitally—The Department of Art and Design,” she said.
Staff Profile: Brad Meyer
Childhood at summer camp sparked IT interest
ITD Systems Administrator 2 Brad Meyer grew up at summer camp.
Not in the sense of regularly spending time there, but literally living at Horton Haven Christian Camp in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, where his mom worked in the kitchen and his dad was the head maintenance man.
And while a lot of time was spent in outdoor activities, games, and Bible study, it also was where he first developed an interest in computers.
“I tinkered with computers growing up. When my parents’ computer broke I would figure out how to fix it,” Meyer said. When speakers came from seminaries, including from Emmaus Bible College, he enjoyed their multimedia presentations, and would often follow a computer technician around to watch him work.
That experience led Meyer to Emmaus in Dubuque, Iowa, to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Information Systems. He worked in the computer repair shop there.
“I landed a job as a Help Desk technician at Loras College in Dubuque, the same town I went to college in,” Meyer said. “Two years later I got promoted to a network administrator.”
Three years later, he and his family moved to Tennessee and he got a job as the IT Director at TechnologyAdvice in Brentwood, then 10 months later in May 2015 he started work at MTSU as a Systems Administrator I.
“I wear many hats as do most systems administrators, but my primary responsibility is being in charge of virtualization, server virtualization and Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop,” Meyer said.
In that role he is primarily in charge of the infrastructure that most of the servers run on at MTSU. Citrix allows students and faculty to access a variety of desktop configurations with apps to meet their academic needs.
“I also am the one who makes student and faculty software available in our Citrix environment, which you may know as apps.mtsu.edu (or the new cam.mtsu.edu).
“This environment also allows many of the applications to be accessed off campus so students don’t have to necessarily be physically in a computer lab to do their work," he said. "It’s my goal to have as many applications as possible in the Citrix environment to make student learning more convenient.”
He and his wife, Aimee, have three children: Owen (6), Charlotte (5), and Flynn, (2).
“I love soccer and enjoy playing it, though I haven’t been able to do that in a while. I’m a fairly big gamer and really enjoy PC gaming and board games,” Meyer said. “If I really had to describe what I enjoy, I’d have to say whatever my friends are doing. Whether that’s playing sports, board games, camping, watching movies, etc. . . . I greatly love being with other people.”
Online faculty evaluations starting up at MTSU
Student evaluations of MTSU faculty started moving from paper to online surveys this spring.
After a pilot program was completed last fall by several departments, the University gave the green light to phase in the program.
Most students began using online evaluations through Campus Lab at the end of the spring semester rather than the fill-in-the-bubbles paper form.
While the reponses will be collected online, the results collected still will be processed using the current database created by ITD Systems Analyst 2 Curt Curry.
Curry has been handling the survey process for 20 years as of this spring.
In recent years he has sent out approximately 90,000 paper forms per semester to departments to be distributed to students. Then he received back approximately 60,000 completed forms to run through a scanning machine to pull the data.
Those numbers are due to a student often evaluating several professors. The flow of
paper forms will be slowing down, but he doesn’t yet know by how much.
Curry said it often has taken 2 to 3 weeks for him and a student worker to simply prepare the completed forms to be run through the scanning machine—getting them all facing the same direction, smoothed out, and lined up perfectly.
Then it would take up to two hours just to scan a box of 5,000 paper survey results.
And then the data processing begins.
Paper evaluations are done by students while they are in their classrooms, but the online evaluation link is sent out by email. That requires a good system of reminders for students to complete the form, he said.
“I had to create a program that actually takes this data and groups by questions and does averages. The department chair can go in and make a list for everybody and it is broken down into seven categories. At a glance he can see his faculty and how they’re doing.”
ITD Systems Analyst 2 Curt Curry
That will not change under the new process—Curry will still take the results collected online and process them through that reporting format.
"I will get the data back, and instead of scanning, it I will make their data file they give me match what I have, to get it into my system," Curry said. "So the reports will still be ours."
ITD Systems Analyst 2 Yen Qualls worked on the programming for enrollment data to be fed to Campus Labs.
The new process will streamline gathering and publishing reports, said Barbara Draude, ITD assistant vice president, Academic and Instructional Technologies.
"Moving to an online methodology allows the process to take advantage of what the newest technologies can provide—the ability to complete the survey on mobile devices, the ease of completion for both on-ground and online students, accessibility for all students including those with disabilities," Draude said.
"That data can be gathered and analyzed much faster by eliminating the manual distribution, collection, and scanning that the old process required."
