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Finding Communication Solutions to Higher Ed Problems

City Burst
I spoke to Kevin Boyd, Chief Information Officer at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in my series of conversations with Higher Ed CIOs. 
Kevin was recently named by the Chicago CIO Leadership Association as a finalist for their ORBIE Awards CIO of the year non profit category; he is well known and respected, especially in the Chicago area.

Kevin is responsible for managing the global technology needs and services for all the University’s campuses including Chicago, London, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

In our conversation below we discuss the rapid changes in technology in higher education, and some hits and misses that have occurred along the way. Kevin stresses that there is not one universal approach that applies to all universities; different universities have different needs, and one institution may use technology in a completely different fashion than another.

Additionally, we spoke at length about communication needs between the school, faculty and students and interestingly, how email is still king. When I asked him why, he replied, “it’s simply because nothing better has come along to replace it.”

Interview with Kevin Boyd

Interview Transcript:

Rod Berger: Kevin, I've enjoyed speaking with CIOs from around the country, and the discussions have centered on new ways that we look at supporting both students and faculty in higher education.

For those who aren’t too familiar with the role of a CIO in higher education, how has the profession changed over the last few years especially with the way we are adapting to technology so rapidly?

Kevin Boyd: It has been a time of rapid change with technology. I think what's been interesting is how technology in the classroom has been changing things with some of the faculty, particularly what we've seen with MOOCs starting about five years ago ─ the massive open online courses.

There was a time when everyone thought that MOOCs were going to change the world for higher education. People have pulled back a little bit on that thought. But I think that a lot of the concepts and tools that MOOCs introduced are making their way into classrooms in other ways like the creative use of video for a flipped classroom where you have faculty recording parts of their lecture and asking students to watch it before they come to class so that the class could be more interactive or the creative use of blogs, and discussions. There are a lot of other electronic tools and technologies that five or seven years ago many faculty weren’t interested in.

RB: I think five or seven years ago we were talking about technology and tools as being nice add-ons for students in the classroom for the lecture experience. Now, we have seen it where technology plays a role in retention.

Last fall, you wrote a piece about that. I'm just curious if you could expand on the way in which you look at retention ─ meaning, it is a lot of different things but simplicity should play a role in that. How do you view retention when you are examining technology’s role in the classroom and in the school?

KB: Are you talking about retention of content?

RB: Retention of students ─ engagement of students. I think we're entering into a world where students who are now approaching higher education as the next step in their growth. They have many different opportunities, strategies, and paths that they can take that you and I didn't have when we were growing up. It's pushing some buttons for those in higher education to figure out ways to not only retain students but engage them in new ways that are blended experiences that connect campuses across the world. I think it's changing the way we look at retention.

KB: I think that's true. What we're seeing with some of these technologies is how they're being used and what the goal of the technology is. Often, it's very different depending on the institution and the mission of the institution.

When you look at some of the large state schools, their goal is reach. They want to reach as many students in that state as they possibly can. I think some of these tools are giving them the ability to do that.

In other cases, it's less about numbers of students or the reach that's possible, but it's actually about the effectiveness of the experience. It is maximizing the value of that classroom time.

Perhaps, for students who are taking a stats class, they're spending less time actually sitting in that stats class watching the instructor at the board doing a lecture. Now, they're seeing that in a video. But when they're in the classroom, they're asking questions and doing exercises. It's much more interactive. As a result, it is improving their learning experience.

Idea

RB: Improving the learning experience and providing a path for the next generation to experience higher ed in a newfound and connected manner.

Let's talk about the role communication plays. You talked about that piece that I referenced earlier. You said, “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” If you feel like you're communicating twice as much as you think people want to hear, it's probably about half as much as what they actually want to hear.

How can we do a better job when it comes to connecting with students, not just the infrastructure of the university but with students in a way that keeps them connected?

We hear stories around student services being disconnected and students already feeling at the start of their experience on campus as being one where it's very fragmented. To me, it ties back into the technologies and it potentially ties back into the overall goal in a way in which we're communicating retention as an objective and a goal from the university’s perspective.

