Digital Squared

The Future of IT and Innovation in Higher Ed

March 23, 2023 Tom Andriola Season 1 Episode 6
The Future of IT and Innovation in Higher Ed
Digital Squared
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Digital Squared
The Future of IT and Innovation in Higher Ed
Mar 23, 2023 Season 1 Episode 6
Tom Andriola

On this episode, Tom talks to Susan Grajek, Vice President for Partnerships, Communities and Research at EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association with the mission to advance higher education through the use of information technology and data. Together they discuss the future of technology in higher education, how ‘radical creativity’ can be used to unlock novel ideas, and the critical relationship between culture and innovation.

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode, Tom talks to Susan Grajek, Vice President for Partnerships, Communities and Research at EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association with the mission to advance higher education through the use of information technology and data. Together they discuss the future of technology in higher education, how ‘radical creativity’ can be used to unlock novel ideas, and the critical relationship between culture and innovation.

Tom [01:21]:
Please welcome our guest Susan Grajek. Susan, welcome.

Susan [01:24]:
Thank you. Thank you so much, Tom. It's a pleasure to be able to spend this time with you. 

Tom [01:29]
Oh, no, thank you for joining us today. You know, I'd like to start our session today with a little bit about you telling our audience about your experiences, you have a very diverse background that brought you to where you are today, and I'd love for our audience to understand your journey. 

Susan [01:46]
Wonderful, wonderful. Well, thank you. Um, so I've been with Educause since 2011. So I just celebrated my 12 year anniversary here. And before that, I was at Yale University for over 25 years. I started off as a graduate student, I was newly graduated from SUNY Buffalo. So I went to my undergrad university in my hometown in Buffalo, and got my degree in psychology, then went straight to graduate school at Yale, and I got a PhD in research psychology. And what I sort of learned and concluded at that point was that I didn't feel like I had a vocation for academic psychology, but I loved the higher education environment, and I absolutely loved using computers doing data analysis and the like. So I ended up working at the Yale computer center. And my first role there, I was working in user services, and I was the liaison to the faculty. And then I ran the help desk there. And then I moved from there to the medical school. And I worked part time for 12 years, and I worked in academic computing at the medical school and my roles in the medical school really started off having – I got to be part of this wonderful initiative funded by the National Library of Medicine called IAIMS. And this was in the mid-1980s. And AIMS was an initiative to try to network more information and bring information to researchers and clinicians, and to get them the information when they want it and where they wanted. So what, when and where. And it was very groundbreaking at the time. And it's just so funny now to have moved on, and many of the things that are part of our daily life today, like electronic medical records, teaching with technology, and certainly being able to have electronic journals and everything, they just seem so commonplace now, but they were really new and cutting edge at the time. And I got to be part of that work. In those efforts, I was the co-principal investigator for evaluation of the grant. And then, you know, I moved on from there. We consolidated IT at the medical school and, and so I was doing basically metrics, and then did support, help stand up our first website at the School of Medicine, I was the person who led the committee and then had to work through all the politics of that. Then we consolidated technology yet again. And I became responsible for all of IT support at Yale, except for some of the professional schools of course, and then moved on and was helping out with our first strategic technology plan and the like. And then I was getting a little restless and asking myself, am I really going to spend my entire career at Yale, you know, what's up with this? And just around the time when I was getting restless, I had decided I'll stay here for another 18 months, then I'll be fully vested and officially able to “retire,” and then I'll go look for something else. Well, it happened a little early, 18 months before, and I got this great opportunity to come to Educause and to lead the research and data and analytics part of the organization. And so I went forward. And, it's just been one of the best career moves of my life. I'm still able to work from home, in my home in Connecticut. So, Educause was a hybrid organization, way, way, way before it became commonplace. And so I feel everybody's pain, but also the confusion and the rewards of that. And at Educause, I've done the ‘Top 10 IT Issues’ project every year since I came in here, responsible for core data service, our research, and I was also able to get responsibility for our dedicated communities. So practice in supporting teaching and learning, cybersecurity and privacy, and CIOs and technology leaders, and just having fun every year. Every year, it's different. 

