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Chief digital officers build digital bridges

Newly installed chief digital officers blend academics and IT strategies
University Business, November 2015
Amy Collier joined Vermont’s Middlebury College in July as its first associate provost for digital learning.
Amy Collier joined Vermont’s Middlebury College in July as its first associate provost for digital learning.

In an emerging trend that illustrates the growing importance of digital strategy in higher education, a handful of universities have named a chief digital officer to their leadership teams to merge the worlds of instruction and IT.

Universities task these new digital officers—many of whose positions have been created in only the last few years—with driving high-tech academic innovation and extending the institution’s influence through online programs and other high-tech initiatives. The position combines the roles of chief academic officers and chief information officers.

“To me, this notion of CIO vs. CDO is one of a shift in mindset from leadership that focused heavily on the tech aspect in a very deep sense to a mindset that says tech is what we use to drive innovation and transformative solutions,” says Ranga Jayaraman, who became the Stanford Graduate School of Business’ chief digital officer in February 2015 after serving as CIO since 2011.

Major corporations, nonprofits and city governments have hired these officers to develop new digital products, enhance social media presence and make IT services as easy to use as Amazon, says David Mathison, founder of the CDO Club, a professional organization that hosts summits around the world for tech officers from all industries.

Some colleges and universities that haven’t named a chief digital officer have moved toward giving vice provosts and other administrators expanded roles to explore how technology reshapes learning and key higher ed business functions.

Academic vision

Elliott Visconsi pursues three goals as the chief academic digital officer at the University of Notre Dame. First, he says, he works with faculty to create digital courses and other tools that enhance students’ educational experience.

Next, he is developing online graduate programs that will extend the reach of the university beyond its South Bend, Indiana, home. And finally, he looks for ways the university can expand global access to affordable higher ed instruction through free, open courses and other models.

“There’s a consensus now that digital learning strategies are essential to the experience of a great university and they need to be handled carefully and appropriately, such that the faculty and the academic mission are at the heart of any initiative,” says Visconsi, an English and law professor who has been chief academic digital officer since 2013.

Notre Dame’s CIO still oversees its IT infrastructure, and the university’s provost remains the chief officer focused on academic quality. Visconsi, who is part of the provost’s office, collaborates with both sides—as well as with the president’s office and department deans. For example, Visconsi and his colleagues are building hybrid online/on-campus graduate courses, including one in patent law for the college of business.

Additional projects will focus on other areas of strength for the university—such as humanities, computer science and nuclear physics. But Visconsi will also gauge market demand to determine what other high-quality degree programs Notre Dame has the capacity to offer.

Meet the digital leaders

Elliott Visconsi

Chief digital officer of Notre Dame University since 2013

Also an English and law professor, Visconsi founded Luminary Digital Media, a software company that provides humanities content for digital devices. He co-created an app, “Tempest for iPad,” that’s designed to help students with Shakespeare’s plays.

As Notre Dame’s CDO, his mission is to create digital courses, develop online graduate programs and expand global access to affordable higher ed.

Ranga Jayaraman

Chief digital officer of Stanford Graduate School of Business since February 2015

Formerly the graduate school’s CIO, as the school’s first CDO Jayaraman says he is focused on instructional design and improving the user experience of the digital tools and systems students use—from online courses to the graduate school’s application process.

He is also creating more distance-learning initiatives, including a recently launched “LEAD Certification,” an online executive education course that made its debut this year for change agents in companies.

Amy Collier

Associate provost for digital learning of Middlebury College since July 2015

Having previously overseen the development of online and blended courses at Stanford University, Collier says she is focused on creating digital learning tools that strengthen the face-to- face relationships between faculty and students.

Digital leaders will continue to gain more prominence on campus because colleges and universities see online tools as key parts of their teaching missions.

Caroline Levander

Vice president for strategic initiatives and digital education at Rice University since 2014

The first to hold her position at Rice, Levander says higher education’s online presence must evolve as have digital retail strategies. Students and families do more online research before visiting a campus, and continue to compare prices and programs during tours.

She also believes that just as consumers buy items from different online stores, digital learning programs will let students mix and match—putting more pressure on Rice and other institutions to grant credit for courses offered through other colleges and universities.

