Pathways to Digital Transformation

min read
EDUCAUSE Exchange | Season 2, Episode 7

The gap will continue to widen between institutions that are starting to engage in digital transformation and those that have not. We asked five institutional leaders to share their unique projects that reflect a shift to Dx.

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Gerry Bayne: Welcome to EDUCAUSE Exchange, where we focus on a single question from the higher ed IT community and hear advice, anecdotes, best practices, and more.

In the context of sweeping social, economic, technological, and demographic changes, digital transformation is a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform in institutions' operations, strategic directions, and value proposition.

In this episode, we'll talk with five different institutions and ask how their projects and strategies are supporting digital transformation. Michelle Hardwick is the director of data science and analytics at Salt Lake Community College. She leads a team called data science analytics, which was formerly called Institutional Research. That name change gives a clue to the culture shift that's taking place in her department.

Michelle Hardwick: That was even just the first step was getting my team to see themselves as a closer aligned with other industries, more innovative in what we're doing. We really support our entire college through all of the data efforts, being a trusted source for data, being the data storytellers.

Helping explain what we're seeing within the data through having data engineers they're helping transform data. We have data analysts and we have statistical and qualitative researchers on my team. Then, we're getting into machine learning based analytics.

Embedding machine learning into not just saying like, "Here's what happened, but here's what could happen, or here's how we could prescribe something to happen based on data."

Gerry Bayne: Her team strategy over the last three years has been focused mainly around student analytics. They wanted to improve the use of data to support student success as a priority for the college. Here's where you see two important aspects of DX and alignment with the institution's strategic goals and a shift in culture towards that end.

Michelle Hardwick: There were some people that loved data, others that had hesitancies around it. I think some of that is because they just haven't used data enough that they're uneasy about it. We have to ease them along and realize everyone's at a different place in their journey.

How do we help them get to a better point? We can't expect them to write machine learning algorithms, but how do we help them learn to embrace data?

Gerry Bayne: To address this, Hardwick and her team implemented a data governance council focused on identifying policies, practices, and roles to ensure accurate, consistent, trusted, and secure data across the college. They formed an Analytic Steering Committee who meet monthly to discuss data strategies and oversee the release of new data products.

Michelle Hardwick: We also have a data and insights user groups. This is a group that's open to anyone. They meet monthly over their lunch hour to discuss data related topics. Sometimes they're reviewing key points of a book. Maybe they're talking about a data product or just giving tips of, "Here's how to do this in Excel."

Then, we've been attending more staff meetings for different departments to help them understand data products, helping them get insights from what they're seeing, and really individualizing that data. We've also put more of an emphasis on just helping people understand in general how to read and interpret data.

When you see this kind of chart, here's how you would read it, or here's what I look at or look for when I'm looking at this kind of data. Here's questions to ask when interpreting this dashboard. Knowing that everyone learns in different ways, we provide this in multiple methods. It could be a fax that pops up on the screen when you first log into a dashboard.

It might be some help documents. We might have videos embedded in there for those that need the video face to face type of stuff. We also, in our written research, we'll walk the reader through the data and how we got to the conclusions we did, so that we build that trust and help them see here's where we started, here's where we got.

Then with that, we provide weekly office hours. Similar to how faculty offer office hours for helping a student understand what they're teaching, we're trying to teach data literacy.

Gerry Bayne: These efforts to shift the culture of data at her college support the mission of student success, as well as a more data literate institution.

Michelle Hardwick: There's so many questions being asked to data. It's like once you give someone some data and answer one question, then they're going to have five more. You need to help empower them to have the tools so that they can answer that. You can continue to feed that appetite that they have for data.

Gerry Bayne: Another DX project that's serving students in several ways is happening at Valdosta State University and their effort to improve the student and employee experience through a new call center strategy. Valdosta State transform their IT help desk, which was a call center answering only technical needs to a solution center that provides support for admissions, housing, registration, and the university welcome center.

Benjamin Li is deputy chief officer of technical support services at Valdosta State University.

Benjamin Li: I think the reasons that we were looking at expanding to that initially or the fact that our solution center could provide longer operation hours than the normal university, 8:00 to 5:30 and then 8:00 to 3:00 on Fridays, so we include nights and weekends as well.

In addition to that, because we're so heavily staffed with students, this is two particular advantages. The first is that students who are working in our call center happened through the processes themselves. They're not like an FTE who has been hired, who may not have gone through the admission process personally.

May not have gone through the housing process personally. That gives a level of empathy as well as a level of being able to understand the challenges that are any to their systems and what they personally did to be able to overcome this.

Gerry Bayne: The transformation of the call center also made services a great deal more accessible and streamlined.

Benjamin Li: One of the things that was happening before we founded our solution center was that when someone called the admissions, they would have to pull up 16 pages of our student information system to be able to tell them if they had made it into the university to check different things like SAT, ACT scores, GPA's, immunizations, et cetera.