Tom [06:08]:
You know, I like to say to people who've been involved with data for a long time, we were involved with data before data was cool, right? Right now it's en vogue, everybody wants to be in the data space, you were there joining Educause couple of years ago and had data within your role before it was the en vogue thing. So you're one of our early vanguard's in the industry. And that's where I'm gonna go with my next question, which is, for a lot of people who are outside of higher education, they consider the industry a slow moving, not very innovative space – I have to say that before I joined higher education, because I had a career outside and a different industry before coming in –, my view would be that's really an unfair assessment. Because unless you understand the culture of higher education, you understand that the innovation really aligns with the way that the culture of our industry works. And I know that you see this and you've had campus involvement in the medical center, academic medical center part of higher education. And now you're a part of this national or even global association, tell me about what innovation higher education looks like, feels like and operates like to you.

Susan 07:19
To me, I always tell people, to understand innovation, you know, as I think you rightly put it, you have to understand the culture. And you really have to understand two things. Thing one is, how decisions are made, and who's making them, and what's kind of the characteristics of those decision makers and that leadership. And number two, where the money flows and where the money goes. Because so often, once you understand those two pieces of the puzzle, you really understand what you're looking at. And you understand the extent to which you can and cannot have an impact on that, right? And so often people try to change something that is an artifact of the culture, and it's the culture that has to be changed, it's the leadership that has to be changed. And I can't tell you how many people have come to me and said, “Here's the problem with my institution, or my leadership, or this or that.” And what I say to them is, I say, “Well, you're gonna have to figure out, whether, if you can't change that, can you live with it, and if you can't live with it, then you're probably going to have to find somewhere else that really does align with what you're doing.” I think that one of the challenges that we have right now, is that I think that our innovation is consistent with our culture. And I think that's good. And that's bad. At its best, our innovation is thoughtful, it's participative, and it's responsive to input. And at its worst, it gets derailed by individual, but noisy stakeholders, and it gets derailed by these stories that we tell ourselves, “Hey, you know, just before you even go there, let me tell you why it's never worked in the past,” right? Or, “We always do it this way,” or “Wait, my area is different, and so we're just going to go our own way.” right? And you know, very often, if you understand where the money in the decision making goes, you understand the extent to which those are inviolable truths about the group that you're working with, or whether you might be able to have some impact. But more than ever, I think today, the context in which higher education is accountable, is really important. You know, we are accountable now, to our toughest critics, and many of them sit in state legislatures, many of them control the purse strings of many of our institutions. And we're also often in competition with really well-resourced disruptors. So when you ask about whether higher ed is slow or not, I think you need to ask, ‘compared to what?’ And in the past ‘compared to what?’ has been our peer institutions, right? So what do we have to worry about? But more now, the comparisons are not just to other colleges and universities, but it's compared to other digital experiences that people can have, to employers – “Do I want a job, or do I want to get a credential?” But also other online credential offers and the like, and also, to a certain extent, to one another when you're trying to attract really top faculty talent, and so we don't want to overcorrect. We don't want to do things like ‘embrace failure, move fast and break things.’ But if we could find a way to overcome those kinds of knee jerk resistors more readily, if our culture could become more comfortable with change as a natural state of affairs, rather than as an aberration to be suffered through or pushed against, if we could even start to do those things, that would be a good thing. 

Tom [11:13]:
Yeah, that's great. Susan, I read a piece you wrote recently, and you mentioned this phrase, ‘radical creativity’ right? Not a phrase that we would normally plop into our language vocabulary here in higher education. Can you talk to our audience about what you meant by that, and then also tie it to – the pandemic has been a forcing function for all of us, both in a work and in personal context – radical creativity, what does it mean? And has the pandemic played a role positively? Or negatively? And was it a spurring activity for us? 

