John O'Brien welcomes two of the 2022 Top 10 IT Issues panelists to discuss the list: Bella Abrams, Director of IT for the University of Sheffield, and Phil Ventimiglia, Chief Innovation Officer for the Georgia State University.
John O'Brien: Welcome to another community conversation today. We're gathered to talk about the top 10 IT issues for 2022, and I'm joined by two members of the panel that came up with the top 10 IT issues for 2022, Bella Abrams, Director of Information Technology at the University of Sheffield and Phil Ventimiglia, Chief Innovation Officer at Georgia State University.
I think the thing I would like to start off with was an observation that Susan [Gerchek 00:00:32] made at the end of her presentation at our conference. And that is, and it's not the first time this has happened where we look at the top 10 IT issues and notice that most of them aren't really first and foremost about the technology itself. It looks like you both have some thoughts on that. Bella, do you want to start?
Bella Abrams: I totally agree with that. I think that what it actually shows is that we as a professional service to universities are helping universities think about how we enable change and other things with technology rather than it being something we do on our own. I think that's really good, but I think most businesses are responding to the current pressures in that way as well, so I don't think we're unusual.
Phil Ventimiglia: Yeah, John, that's a great question about how IT is really transitioning as Bella has mentioned to being more of not just technology leaders, but business leaders and leaders within the academy, so more and more of us are sitting on the President's Cabinet, part of that leadership team. And we are being called, particularly during the pandemic, to help the university solve its biggest challenges.
So it's not surprising that when we look at our top 10, they're not specifically technical. They're how do we help the university and the academy solve the major challenges that we're facing?
John O'Brien: And as you look over at the top 10 issues themselves, are there themes you see woven throughout all 10 or most of the 10, other than the theme of students, of course?
Bella Abrams: When I was thinking about themes, they feel like the exit pandemic themes anyway. So I think the top 10 reflects that, but also reflects wider society. So we are coping with increased threat of all kinds to normal operations, and demand for change is across all of those in the top 10 as well.
And I think the really interesting part of the things that are woven in and they're the things that I think we all struggle with, is how we respond to those two things by building up the right skill set across our teams and our wider institutions and the bigger challenge is how you create the right culture, a fertile culture, to be able to respond to all of those things.
Phil Ventimiglia: Yeah, for me, the themes that are really pervading throughout the top 10 this year is really what is the future of higher education? And these themes actually precluded the pandemic that's just been accelerated. We've now accelerated what the 21st century looks like and the future of work, the future of learning. And now, we're reacting to that very, very quickly. And we're seeing that across all these themes of the future being much more hybrid. Creativity and other skills beyond just digital skills for this 21st century economy are very critical, and we're seeing that important to the IT leaders, to help enable that.
Then of course, cybersecurity, because everything is digital. This new future is a completely digitally enabled university, in everything that we do. So not only are ourselves and our teams much more critical, but the protection of all that digital technology and data, because it is externally data driven as well, is critical. So that's exciting for me, because we're really enabling... Especially at scale for large universities like Georgia State and others, to be able to deliver a really amazing student experience and hopefully at a very affordable cost as well.
John O'Brien: So when I think of the two of you on the IT panel, I always think it's all about the panelists unloading their amazing insights. Maybe you can tell in my saying that I've never been on the panel, but I'm curious, I imagine that it goes both ways and that the process of really doing what we tend not to do is to sit and reflect on these things.
Normally, you're so busy just doing what you're doing, you wouldn't make the time to sit and reflect. Do you find that you learn a lot from the process of developing the top 10 IT issues?
Phil Ventimiglia: Definitely learn a lot and steal a lot from the top 10 issues, and just this year, as an example, personally and the university, we've been talking a lot about skills and digital literacy and new skills that are needed for the future for our students. And this year, one of the questions that actually I responded on was the skill of creativity, and that wasn't specifically called out in a lot of the things that I had talked about previously. So that's something I've incorporated directly into you the skills that we talk about, preparing when we talk about digital skills, that creativity is really critical, and is important because more and more the routine skills are becoming driven by AI, whatever it may be.
So not only digital literacy in terms of computational thinking is important, but these other skills such as creativity are extremely important. So, yes, to add that to your point, John, that time to step back and have that 360 feedback loop and say, "Okay, yeah, that's really interesting," that's really manifesting itself into creativity being really critical, as an example.
Bella Abrams: I'm really new to working in higher education, so being on the panel was a really great opportunity for me to expand out my group of peers across the Atlantic as well, which was really helpful and really insightful to see how the US education system works, and how really large institutions with well-embedded technology functions like Phil said earlier, influence strategic direction of organizations and other things.
One of the real benefits about being on a panel like this is sharing experience and thinking about how that would work in your own institution and hearing people's stories about what's worked well, what didn't. Someone said to me a couple of weeks ago that you guys are a couple of months ahead of us over the Atlantic. So knowing the things that are going to come down the line as well, which is really useful as well. So it was a really great learning experience for me as well, and something I'd love to do again.
John O'Brien: Every time I've talked to friends working in the field across various oceans, Bella, I always want to ask, so in the end, is it mostly affirming that our challenges and successes are pretty much the same?
Bella Abrams: Well, mercifully in education, there is one group that we focus on rightly, which is our students. And that's why I work in education as well. And I think the opportunity for us to see how different initiatives that can be enabled by technology then impact on groups of students, I think is really interesting.
We talked a lot on my panel about assistive technologies and how you can make things inclusive for students, because designing and building products and services, if you aren't an inclusive team can often be problematic. So that was something that I was really interested in as well. The scope and the number of students that you deal with is infinitely larger than we have in the UK. But at the end of the day, they're there for the same reason. They want to improve their lives. They want to have the opportunities that having a university education gives them and being able to build those products and services for them to do that is the reason I do it on my team as well.
John O'Brien: The subtitle of the IT issues this year is The Higher Education We Deserve. I'm curious how that resonates with the two of you. Do you come out of the process with a clear sense of the higher education we deserve? Bella, you want to start?
Bella Abrams: I thought a lot about this and I think there's aspirationally the higher education that we want, and the higher education that we're building eventually is going to be the higher education that we deserve. I don't think we're there at the moment. And I like the idea, the aspirational sense and looking at the top 10 of things that can help us do that I think is really useful. Obviously, I mean, I've mentioned the students before and those outcomes for the students are really important, that they get what they wanted out of their university education.
But also, and I think this has been a real theme for us over the last year as well, is that in doing that, we maintain staff wellbeing and their engagement and build up their skills and that doesn't feel stressful to them as well, because I think that the amount of change that happens daily can be very stressful if it's not done well.
I wouldn't want this to all be about students, students, students. And then there be a counter-issue for staff as well, which I think is really important. The higher education that we deserve should be easy for everybody to engage with as well. I think that really threads through the themes of the top 10 this year. Actually, technology can help make things a lot easier to engage with, easier to understand, and think about simplifying things, particularly from a student and a staff point of view. And that I think is the higher education that we do deserve. It shouldn't be a box that people don't understand and find difficult to engage in.
Phil Ventimiglia: Yeah, the higher education we deserve, when I think about that, I agree, it is aspirational, and we're not there. It is the future that hopefully we get to in three to five years or so. And I agree, it's very much focused on that student experience and what we want to deliver to the students in the future. But what's really great about this right now as a tool for me is it's a really terrific way to motivate my organization and my team.
We've been through obviously a lot, all of us collectively over the last two years, and we've had to go do a lot of things that weren't ideal just to keep the ship running. And we knew that we were doing things that weren't the ideal, but to have an outline of a future of... and I like the way it's positioned, with the higher ed that we all deserve.
It is what we deserve as a technology staff as well, and what we're working towards. So it helps motivate the team of reminding us, this is where we're headed. All this work that we're going through right now, this is the end game and why we're putting in all that effort, because I think everyone knows that's in this field, it is a lot of work for not a lot of reward.
But the reward is being a part of something bigger than all of us and delivering that feature of higher education, that we can all feel really proud of when it's all said and done.
John O'Brien: Bella, when you just spoke about students, I think that theme does come through so strongly. When you talked about the top 10 being focused on students, to what extent did you talk about research and some of those also important elements of many at university, certainly in the UK and certainly Georgia State has research endeavors as well?
Bella Abrams: On my panel, we didn't explicitly talk about that, but it is something that engages myself and my team considerably, is about building the platform that our researchers need, particularly around access to AI, compute, and storage, and being able to access considerably larger data sets than anyone thought that we'd need at this point.
I think that's the same particularly for our postgraduate research students as well. They've got the same expectations around the research that they undertake that our top undergrads have as well, and I think that actually the same themes in the top 10 can be applied to research as much to teaching and learning, because they are about us providing services that our researchers need in order to achieve their aims.