To consolidate that into a single page that a representative at our solution center could look through and it's color coded to say green means we've got it, red means we don't has reduced the call time from roughly 10 minutes per call to check the application status to under a minute.

In terms of streamlining, it's not only our tools that we use at the solution center, but taking that feedback back to the admissions team, back to the IT team, so we can continue to streamline the tools that we offer the students themselves. In fact, because our applications team was able to fast track the admission process, we were able to buffer our call center support as needed.

While there are some institutions that have been struggling with enrollment over the last year and a half, fall 2020 was actually the largest class in the history of our institution. In fact, exceeding our targets for the semester by just over 75%.

Gerry Bayne: As Benjamin reflects on how this project has made ripples in the call center and the experiences of students and employees, and through so many departments and processes at Valdosta, he says they're committed to continue the shift.

Benjamin Li: There's has to be the shift in culture workforce in technology, which definitely, I think the challenges of the last year and a half have really pushed a lot of organizations to do so. I think the idea of taking those particular pieces to be able to continue to enhance the growth and evolution of your institution or organization is really what makes it a digital transformation is that you've institutionalized the lessons learned, the strategies, the tools that have worked.

I think a lot of people have talked about to me the idea of going back to the way things were once normalcy sets in again. I think the more challenging and rewarding approach would be looking at how to incorporate these pieces, these capabilities that was gained into our long-term strategies.

Gerry Bayne: Speaking of long-term strategies, customer-centric practices are critical to innovation and remaining relevant and competitive in a world of dizzying change. What are the core capabilities required for digital transformation and what are the targets in digital transformation efforts?

Ed Clark: When I looked around and I talked to other CIOs, not only in higher ed, but outside of higher ed, it looked like digital transformation strategies start with the simplest targets, which are how to optimize what you're doing today. Things like automation, making things more efficient and more effective.

Gerry Bayne: Ed Clark is CIO and chief digital officer at the University of St. Thomas. They're taking a three-phase approach to digital transformation. It starts with digital operations, streamlining processes with the help of data and analytics to reduce costs and improve effectiveness. Then, the second phase is the digital customer, which seeks to create a deeper relationship with students and improve their experience.

Ed Clark: The second horizon, so to speak of is a little bit more complicated. That's where you get customer experience feedback. Given the experiences of students during the pandemic, we actually invited students to participate in our customer experience councils and tell us what were the big hurdles that you faced?

We had faculty in the room and administrators in the room. This is why it's culturally a bit harder because in many places, in many cases, students might say, "Look, I was really unhappy with the way this faculty member taught this course." The faculty would say, "Listen, I teach that class. You can't tell me how to teach that kind of thing."

It's culturally harder to hear and deal with, but it's helpful to put all of those players in a room to hear it and converse about it. That's part of the magic that we have in our customer experience council approach. We heard some things that students said that were really easy to act on.

Can we put a syllabus in the same place and the LMS, those kinds of things. Some things that were like what students preferred having an opportunity to collaborate with their classmates, because especially in an online space, they don't know anybody. They can't see them very much. It didn't feel like they were part of a class.

The asking professors, "Is there a way you can have us do more group activities so we feel like we're part of this community." It was helpful for faculty members to hear that because I think some faculty members said, "You know what? I'm willing to do that. I'm willing to do that. That sounds like it makes sense.

At least I heard about it and that's what we're trying to do is advertise and broadcast. This is what students are saying right now. That's customer experience led transformation.

Gerry Bayne: Some of the other things they're implementing to address student concerns include curbside pickup, contactless PC repair, and virtual help services. They continue to listen and seek solutions to address the student experience.

Digital operations and the digital customer lead to the third more ambitious horizon of what they call digital products, creating new services, and new business growth to align with institutional strategies.

Ed Clark: The far end of the scale, given customer experience, given efficiency effectiveness, are there populations that we haven't been serving at all and can we reach out to them? On that end, we are talking about new initiatives where we can reach out to people that never completed their degree here.

Can we give them different ways to access, different ways to finish what they started. New opportunities and new growth at the university. We have learned so much from these activities that we're doing with students and with our faculty that people are dreaming about different things.

For example, in our college of education, they're talking about, "Can we get to micro credentials, stackable credentials that might be on-ramps for students to getting into degree programs?" Even things that you could use in teacher licensure. You took this thing and you took this thing and by the State of Minnesota standards, that would get you towards this goal that you need.

We are investing a lot of time in badging and creating everything from skills badging to academic badging on campus. Those are the new kinds of projects we're thinking about, the new opportunities.

