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A Conversation with Sree Sreenivasan

University Business, October 2012

Sree Sreenivasan is a journalist and technology expert at Columbia School of Journalism. As anyone who has sat in his class or watched one of his YouTube videos will attest, Sreenivasan’s particular strength is in explaining technology to students, faculty, and consumers. He is the former technology reporter for two New York television stations, a social media blogger for CNET, and producer of his own weekly web-based call-in show. But this year, Sreenivasan added another notch to his belt as Columbia University’s first Chief Digital Officer. He spoke with UB about his new role, and what he sees for the future of technology in education.

UB: In July, you were named chief digital officer, a title that is more common in the corporate world than in higher education. What does it mean for Columbia? Will we see more people with that title in education?

Sreenivasan: I think the title is something you’ll start to see more often in higher education. Harvard has one [CDO Perry Hewitt], and Stanford has someone looking at online education [Vice Provost for Online Learning John Mitchell]. I think this is all part of the general move to having someone at the university thinking about online education as well as other aspects of digital education. I think it is going to be an important opportunity for the university to think about this issue, because so much is changing.

UB: You are a self-described technology evangelist/skeptic. You said that before you adopt a new technology it should fit into your life flow and your workflow, otherwise it has no use. Do you think education is sometimes too quick to jump on new technologies?

Sreenivasan: It can be. You are also talking about a part of society that has been around and evolved over hundreds of years, so it’s hard to say that everything it does is very fast, it’s not always associated with nimbleness. The thing we need to think about is that we don’t need to jump on every new piece of technology or every new idea that comes along. I think we should be aware of them; we should see if it fits in with what we do and what we are working on and what makes sense.

As we are talking today, the iPhone 5 is being announced. I’m not the kind of person that just runs out and stands in line to buy it. I want to see whether it makes sense for me and for what I want to do. What are the other options? That’s what I like to do with the world of digital technology when it comes to the university. For example, I didn’t buy an iPad when they first came out. Instead, I waited for the iPad 2 because they had made improvements to it. And, when the iPad 3 came out, I didn’t buy it. I bought a second iPad 2 instead, because the iPad 3 was not something I needed to get.

UB: We’ve watched social media use grow dramatically at colleges and universities in just a few short years. Most higher education institutions are exploring it as a marketing and recruiting tool. Where and how else might it be applied?

Sreenivasan: I think you’ll increasingly see it in the ‘building the community’ aspect of education. You’ll have people in class talking and connecting with each other and sharing ideas. You’ll also hear more about how universities think about policies that should be around social media. What should you share or post? What can be shared in a classroom? Those are all questions that will need to be addressed.

UB: You were an initial Twitter skeptic, yet you now have more than 6,000 tweets under your belt, and more than 36,000 followers. What do you see in Twitter now that you didn’t before?

Sreenivasan: Well, as I have been saying, I found a way that it can fit into my life and my work. I can see that it has a lot of useful features, especially in journalism. It has become my news wire. It is the way I hear about new things and ideas.

UB: The recent rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) has caught the attention of educators and the media. Columbia has so far not joined the MOOC bandwagon. In your opinion, are they ready for primetime yet?

Sreenivasan: Well, remember, all this technology has only been happening within the span of a one-year period. We’re exploring them all. We have to decide what makes sense for us. We have not ruled out or decided to pursue any of these yet. But I believe that will change eventually. We are exploring the MOOC space.

UB: A colleague of yours at the Columbia Journalism School coined the term “tradigital journalist” to describe a traditional journalist with a digital overlay. Should educators in other disciplines be thinking in those terms as well?

Sreenivasan: Yes, absolutely. That term works in so many different industries, and especially in education. It means you can think about how to keep the best of traditional values and ideas, the things that have made education successful, and then you can enhance it with this overlay of digital technology. I think that works very well.

UB: In one of your social media classes intended for journalists, a number of people from other areas also signed up. Did that surprise you?

Sreenivasan: In a way, we have seen this happen over the years. When I first started teaching about the web, we’d see people from other disciplines also interested in it. I used to do a class just on Google called “Things You Didn’t Know Google Does.” Lots of journalists signed up, but also lots of educators from other areas showed up as well. We see that technology is not always easy to understand, and if there is a way to put that into simple, explainable language, people are interested.

UB: Columbia’s Journalism School dean said you were essential in bringing together the school and the digital revolution. How do you get administrator and faculty attention and eventual buy-in when it comes to exploring these new paths?

Sreenivasan: I think faculty are sometimes harder to persuade to try new technologies, because they are more ingrained in the things they are doing, but both sides have that issue. As a faculty member, I found the best way to get administrators to use and try new things was to show the value in it. Often that means showing how it saves time or aggravation or something that technology can help improve or solve. On the flipside, in the world of faculty, you’ve got to make the case that this new technology improves the teaching experience as well as the learning experience. Those two things go hand in hand.

UB: As someone whose job is to keep an eye on digital media and technology trends, what has caught your attention recently? What should people be paying attention to?

Sreenivasan: I’m always careful about making predictions because you can never know, you are kind of making guesses. But I’d say we are seeing increasing importance in the mobile space, as well as video and social. Students are online with their laptops, cellphones, and tablets all the time, and that certainly has an impact on how they learn. If you add all that up, that’s what we’re looking at in the online world as well. I think that is where the educational and the online world starts to come together.


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