Susan [11:48]:
Sure. Well, to me, radical creativity is about really questioning ‘do I have to do things today the way I did them last week and the week before?” And ‘could I rethink how I'm doing things in just the most open way that I possibly could?’ ‘And what does that look like?’ Well, you know, part of it is having the ability and the opportunity to draw inspiration and ideas from other fields and circumstances, and then being able to actually apply those ideas, and to learn from them. But it's also about encouraging people throughout the organization to contribute ideas and to experiment. And I think there's a group of people in our ecosystem, Dave Thomas is one of them. Deb Francis Cain is another. And they started this group called Professors That Play, and they really talk about how play needs to become an important component of the work that we do. And so radical creativity, I think, is also seeing if we can get more playful about our work, you know, we focus so much on operating like a business and counting things and averting risks and avoiding risks and the like. And that can really be fear forward, rather than hope and play forward. And so, you know, ‘can we remember how to have fun together? Can we relax into the work?’ And I think another component of relaxing into the work is also about having trust. ‘Do I trust you enough to share my crazy ideas with you?’ Right? And do you trust me enough to be able to say, ‘you know, maybe, and let's bet that back and forth. But, you know, maybe this idea is not gonna go forward? Or let's experiment it or whatever,’ right. But you know, I think if people can relax into the work, then they can become more creative. You can't sort of say, ‘have new ideas!’ because people get very, very stiff that way. But there's another way in which creativity can be stimulated. And that is, when everything breaks, when everything changes. And that is indeed what happened with a pandemic. Suddenly the world changed overnight. And I think many of us were initially paralyzed. But that paralysis didn't last very long before people were coming, ‘hey, can you help us? We've got to move online! And what is that going to look like?’ And if you have to move fast, and if you know, precisely what the outcome is that you're looking for– and I think both of those things were true with a pandemic– we had to keep teaching and learning going on. We had, to the extent that we could, keep research going on, we had to keep paying the bills and the like. So we sort of knew those outcomes. We didn't encumber them with a lot of other things, right? We just said, this is the ground floor, right? This is the basement, we're just going to try to build it. And we had limited time, so we had to move quickly. And so we didn't have the luxury to be perfect and think it all through and figure it out. Nor were we being judged too much about that initially. And so people did move really really quickly and get things done. And they were probably under engineered rather than over engineered, but it did give room for thinking through. Now, I think so that we're at a time, where in many ways, we can be more fruitfully creative. And what I mean by that is, we've proven that things can change. So we sort of soften the culture, we've gotten everybody used to new ways of doing things. We've also given people the experience of what it is actually like, to be at home and to teach a class, to be at home and to take a class, to manage a group that is not at my fingertips. And you know what, always move around and check in. And so now people have opinions about how that's working, and how they would like it to work. So with that context, and I think that we have a real opportunity now, to make it work the way it ought to work, rather than the way we just absolutely needed it to work. 

Tom [16:19]:
Yeah, I think it's an important point, right? I feel like institutions– a lot of conversation when I talk inside my own institution, I talk to other institutions of this critical moment of ‘do we see what the pandemic threw at us in terms of its disruptive force as just a bridge that we had to cross because we had to, versus something that we're going to learn from and incorporate some of those learnings that are consistent of with who we are, and who we want to be as an institution into a new way of thinking about different parts of the mission?’ And from my corporate career, if I call it that, right, those are tremendous opportunities to gain competitive advantage in a business context, right, the concept is called accelerating out of the curve– we all had to slow down coming through the pandemic curve, but ‘how you come out of it, and are you different? And are you better? And if you're in a competitive landscape, like healthcare, are you in a more competitive place in the market space that you compete in?’ Those are the questions that you're asking yourself when you're sitting around the table with those that helped develop the strategy. And I feel like that's the period that we're in, it's not a moment, right? It's a period, it’s a set of conversations to your point. But I feel like that's where we're at right now.

Susan [17:41]:
I think you're absolutely right, I really, really do. And, and as you put it, are we going to be able to accelerate out of that curve? Or are we going to say, we're tired, we're just going to slow down, and maybe pull over to the side of the road for a little bit for a little while. And you know, what I what I think is interesting, and a little bit scary about this time, is that I'm seeing more and more signs of a bifurcation in our ecosystem, where there's always been the haves and the have nots. But I think the haves and institutions have enough. And really extraordinary leadership, those are the ones that are going to be able to accelerate on the curve. And, they're going to move faster and further and further away from the institutions that are really, really struggling and, and are worn out and don't have the funds to be able to maybe draw any kind of lessons from this. And I worry a lot about our industry and about the people who we serve, and where it's going. 

Tom [18:56]:
Yeah, it definitely is a challenging time. Someone referred to it a few weeks ago as like YouTube playing on 1.5x speed all the time. That's life today. And I think higher ed is feeling that way, right? Because we're gonna jump now to the next disruptive force, which is a little bit more like the traditional one is, now right in our horizon. It's the impact of artificial intelligence. And I know you've been starting to write on this a little bit about the positions of it. It's amazing to see how ChatGPT, and ChatGPT is one product from one company in something that's actually a vast space that's getting very, very heavy investment, money flow, to your point. But expand upon what you're seeing so far, and how it's going to impact the industry that you've spent your career as a part of, and how different institutions are approaching building that foundation for the models for how this will come into higher education.