Gerry Bayne: Three phases that become increasingly more difficult culturally as you move along the continuum, these goals have been a productive progression for the University of St. Thomas. (silence)

A similar type of strategy is taking place at California State University, Fresno where in 2019, the university established DXIHub, a collaborative partnership, which offers several things. It offers project-based learning opportunities and software engineering, undergraduate courses, and internship opportunities.

DXIHub strives to inspire students to apply their education toward developing solutions to real-world problems, using the best and latest technologies. Max Tsai heads up these efforts. He was recently given a new mouthful of a title as digital transformation and innovation officer, and coordinator of technology experiences and internships.

He wanted infrastructure, technology, and service to help students and like most digital transformation initiatives, it includes a component of culture shift and a different way of thinking about innovation.

Max Tsai: Initially, we are a team of two staff established by the CIO back to 2018. Then, proposed to the CIO why don't we build a small team with student innovators, and they are more serving as the ambassadors to digital transformation. I found that actually give us a fairly good advantage.

Most of the time, the campus, they don't really invest in IT for innovation, but once students involved and I think the community, they are more engaged. Wow [inaudible 00:14:42]. This is two ways, revenue. We are not just feel something good to use. We are also helping student to grow their skill set for their future career success.

Gerry Bayne: Initially, Max started with two computer science developers. One of the strategies they implemented to attract innovation is an event called Project Ignite. The project, which hosts an annual innovation hackathon and Lean Startup program was created in partnership with the university's entrepreneurship program to promote interdisciplinary student involvement, creativity, and exploration of new technologies and business model development skills.

Max Tsai: It's through the innovation event, we go through the process of helping them understand the design thinking. We also helping them understand what technology is available. At the end, they provide their idea of building up a solution they need. Just for this process I start [inaudible 00:15:38] for this semester, I have 15 interns so far. The only restriction is space.

Gerry Bayne: These interns work with Max on exciting projects that addressed, you guessed it, the needs of students, the experience of students, and the institutional goals of California State. It's not just listening to the students, but having them involved in the innovation itself.

Max Tsai: I got four people from graphic design that's college of art and humanities, I have graphic 3D and we are creating smart avatar, which can engage students with their psychological, emotional burdens right now. That's another project we are working now. They're still hesitating to talk to person during this pandemic time.

We figured well, if it's an avatar it's more like Siri or Alexa. Student tend to be more open up to that conversation. We have two engineer students, they're working on the IoT stuff. The technology has to be doable out there, so we need to engineer it the way people can use it.

Gerry Bayne: Other projects at DXIHub include the development of extended reality to offer first-time students the immersive campus experience when they cannot physically attend. They've also been developing a virtual reality modeled after the Fresno State student union offering social movie going experience, bowling, and carnival game rooms.

Many selected projects will be continuously developed for campus wide adoption. Students are also participating in research opportunities at DXIHub to develop solutions, dealing with virtual instruction challenges. The breadth of projects and interdisciplinary collaborations are the key to this digital transformation.

Max Tsai: I think that's always what I try to feel is digital transformation is really about the people. It's how are we going to put to use for the people and technology. We need to continue to advance it. We need people who are taking this as the output to enjoy and to be benefit, and to accomplish for the intended to for the long run, which are the students.

Ryan Spittal: It actually starts back about 18 months ago, pre-pandemic, pre everything. We really came to a realization as a group that we needed to reimagine technology and how we did our entire system. Through that process, what we had to re-imagine was how do we scale? That was our major discussion.

Gerry Bayne: Ryan Spittal is vice-president for ONU global outreach for Olivet Nazarene University. In the process of modernizing their approach to technology and scalability, they realized they could use these efforts to do some new, innovative things.

Ryan Spittal: Through that process, we started designing and looking at our deliverables to our student base. In that process redesigned, and re-imagined a learning management concept of how to deliver education in a different matter. We sat down and we started out with the question of we really focused on the some college, no degree market.

We started looking at how can we help? Let's identify different audiences that need our help. Some college, no degree, there are 36 million people right now in the country that have some college, no degree. What that means to us is 36 million people that at some time got excited to do something that they maybe missed that normal window of a college experience.

They finally got the courage and the time to do that and then they quit for one reason or another. It's not usually because of aptitude. It's usually life-balance. They get stuck with parents getting sick. Families are getting started, work. We really started out with that question of how do we serve that audience better?

The things we were involved around was how do we bend the cost curve? A majority of these students are coming with debt from a variety. Some of them are still paying on schools that they quit years ago, which is like paying for a car that you gave away, still paying on it.

We wanted to talk about accessibility. We're talking about, of course, affordability with all of that. It really revolved around how do we get them to feel like they're winning again and get back on the on ramp to finish the degree they started? That's the ultimate goal is to get them on that. That was the Genesis of that.

We began the process of building the YourWay program, which is a tuition-free general education. Of course, that's another risk in higher ed. Those that are involved and understand just the complexity of higher ed. Sometimes, general education can be that sacred [inaudible 00:20:15] we're worried about touching.

