Education Technology

Digital Transformation: Critical for Higher Ed, or Just Hype?


  • Vince Kellen, CIO, UCSD
  • Orlando Leon, CIO, CSU Fresno
  • Helen Norris, VP & CIO, Chapman University
  • Phillip Ventimiglia, CIO, Georgia State University

Intros and definitions of digital transformation

VK: growth…lots of construction! Replacing ancient mainframe systems (found out about that in his interview, haha). I HATE the phrase, personally. I was a consultant in the Web 1.0 days, and I hated it then.

PV: tech is disruptive, for sure. Dx for me is not a strategy, it’s something we do to support the university and student success (and into prosperous careers). We want to enable tech on campus to make things better for faculty and students…make the journey easier to navigate.

OL: we’re all about student success (hey, who here isn’t?). Dx to me is business process innovation (what we called it about three years ago). Now, it’s all about working with our partners and how all the new technologies support higher ed and our students, including digital literacy. Glassdoor says the top skill employers are looking for is cloud computing, and we don’t do that too well now.

HN: smaller, private university…challenges are a bit different but largely the same. I’m a lot like Vince, perhaps not as extreme. I think this is in the progression of what we do in tech. It’s rooted in the strategic plan of the university (i.e. supporting strategic growth and fundamentally different ways of teaching, such as in our pharmacy school).

Specific Innovations at Respective Universities

VK: many components that we’re woking on, especially growth. Online education is a priority for us right now, adult learners in particular. Something that’s important is celebrating our physical space. ERP and analytical infrastructure is important for us, in light of our forthcoming mainframe extinction. I’ll be happy to be out of the data center business. Biggest transformation is in the IT work itself, i.e. homebrew, devops, not as much software development.

PV: supporting student success and progress to graduation. Advising at scale requires technology. We’ve improved grad rates over the last 10 years via technology and data to “move the needle” in small steps, identifying risk factors and looking for what’s next, i.e. “peeling back the onion.” We have a strong team that allows us to quickly integrate new technologies with Banner, up to 40 integrations per year which extends our investments. We were able to more effectively use classroom spaces by looking at our space demand data based on class schedules; this has saved us a lot of money. Looking at the pedagogy (i.e. what we teach), how do we get students across the range of degree programs we offer “digital ready?” One way we do this is by allowing them to do a project with data and visualizations with Tableau. We also have a digital learners to leaders co-curricular program. Project-based learning is a big part of developing and building out our newer curriculum…this will help us “level up” our students’ skills.

OL: business process innovation is big for us, but we’re also looking at blockchain for providing a record of student knowledge that lives beyond their time with us. We’re also looking at a lot of interdisciplinary education.

HN: can you talk about your perspective about how you do innovation while “keeping the lights on?”

OL: we need to be able to carve time out of people’s schedule, prioritizing this, to transform our culture.

PV: you can’t say “these people are innovative, and these people are not.” Everyone in the organization (not just IT) needs to be thinking about innovation. People need a willingness to experiment and step out of our silos, whether it’s enterprise IT, instructional designers, edtech professionals, faculty, etc. and figure out what process will work best for the organization. It’s not a one-person kind of effort…if you do it that way, you’ll hit a brick wall.

HN: VK, can mainframe programmers innovate?

VK: haha, that’s tough! I’d rather frame it in the form of projects and not individuals. For example, we created a cloud optimization center, and that was a pilot fronted by faculty. This led to an NSF grant. I will say this: innovation needs extreme defense and protection; it’s fragile! Need to shield these projects from being pushed into production prematurely…need to let innovation incubate a bit.

HN: what about faculty involvement? At Chapman, it’s hard to get faculty into something that’s different. Give them something new, and they often struggle with it. The human touch is still very important. Face-to-face contact is increasingly important the more innovative the project is. Newer faculty tend to be more open to innovation. How about all of you?

PV: redesigning classes and buyout of time are important, faculty need to get credit for the work they do. How do we make sure we’re raising our people up and providing them the support they need when they’re doing something new? We can’t penalize people for taking a risk (the cameras are always rolling, in the form of RateMyProfessor and other review websites). Working through the kinks in the process is key.

OL: how do you do this well in a smaller environment, Helen?

HN: often there’s less bureaucracy. We definitely have a smaller staff, so we can’t do some of the fun things we’d like to do. We offset that by partnering with vendors and other universities. We have a partnership with a local org that allows us to use their data for machine learning and analytics projects.

VK: at larger universities we have the illusion of larger budgets. We start small too, and we grow from there. We have a lot of faculty doing really cool and wild stuff, so how do I interest them in doing work with us?

OL: is Dx critical or hype?

VK: here’s my problem…innovation is to be focused on an opportunity for another person. I want to make the customer experience better (how do I do that?), OR how do I bend the technology to make things work differently (when all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail). I prefer to reason from market opportunity backwards. All of edtech is consistently underestimating the last mile of support! You can’t replace molecules with electrons in every case.

HN: my president wouldn’t like the term “Dx,” but is OK with digital innovation.

OL: higher ed needs to shift and pivot. The central valley where we are is particularly at risk for replacement of jobs by technology.

PV: we’re in the 4th industrial revolution, and tech is fundamentally changing higher education institutions. Many institutions are in fact going away and many of the areas that remain are highly tech-dependent. Campuses need to become less resistant to change, and we can help our organizations make that change and serve our students.

HN: is digital disruption like Zoom or Uber?

PV: I came from corporate brick-and-mortar, and it used to be thought that “all that would go away,” but that has not in fact happened. In some ways, it’s increased the value of physical stores…extending the relationship with consumers by providing them with more choices. Overall, I think things are getting better.

VK: we don’t have enough neuroplasticity to change ourselves so much that we can completely modify the way we work; we’re all sitting here in a room, not unlike a cathedral in 1,200 AD! I love digitization, but the disruption we’re talking about is not the same as the green revolution’s or those enabled by Moore’s law. Our outputs have more of a flywheel effect.

OL: we still use paper for performance reviews; we can change that to a digital process, then into a workflow. What’s the next step? Let’s make performance reviews an in-flight thing that we can do in our day-to-day efforts.

HN: final thoughts?

VK: how do humans comandeer tech to influence their social lives. We need to keep the humanistic element in mind as we go through the Dx process.

PV: it’s not one big thing, it’s hundreds of things. We need to systematically address each thing.

OL: you’ve gotta start somewhere, it needs to be top-down and bottom-up with conversations at every place in between.

By Paul Schantz

CSUN Director of Web & Technology Services, Student Affairs. husband, father, gamer, part time aviator, fitness enthusiast, Apple fan, and iguana wrangler.