Susan [19:59]:
Yeah, ChatGPT is really interesting. Because there is a magical component to it, right? That we don't understand, many of us, especially most of the people who are experimenting with it now and they– I remember one time I was playing a video game with my sons. We were playing The Sims. And when you first set up the Sims, you have to say a little bit about the character who are you creating or something. So I did that. And like, several days later, I was playing with the character and the character died or something and like this thing came across the screen, and I was like, “Oh, my God, it's like this application read my mind.” And it wasn't til later that I realized it had just coded back exactly what I had put in, you know, when I had described the character at the beginning, but it seemed like magic because I didn't understand how things worked. And I think that's true with some of this AI like ChatGPT, it spits back stuff that seems very lucid. And, what we don't realize is that it is just constructing things based on which things go together in greatest likelihood, it is not creating new knowledge. It is really taking the knowledge that it has and spinning back to us. And in fact, you know, the phrase ‘garbage in garbage out’ for data– well now you know, it's ‘falsities in falsities out’, ‘lies and lies out.’ And what's interesting is both how far AI has progressed, but also how dangerous it is already, even in these early days and how blind many of us are to those potential dangers. So, is this going to replace the faculty? Is it going to replace higher education, et cetera, people will definitively say, “not yet” or “that will never happen,” whatever. And the answer is that we really, absolutely don't know. Because we don't know where this is going to take us and the like, but what's the job of colleges and universities today in thinking about this? And how can they use some of just the great progress that's happened with AI, the startlingly fast progress with AI, and use it and abstract it to what's happening in higher education, which is what I suggested we do with the Top 10 IT issues, and in that case I was saying AI is moving from one paradigm to another. And in the previous paradigm, what AI was really doing was we're gonna feed in everything that we know about this, we're gonna give it to you ahead of time. And we're going to train you on all these facts and train you on doing these particular tasks. So previous AI models were very task-specific, and they were limited in what they could do, and you really couldn't apply them to any others. But with generative AI, it's really saying ‘we're gonna give you some parameters, and then you're going to kind of learn as you go, and create new knowledge along the way.’ And that's where we got these breakthroughs. Like I can't remember what the AI was that beat the experts in Go, and the like, but that's where you really get this exponential capability. So how could you apply that to higher education right now? If you think about the way we think and do technology right now, we really still do sort of say that ‘we're going to build our data silo by silo by silo. ‘This is my data, and I own it, right? So you can slurp it up and put it into the data lake, but it's my data, and I get to decide about it,’ versus it's the institution's data. So how do we move to these mass data stores, to having data governance that recognizes that the institution owns the data. And I know that I'm talking about stuff that has been around for years, but it's still a problem today, so we really haven't gotten over the hump of solving it. And we have to build those basic foundations that scale across the institution rather than just within the department. And that lets us look at the various data elements for maybe more than the purposes that they were intended to and in many cases, kind of getting back to those haves and have nots. Think about how we could build models for running things and for having our data and solving problems and doing things that scale beyond the institution to multiple institutions. And so I think that's where we need to really think about moving beyond the data silos, trying to scale beyond the departments to the institution, beyond the institution to consortia maybe, or across higher ed. And then that also means that we're going to have to really rethink and refactor how we do the work, how we manage people and the like. So I think that all of those are really important. But then you look back at ChatGPT. And you go, there's things about this that are really kind of not good, and even if you do have ChatGPT write your homework, is it going to submit a lot of falsehoods that you're not even aware of, because you're just letting it do the thinking for you, thinking that it will. Well the same thing is true, I think, with as we think about our overall foundation models, and what are the risks– ‘what are the ethical risks that we have to put in play? What could go wrong? Where are we maybe making decisions to try to achieve more, more persistence or completion, or to optimize our enrollment models, but none of it’s to help students out.’ So I think we have to think really carefully as we go forward with these. 

