Tremendous Change and the Acceleration of the Digital University

Phil Ventimiglia, Chief Innovation Officer of Georgia State University
November 30, 2020

It’s been some time since I last posted and a lot has happened since. At the time, I talked about how technologies like sensors, robotics, artificial intelligence and rapidly growing stores of data were increasing the pace of change in every aspect of life. What I couldn’t know was just how much change was coming due to unforeseen events on the more immediate horizon. Like every institution across the world, Georgia State has undergone tremendous shifts in the past several months due to COVID-19. The good news is that the work we were doing to prepare for the future of higher education has helped make sure we were ready for unexpected turns occurring now due to the pandemic.

Our investments in infrastructure and digital learning strategy proved invaluable when near the end of the spring semester, we found ourselves transitioning all our classes and many of our services online in just a matter of days. With guidance from the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Online Education, instructors across the university brought thousands of courses online in an organized effort. More than six thousand faculty and staff began coordinating from locations off campus. We transformed traditional lab services into laptop and Internet device checkout and expanded access to a virtual lab so that students with limited means could stay connected. We also quickly integrated our student success systems with our learning management system to extend use of known student success indicators into the digital realm in new ways while transitioning essential events like student orientation online.

Despite the challenges, the university reported several successes this past spring and fall as online student attendance could be tracked at a rate of 98.5% in the last week of class and the university experienced the highest graduation rates and grade-point averages to date in spring followed by the largest freshmen class yet in fall. At IIT, we were excited to be able to take a moment to look back on how far we’ve come this year and throughout the past several years when I was recognized, along with the team, with a 2020 Georgia CIO of the Year award for technology leadership in the public sector.

I’ve written before about the Digital University of the future. In planning for that future we had developed some of the technologies and services that were important to have in place as the current crisis emerged, allowing us to not just keep operating but to stay positioned to adapt to new circumstances. By looking to the future, the university had in place the technology infrastructure, multi-modal education delivery and business continuity practices needed to complete spring and begin the summer and fall with minimal disruption. Throughout our COVID-19 response, we have continued to be in a position to offer a blend of in-person and online options needed to prioritize the safety of our students and community.

COVID-19 has quickly re-defined working and learning environments across industries. Because we had already integrated secure video conferencing tools with our learning management system and put in place options for business communication, such as softphones, we were able to transition to multi-location work and learning quickly. As we transitioned coursework online, we needed to be able to offer strong and secure virtual private network and physical network capabilities. Our early adoption of cloud and virtualization technologies allowed for this, with our network and servers having been 95% virtualized. Having introduced an IT service management platform, we’ve been able to track how we provide service and expand support online, including providing self-service options and automating service fulfillment. Additionally, agile processes and a philosophy of piloting proof of concepts to validate new ideas has put us in the position of being able to test many dozens of technologies annually with tools for rapid integration that allow us to integrate new tools into our platform routinely in under 30 days. This agility has helped as the student experience has taken on significantly more digital components in a short timeframe. We’ve integrated tracking across dozens of systems to look at new indicators of engagement across digital and physical spaces and have used artificial intelligence to help surface important conversations while introducing a relationship management system to ensure the university can appropriately understand the student experience and communicate relevant information throughout the student lifecycle.

Before the pandemic, our focus was already on developing multi-modal education delivery options with courses and tools designed to support a combination of in-person and online formats for varied learning needs. To support this, we began shifting our classrooms toward more interactive spaces with integrated technologies for active learning and environments such as our Simulcast classrooms, which allow faculty to teach simultaneously live in a classroom and remotely with an interactive experience, significantly expanding class capacity. We also expanded the university’s teaching toolset by experimenting with tools such as adaptive learning courseware to personalize independent student study in large classes using analytics and data-driven interventions. Our students were encouraged to be prepared to solve problems digitally with efforts like our Digital Learners to Leaders program, PantherHackers organization, digital literacy initiative and experiential learning labs.

We have also formed collaborative, cross-organizational teams for supporting instruction, research, student success and alumni services, such that our project management team is currently tracking nearly 90 projects affecting areas across the university. With such a large and disparate footprint, communicating and encouraging secure processes is more essential than ever. We’ve re-doubled the university’s cybersecurity efforts and acted proactively in adopting tools to combat increasing cyber threats to protect the integrity of university data resources. For instance, by implementing a policy ensuring all emails claiming to be from the university must come from verified senders, we prevented delivery of thousands of fraudulent emails every week to our campus email systems.

While we are still adjusting and there are without a doubt ways we must continue to adapt to meet our students’ needs in these fast-changing circumstances, as we face another year certain to have in store yet more significant change, we know we have many of the tools and processes in place to continue to react to what our students need in an increasingly digital university experience.

What are your thoughts? Send Phil a question or comment.