Cyber Security UpdateEncryption of University laptops being phased in
ITD has begun encrypting University laptop computers, but the process will be a gradual one designed not to interrupt usage by faculty and staff.
Encryption provides an additional layer of protection against cyber-criminals by locking down the actual hard drive. That way, if a computer is stolen the hard drive couldn’t be removed and accessed, said Alan Franklin, ITD director of Client Services.
“If it’s not encrypted, a thief can pull it out and put it in another device and read it,” he said. “Encryption isn’t just locking the door, it’s putting it in a steel cage and locking it.”
Franklin said the process will involve gradually encrypting laptops during the academic rotation period, when faculty and staff get upgrades or new equipment on a scheduled basis. Others will be encrypted on a case-by-case basis as ITD comes in contact with a user’s laptop.
Aaron Schmuhl, director of Information Security Services, said the only thing the user of an encrypted device will notice is a different look to its log-in screen—it will not involve new usernames or passwords.
“It’s the data on the device that is valuable. The laptop itself is not as valuable and can be replaced,” Schmuhl said.
Anyone with questions about encryption can contact the Help Desk at (615) 898-5345 or email@example.com.
Multi-factor Authentication adds new layer of security
ITD has begun implementing multi-factor authentication services to protect MTSU accounts. This will be similar to services offered by Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, credit card companies, and universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Northwestern, Notre Dame, the University of Alabama, Ohio State University, and University of Michigan.
Specifically, this means MTSU systems using single sign-on (SSO) services will require a second factor of authentication in addition to a password. So if hackers compromise your password, they would still need a second factor, like your phone, to complete an authentication request. MTSU systems requiring students to enter the MTMail credentials or employees to enter their Pipeline/FSA user name @mtsu.edu use SSO services.
With more MTSU services available on the internet, it has never been more important to protect your MTSU account from unauthorized access. Phishing attacks, malware, and social engineering constantly target the University population with the intent of stealing users’ credentials to gain unauthorized access to MTSU systems.
While users should always create strong passwords to protect against unauthorized access, passwords alone are simply no longer a sufficient means of authentication as these attacks continue to become more sophisticated.
MTSU’s Information Technology Division is making Microsoft Azure multi-factor authentication available to all users as an opt-in service. Users can visit the following MTSU Website to opt in to the service and enroll their accounts.
Students should log in with their MTMail user name and password (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org). Employees should log in with the MTSU Pipeline/FSA user name @mtsu.edu (e.g. email@example.com).
Prior to opting in, we encourage you to read our FAQ site and enrollment instructions, which are available at the following links. If you have any questions, please contact the ITD Help Desk at (615) 898-5345 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instructional Design Team continues pilot program
Scott Haupt has been journeying through the cosmos, and Jan Pontia has been working on Interpersonal Communication skills in recent months.
It’s all part of the new ITD Instructional Support Team’s work in piloting a new approach to course design. With faculty from Organizational Communication and Physics/Astronomy serving as subject matter experts and providing raw course materials, the goal is to complete these two courses by this summer.
“Moving away from PDFs and Word documents, it’s going to be more interactive for the students," said Haupt, ITD instructional design specialist. "It’s going to have an open educational resource textbook as opposed to the traditional textbook.
“We actually embed videos in the course, so it’s going to keep the students hopefully more engaged.”
Pontia, instructional technology specialist, has been working with faculty to develop the Interpersonal Communication online course, while Kourtney Smith, ITD learning multimedia developer, is creating video segments of lectures.
Bill Burgess, Instructional Accessibility Specialist, is confirming course accessibility.
Plans are in place to add two courses to the pilot to be delivered in Fall 2018.
In an instructional design team:
- The faculty member(s) serves as subject matter expert, establishing learning outcomes and providing content leadership.
- The instructional designer/technologist(s) serves as the pedagogy expert determining appropriate teaching and technology methodologies to use.
- The learning multimedia developer creates graphic, video, and other course elements to enhance the course materials.
- The accessibility specialist provides quality checking to assure that the course meets high, rigorous standards and will be accessible to all our students.
- The educational assessment expert(s) provides direction on assessing the outcomes of the project.
The instructional support team plans to offer this service to more course developers later this year. For more information, please contact Barbara Draude at 615-904-8383.
Access Success By Bill Burgess
Free DAT plug-in makes fully accessible documents easier
Creation of “fully accessible” documents can be made much simpler with a free plug-in for Microsoft Word. The Document Accessibility Toolbar (DAT) is distributed by Vision Australia and can help you create accessible aspects of your Word documents.
Let’s look at the individual sections of the toolbar: