Office 365 transition helps West Point adapt during COVID-19
By Brandon OConnorMarch 25, 2020
Friday afternoon from my dining room I joined a video conference with Col. Ed Teague, the U.S. Military Academy’s chief information officer, via Microsoft Teams.The plan was to talk about how vital the introduction of Microsoft Office 365 at West Point has become in the last few weeks, and what better way to conduct an interview about the service than by using it.Teague himself quickly found out just how vital the new systems, which were put into place starting in the fall of 2018, are when he was forced to undergo a 14-day quarantine in his home after traveling to Brazil with his wife over spring break to visit their daughter at the Military Engineering Institute. His quarantine and my transition to mostly teleworking, along with a large portion of the academy’s workforce in nonessential positions, made conducting the interview in person impossible.Doing our interview via a Teams video chat was just one example of how the transition to O365 has allowed the academy to continue its mission amidst a set of unforeseen circumstances.Due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has spread throughout the world, much of the day-to-day operations at West Point have moved online in the past week. Cadets have started taking classes via video conferencing and starting Monday more of the academy staff transitioned to teleworking.When Teague and his team implemented the process to transition West Point to Microsoft’s Office 365 platform, they never could have imagined a need as consequential as this, he said. Prior to the change, the academy operated on an email system hosted in data centers at the academy, which required users to be connected to the academy network to access it. Now, the email is entirely cloud-based and West Point staff, faculty and cadets have access to other O365 tools such as ShareDrive, OneDrive and Teams.“It would have been the definition of impossible,” Teague said of how the transition to working online would have been premigration. “We were hosting the email in a data center on West Point that you had to VPN into. The VPN would have been overwhelmed. Three or four years ago, we didn’t have the redundancy we need to make sure that we had a good resilient system. We didn’t have the collaborative tools. I honestly don’t know how we would have done it.”West Point initially began transitioning to O365 and the collaborative cloud-based tools it provides in order to stay competitive with peer institutions, Teague said. To attract the top-tier talent needed to teach cadets, the academy had to offer perspective professors the same tools they would have access to at other universities.The goal was for the new tools to help supplement other parts of the curriculum along with in-person classes, labs and physical education classes. It has now become the key cog keeping the academy running with cadets spread throughout the country.Instead of setting up large phone conferences, professors can link to cadets via video chat and share files and assignments back and forth through email and the other O365 applications.“Office 365 is just a tool that allows us to do part of our teaching mission.” Teague said. “Typically, our teaching mission is done with many, many other facets of how we interact with cadets to provide the content to them. Right now, between this and the Blackboard collaborate tool, it is allowing us to interact synchronously with cadets day in and day out.”The benefits of the new services have not only benefited professors and cadets either. Staff who have been forced to telework in order to help contain the outbreak have been able to collaborate using the same tools and continue the academy’s workflow.“We’re really, really pleased and we’re really fortunate that leadership had the foresight to sponsor this effort,” Teague said. “As a team, we are very pleased that people are adopting it, that they’re happy with it and that they’re evolving with it.”The academy’s transition to O365 was part of an Army pilot program to look at ways to modernize the force. While he admits that West Point’s mission and security needs differ from much of the Department of Defense and the Army, Teague said he thinks the success they have had during the pandemic shows the value of the programs.“I would say certainly for administrative, education, training and maybe some other parts of the Army, what we’re demonstrating is that it can be done,” Teague said. “It can be done securely. It can be done robustly. That’s exactly the kind of feedback that we provide to our leadership at the Army level.”Along with the transition to O365, West Point has switched to a new network called the WREN and doubled its network capacity to handle the usage of the new cloud-collaborative tools.