KB: That is still one of our challenges. How do we improve communication with our students?

Today, so much of the communication with students is still via email. In the last three to five years, we've introduced a tremendous number of collaboration tools that the students are using to work with each other, work on projects, and work in classrooms.

We've also introduced many tools ─ for example, tools to help them within some of their students groups. The platform that they use as they're forming student clubs and student groups is far more robust than it was in our days when we were attending school.

But it is still amazing how much interaction between the institution and the students is done via email.

RB:  Why do you think that is? Why is it that we can be advancing in so many different areas but that one element seems to be missing?

KB:  I think that there hasn’t been something yet that replaces it and it actually works both for the institution and the student. We've spent a lot of time talking to the students about what they want. Would they rather get text from us? And the answer was “no.”

If it's something urgent that they've got to have the answer in the next two minutes, then, “Yes, send me a text.” But if it's something that’s happening later they still would prefer an email.

In many cases, they want better tools to manage what they get, when they get it, and how they get it. And that's a challenge.

Tech Slider

RB: In previous discussions that I've had with CIOs at the higher-ed level, the phrase “identity management” came up. What does it mean to you?

KB:  For us, identity management means when they log into the system, it's knowing who they are and what they get access to and what groups they belong to within our systems and what they should see and what they shouldn’t see.

RB:  Is that something that has continued to change? The question from people outside of higher ed that I often get is this wonderment or bewilderment at the perceived notion that we don't truly know the very students who are on our campuses or in our K-12 classrooms like we should. We haven't updated the profile of our students in a way that has more texture and more understanding of who they are and how they like to interact and communicate.

KB: I don't necessarily agree with that. Here, at least, we know a tremendous amount of information about them. From the time they first interact with us, we begin collecting that through their admission application and every subsequent interaction with them. We do collect a lot of information about the students.

I think the challenge is deciding what to do with that information, how you use that information to tailor the experience, and what degree of tailoring is appropriate.

RB: One thing that has been very compelling is the secondary role of marketing for CIOs and how you communicate information about technology that you deem appropriate and necessary for your institution. How you communicate that value proposition to faculty and down to students.

How does the marketing side of it play for you? Is that something that is a part of your daily experience as a CIO?

KB: It very much is. It is not enough for us to go out and do good work. We have to go out and do good work and then market it ─ and keep marketing it. That goes back to the comment earlier that we have to communicate twice as much as we think we need to and it's usually about half as much as what we really need to; that's really where that phrase comes from. It's finding more and more ways to reach our different audiences, be it faculty, staff or students.

It's listening to them and finding out what their needs and pain points are. It's going and finding the right technologies, implementing those technologies, and then letting them know that they exist.

And that's going to be done through emails, through our website and, in some cases, paper and posters. It's ongoing communication because, with students, one of the real challenges is that they're constantly turning over. It's not enough just to introduce that great technology; it's also recognizing that, in the business school world, every quarter there are new students coming in.

How do you communicate with them about the full suite of tools and technologies that are available to them while they're here?

Digital World

RB: Kevin, let's talk about the providers of technology. What are some hallmark mistakes that technology companies are making when they approach higher education institutions?

When you talk to vendors and technologists, they are often very hesitant to work in higher ed because either they don't understand it or they think that it's a long process. They just don't have the bandwidth to really understand the demographics of the people that they would be working with, like you.

What advice do you have for them? What do you notice and you just say to yourself, “Ah, the same mistake made over again by a technology company that may have good intentions and some good foundational technology but it would never fit in higher ed”?

KB: That's an interesting question. I think there are a few things that we see over and over again.

In our environment, we have a highly decentralized environment. A lot of vendors make the assumption that they're going to walk in here with some really cool technology and they're going to sell it to me and I'm going to purchase it and tell all the faculty to use it tomorrow.

There's not an understanding that in higher education, that's not how things work. You generally don't tell faculty to do anything.

RB:  If you're smart, right?