In the undergraduate realm, a group of biology department faculty has created a series of digital course modules that their colleagues can embed into their classes. These modules include videos, animations, simulations and games, among other digital features instructors can use to develop flipped and hybrid classes.

“We see all digital learning strategies and tools as enhancements of the faculty vision and as resources for faculty and our departments—not as replacements,” Visconsi says. “Whatever we do needs to be faculty-driven and academically serious.”

The user experience

The forces behind the shift from CIO to CDO have been in motion for several years at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, as technology has had major impacts on instruction and student services such as course registration, says Jayaraman.

In 2011, about 20 percent of the school’s IT efforts centered on help desk-type support for laptops, computers and mobile devices.

Since then, those functions have been outsourced to the main university’s IT department and the resources have been redirected to instructional design, video production and other digital initiatives, Jayaraman says.

“We’re acknowledging the tech is not for tech’s sake. The reality is that IT has information technology at its root, but innovation and transformation as the fruit.”

One of those fruits is the school’s “LEAD Certification,” an online executive education course that debuted this year for change agents in companies.

Jayaraman’s team worked closely with the executive education faculty to design the course, which consists of eight modules. It attracted 85 participants from all over the world. A big feature of the program is videoconferencing, where students can collaborate in virtual classrooms or meet one-on-one with the professors.

“Traditionally, we have been a school where our most direct influence has been when we bring people into campus and put them through academic programs,” he says. “Over the last four-plus years, we have been expanding the scope.”

A priority has been instructional design and user experience. Everything from course materials to the application process has been revamped to work as smoothly as sites like Amazon or Netflix.

This spring, the school completely revamped its application system to provide students with feedback at several stages of the process—similar to steps one goes through when shopping online.

Jayaraman’s team is also smoothing out the course registration process so students can easily access a range of the information—from course descriptions to reviews by other students to how the class fits in with their academic plan.

“IT has all the systems and all the information but it isn’t always tied together,” Jayaraman says. “We now have a broader outlook on the role of technology and what other ingredients we can bring in to create digital solutions.”

Collaboration and competition

Colleges and universities that haven’t installed a chief digital officer have still sought to expand the scope and prominence of digital leadership on campus.

These administrators are being charged with driving collaboration between the disparate departments that support teaching and learning, such as IT, libraries and various academic divisions, says Amy Collier, who joined Vermont’s Middlebury College in July as its first associate provost for digital learning.

“Digital leadership has risen broadly in higher ed because more and more institutions are seeing digital learning as deeply connected to their core teaching missions,” says Collier, who previously oversaw the development of online and blended courses at Stanford. “Bringing together groups that offer similar types of support can lead to better ideas around how to support faculty in digital teaching.”

These collaborations across the country are developing alternative teaching models, such as competency-based education initiatives and digital badges that students earn for mastering skills in specific courses, she says.

At Middlebury, for example, faculty members now use annotation software to provide students with more robust feedback on work. And faculty and students involved in the college’s Digital Liberal Arts initiative explore the ways digital tools can lead to more in-depth learning and improve instruction.

“We place very high value in close interactions between faculty and students,” she says. “The idea is to use technology to tighten that connection, not to create greater distance.”

Rice University in Texas didn’t have a digital strategy until about 2012, when it joined Coursera, says Caroline Levander.Last year, Levander became the school’s first vice president for strategic initiatives and digital education.

The university’s OpenStax College initiative has since started developing open digital AP textbooks. Rice faculty are working with AP teachers in high schools to design the course. Also in the works are “super-MOOCs” that have textbooks and Hollywood-quality instructional videos embedded.

Rice is also developing noncredit master’s courses for the international market.

Levander sees higher education evolving in ways similar to online retail, where consumers do more research about what they want to buy before visiting an actual store. And even once they arrive, they use smartphones to compare prices.

As with consumers who buy items from different stores, digital learning programs will let students mix-and-match courses from a range of institutions. For instance, there will be more pressure on Rice to grant credit to students taking various online courses offered through other institutions.

“We’ll be curating an educational experience that will be more dynamic,” Levander says. “We can’t assume that student learning is only going to start when they show up for orientation week and it will stop when they leave.”

Matt Zalaznick is UB’s senior associate editor.

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