There was a lot of work of getting everyone on board across the institution, our faculty, our academic teams. Looking at our faculty and asking them, "Can they re-imagine how they teach and engage in a different level?" Using a lot of automation tools to do that. We re-imagine how you deliver online learning.

Gerry Bayne: The tuition-free YourWay program came after a great deal of effort in finding the right technologies and getting staff and faculty convinced that this was the best path forward. A culture shift towards creating new opportunities for students.

Ryan Spittal: Our goal with the YourWay program is yes, they get their content, it's fully mobile-adaptive. They get all the content upfront of a course. Typically, it's six modules, so they can work at their pace and they can get enrolled in that. They can work in those processes and work through the system at their own pace.

There's a second component, which is a community. This is the key piece for us is every single individual, and this was what would separate us from [inaudible 00:21:14] or any of the for-profit organizations that do this is they're involved in a network of a community where they're feeling a connection.

That's where our actual facilitation starts with our faculty. It might be at scale, but our faculty members are having a robust discussion every day and giving relevant information and timely information. It's not about, "Did you look at the PowerPoint from this book summary?"

It's really about here's what happened yesterday in the news that's relevant to what we're talking about. To see the threads of conversations and people connecting and having that experience that they're having online to connect a community. Then, the third piece for us as there's mastery assessments.

They can take the content for free. They can engage in the community for free. There is a transaction in regards to a fee when they want to have that mastery assessment graded, which then it becomes an official course. Then, it's a transcribable course. That's where they'll pay our transcript fee.

It's a very simple process and it's not expensive and it relatively shrunk the cost curve. That was our goal was one of the major barriers for individuals in this some college, no degree market is they don't want to take out another loan right away.

Our goal was can we give them as relative risk-free environment to get back on that on-ramp? Then, when they're feeling successful again, and they're realizing they can balance schoolwork, that's when they're starting to pay that fee to make that course official. We've done our best part to get them back on the on-ramp.

Of course, we love and still have plans in place to have them complete their degree with us, but if they choose to complete their degree with someone else, that's great too. Our ultimate goal is to get them to that finish line.

Gerry Bayne: The key to offering such a generous program is the ability for all of that to automate so many aspects of the introductory student experience, while also making it better.

Ryan Spittal: This is digital transformation in a sense that we have automated so many aspects of a introductory student experience to make the experience better. As you know, when you're dealing with legacy systems, most students, and if you're looking at them in their own lives are having an expectation of engaging in technology at a whole another level.

Most universities are not set up to do that. Most universities are still doing things 20 years behind and their systems are not mimicking the user experience that most people are coming and expecting.

What we've done through a transformation, not only at an admissions process, to be able to automate as much as we can, so that the student can be onboarded as efficiently and effectively as what they're used to in a transaction with Amazon, or any other organization that are doing an online experience with.

Also, even revolutionizing some things that have not been done before. For example, we have automated transcript evaluation process. In most universities that is a laborious process, very manual, an individual looking through that. In our system now, they will type in their own transcript.

The system automatically tells them within an instant if they qualify and where they qualify and what courses they need. Then, it gets to a quality assurance person that they double check to make sure everything is there to admit them, but trying to make that system and that transformation process from a technology standpoint, it also then goes into how we deliver.

Once they're going through content, that's completely automated. Every module or unit within a course is automated from a grading perspective, so they can get real time feedback right away. It's only when they start moving and progressing, we still want that balance with humans.

That's where the robust conversations happen. When they look to turn in their mastery assessment, there might be a graded faculty member that's working on that. Really, revolutionizing from a university-related standpoint of how can we transform using technology the entire experience, and make that experience as seamless as possible for a student from start to finish.

The technology is underlaid in behind that. That's the excitement from us is if they saw those behind the scenes, I think people would be amazed at what it took to make that seamless in front at the user experience level, and that's where we're excited.

If someone can take a three-step approach, be admitted, turn in their transcript, and be enrolled in the course in less than 24 hours, that's amazing to us, and that's what we're seeing. That's what's exciting for us.

Gerry Bayne: If your institution is on a digital transformation pathway, please visit the EDUCAUSE Digital Transformation content at That's for a wealth of information, helpful resources, connections to others in the community, and more to help you along your digital transformation journey. I'm Gerry Bayne for EDUCAUSE. Thanks for listening.

This episode features:

Ed Clark
CIO and Chief Digital Officer
University of St. Thomas

Michelle Hardwick
Director, Data Science & Analytics
Salt Lake Community College

Benjamin Li
Deputy Chief Officer of Technical Support Services
Valdosta State University

Ryan Spittal
Vice President for ONU Global
Olivet Nazarene University

Max Tsai
Digital Transformation and Innovation Officer
California State University, Fresno

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