KB:  Yes, if you want to keep your job. With faculty, it is about providing technology that enables things for them. So it is all about enabling. It's about going to them and saying, “Hey, we found something that we think makes your life easier, makes your life better, will help you do this with students, do something that you couldn't do before, do something better or easier or faster or more collaboratively.”

It's about getting some percentage of them on board, and hopefully they will talk to others and get more on board. That varies from institution to institution. There are some higher-ed institutions that are more centralized than others. We happen to be a very decentralized one.

But I think that's the most common mistake that vendors make. It's thinking that they're going to walk in and sell one person and everyone is just going to adopt it. That very rarely happens.

Handshake

RB: Do you find that the higher ed industry does a good job of communicating how they want to be interfaced with by vendors? Are we, from higher ed’s perspective, doing a good job of sharing the playbook? Ultimately it provides better technology a more seamless onboarding that makes your job and life easier when higher ed is doing a good job of informing technologists of both the areas of need and then how to navigate that path.

KB: No. I think we probably could do a better job of that. There's definitely an opportunity for us to do more. The other thing that you see is vendors aren’t doing a great job of is just listening, getting into higher-ed environments, and really trying to understand what the needs are.

There seems to be, too often, the “Hey, we've got this gee-whiz idea!” They offer a solution in search of a problem. We like problems in search of solutions.

RB: I love that. It makes it very visual. What is something that you're seeing in the space that hasn’t been adopted yet or that higher ed is itching to take on and tackle from a technology perspective? Something that we should be looking at as a next iteration or innovation that could impact not only higher ed but maybe K-12 and the consumer side?

Is there a technology that we really want to go after or that we are desperately in need of?

KB: I think it's on the K-12 space where it's likely to be adopted first. I think the greatest opportunity is in adaptive learning ─ the ability for each student in the classroom to have a lesson that is truly tailored to them, and, potentially, those lessons are all tied together.

Let's say, you have a classroom full of 30 students and the instructor in the front can actually see how each of those students is doing. At any given time, you probably have 60% who are in the middle where you might expect them to be, and then you have 20% who are lagging, and you have 20% who are out ahead.

It's the ability to actually have lessons that can adapt to those students and bring greater challenge to the ones who are out ahead and adapt the lessons to the ones who are struggling, then let the instructor know which students are struggling which allows the instructor to work with and guide them.

The real challenge in the industry is that the players who are best positioned to be developing that type of software and that type of content are the textbook manufacturers. They have the content and, unfortunately, I think they also have the least incentive to do it because it cannibalizes their existing market. And I think that's what is preventing us from seeing greater progress in that space right now.

Chicago

RB:  That's a great point. Kevin, we'll close with this. Are you a Bears or a Packers fan given that you've been in Chicago and in the Milwaukee area. Those are sort of competitive neighboring towns.

KB:  I've been here for a long time so I'm definitely more of a Bears fan although they've not been making that easy for the last few years.

RB:  I grew up in Detroit. Being a Lions fan, there's not a lot of sympathy coming from this side of the microphone.

KB:  I understand.

RB:  Kevin, continued success! We really appreciate getting to know a little bit more about the role of a CIO in higher education.

 

Further Reading:

Forbes - Digital Skills — The New Literacy Debate

The Chronicle of Higher Education - Grad School Is Hard on Mental Health. Here’s an Antidote.

Education Dive - Strong oversight, communication key to smooth higher ed IT shifts

 

About Kevin Boyd:

Kevin BoydKevin B. Boyd is the Chief Information Officer at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He has responsibility for the technology at Chicago Booth’s campuses in Chicago, London, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Prior to coming to Booth, he was the Vice President of Product Management for Tribune Company. Boyd previously served first as a PMO Director and then as Director of Quality Assurance and Testing for CNA Financial in Chicago. Boyd previously worked for United Airlines as Director of Ecommerce Systems.

He was also an adjunct professor at Northwestern University for nine years, teaching classes in ecommerce and working with students on entrepreneurship-related independent study projects.

Boyd holds a Bachelor’s degree in Broadcast and Electronic Communication from Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, and a Master’s degree in Communication Systems, Strategy and Management from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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