And that is the same around the teaching outcomes as well. Interestingly though, and I think my observation again, being fairly new to the sector is I think actually being able to do that and compete on both sides of the Atlantic and in other parts of the world is I think we're going to have to collaborate more, because actually there's a point at which individual institutions aren't going to be able to provide the platform that their researchers need. And I think that's something that we're going to have to recognize fairly quickly.
Phil Ventimiglia: Research I think is very important for... The top 10 research is definitely relevant, especially when we're looking at creativity. One of the things that's interesting from our institution's standpoint is we're seeing a huge growth in high performance computing.
We've actually just built out a very large cluster, and what's interesting is that we have no engineering or medical school, which is traditionally the users of high performance computing. We're seeing a lot of demand in use of high performance computing for non-traditional needs, for social sciences to go look at big problems within economics, public policy, biomedical engineering, biology and brain imaging. A lot of collaboration is being used across these data sets, and we've got tremendous collaboration within the city of Atlanta, across Georgia State, Georgia Tech, and Emory in many cases.
So a lot of those same things in terms of creativity come to bear, and how do we rethink these problems leveraging computational capabilities, large data sets to really help solve some of the big problems that our researchers are looking at? Which are the big problems that we face as a society and country.
John O'Brien: As you look over the landscape of the top 10 IT issues for 2022, it covers a lot of ground. Are there any issues that at your institution there should be an exclamation point after one or two of these that are of particular urgency for you at your institution?
Phil Ventimiglia: The biggest issue that's urgency, which isn't actually in the top 10 right now that's just a little bit low, is just really the... and I guess this ties back to the higher education we deserve, is probably in public universities, how do we continue to fund everything that's going on? We're in a really fortunate state right now with the CARES Act, HEERF Funds, it's really going and fueling a lot of investment, which is great.
But in a couple years, when we come out of this, it's going to be very interesting. I think the top 10 list, when we look at this three years from now, we're going to be grappling with now, how do we sustain the higher education that we've now built? And there's going to be some issues there while maintaining affordability. So that's the one that I'm looking beyond the current list saying, "Okay, how are we going to deal with that in a couple years?" And we can't stop, doesn't mean we just stop, but it is something I think that we're going to have to grapple with over the next couple years.
Bella Abrams: We're facing similar challenges, I think probably driven by similar political conditions. So we have those, but I think for me, the two in the top 10 that really resonated is the ones that I wake up shaking in the night about, are for me personally, cybersecurity and creating the most easy to engage with, deeply secure teaching and learning and research environment as possible. And whilst saying that, it's personal because obviously that's my responsibility.
It isn't top, it wouldn't be top of any of our staff's list. But if we have, or when we have a massive breach, it really will be. So it's me proxying something that's important to them. I think realistically though, evolve or become extinct is the one where I really felt that's one of the challenges that we're facing across the UK and in our institution, being able to respond to students as quickly as students want us to, being able to create the conditions for our researchers to continue doing their world leading research, and to do that in a way that is efficient and engaging is just such a huge challenge for all of us.
And I think that was where I had optimism coming from having been on the panel, that we're all facing the same challenge. And we all deal with it fairly similar ways actually, which was reassuring, but that actually all of us are in the same fight and having expertise to share and mentoring. And I don't know, sitting around in a circle saying, "Oh, God, it's awful everywhere." It's useful forum to have. So those were the two that really resonate for me.
John O'Brien: That never would've occurred to me that misery loves company theme is what brings them all together, to some extent. But that is the affirming thing about the top 10 list, is you feel a little less alone when you see how much... that we're all dealing with a very similar set of challenges. I do know enough about the selection process to know that you start with a much bigger list of IT issues and you eventually narrow and settle in on 10.
I'd love to hear from each of you whether there's anything you personally regret that isn't in the top 10, that was maybe the 11th or 12th or maybe even further down, but that if this was your list, it would've been included? Bella, do you want to start?
Bella Abrams: Yes. So my missing bit that wasn't on the bigger list either was around digital ethics, and whether what we're doing causes harm, and being aware of the decisions that we make around technology and the use of technology, and the unforeseen consequences that can have for our students and our staff.
And that's something that I'm personally very interested in, but I also think is going to become more and more significant for us as we evolve and as the use of technology becomes more important to our institutions, some of our students I think are going to react well to it. And some of them are going to see that there may be potential harm. And I do think that's something that we really need to build into a lot of our decision making.
This episode features:
Director of IT
University of Sheffield
Chief Innovation Officer
Georgia State University
President and CEO