Tom [26:10]:
Yeah, I think this is one of those times when you say ‘we overestimate its impact in the short run and underestimate it in the long run.’ I mean, those are the foundational technologies. If you go back to when the Internet first came into our existence, when Google first came into our existence, when mobile came into play, that's something we could give to a large percentage of our population. This is one of those, I think, that has that kind of arc for us. And certainly, it has generated a huge, not just a huge response, with both ends of the spectrum in the conversation. It also is– we've actually had some conversations going on last week– there's about ten different I'll call it topics where we're talking about the impact of an AI and I'm pulling it away from ChatGPT and just saying generative AI. There are a lot of companies like ChatGPT out there to the front, and there's lots of other types of content being generated like images for example. You know, we had about ten topics that we listed about here are the areas that could and probably will be impacted at some level around this foundational technology that we need to understand, create a dialogue about, trying to figure out how to shepherd the innovation around it, and we're just at the experimental stage now. And that's a good thing. Right? So how do we stimulate more experiments for the sake of learning? And then, you know, I always one of the things I find fascinating from someone who spent a lot of years in healthcare, where you deal with serious issues around people's mortality– you deal with the older set of the population and then you come to higher education, where you deal with youths and exuberance and picking up things so incredibly fast, and it makes you envious of how quickly they pick up things– this is going to be normal to our students. As normal as using a calculator is for me, generative AI is going to be for the students who are coming to our universities in five years. So let's jump to our students. Our students are very digitally native, and more digitally native than we'll ever really be able to understand when we get them and they'll leave and go into a world, after they leave us, into a world that is probably more digitally enabled and driven than we are at the institution. How do we think about you know, what do you hear from the institutions? Because you talk to so many institutions, so many different types of institutions through Educause? How is it that we're creating these institutional digital experiences, thinking about the future for not just how we educate, but how we prepare the students who are with us today for the lives that they're going to go build for themselves when they're done with us?

Susan [29:04]:
Yeah, I think when I hear people talking about it, in how we prepare students for it, a lot of it does come down to the basics. Are we preparing people who can think critically? Are we preparing people who are numerate? Who understand data and numbers and how to use them. And how to interpret them. Are we preparing people who can be creative? And who can solve problems? Are we preparing people who have social skills, and, and can work and collaborate effectively. And this is where my colleagues in the liberal arts will really have a great argument to make, that if you can take somebody and graduate them and really teach them how to think, how to live in a society, and how to recognize that they are a member of society, and that they have contributions to make to that greater society, so that they're citizens, as well as individuals, you know, that that that really is, fundamentally is, was, and remains the job of colleges and universities. And then, on top of that, though, you don't want college to be this odd little backwater when it comes to digital experiences. I don't know K-12 right now, but from what I'm hearing, in many times, students’ high school digital environments are more sophisticated and richer in some circumstances, then their collegiate ones are, then their post secondary ones are, and then they go off and they get a job in the world where suddenly things become even more sophisticated. So how do we really give students access to the kinds of tools that they're going to be using when they when they enter the world and anticipate that. And one of the things that I see more and more is, I see CIOs getting involved in the conversations that leadership has with local employers, prospective employers, with the community to say that, “What do you need us to help prepare our students to do so that they can become part of your workforce?” and really, to optimize that, you know, And I had another conversation a couple of weeks ago with a college president. And he was saying that he asks his students when they first come in to make a choice: do you want to be an employee or an employer. And what he really meant by that is, if you're going to be an employer, we need to help you become entrepreneurial, we need to help you understand what it would be like to run your own business. If you're gonna be an employee, then we need to help you understand you know, where you might want to go and what kind of skills you'll need and the like. And that reminds me a little bit– do I have time for a little bit of a digression? 

Tom [32:16]:
Sure, go ahead. 

Susan [32:17]:
A few years ago, like 2014, 2015, something like that. My boss asked me to stand in for her and to represent Educause on a task force that UNESCO was standing up, and the point of the task force was to try to anticipate the future of higher education 30 years from now, and to think about what that might look like, and what technology would need to contribute. So where is technology going? Where's higher education going? And it was an international, it was an international panel. So there were people there from all six permanently inhabited continents. And one of the things that I particularly remember that was especially salient to me is that there were a couple of people there from South Korea. And I was really enlightened by how deeply intertwined, how highly coupled post secondary education was with the big employers, the big industries in South Korea. So basically post-secondary education at that time, this was my takeaway, right – I'm probably terribly over generalizing. But my takeaway was that, ‘wow, you know, post-secondary education is really meant to provide that feeder workforce for these particular companies in these particular industries. And that's felt very different from what higher education was like in the US at the time. The other thing that was really interesting to me is that we had one man representing all of Sub-Saharan Africa, as we tend to sort of do by oversimplifying that really rich and important continent. But, the story he was telling about his country, and his region was– let's see if I can remember– he said, “The things we buy, we don't make, the things we make, no one buys, we don't buy.” And the point of this was that, his conclusion was that the purpose of secondary or post-secondary education in his country was to develop entrepreneurial skills, because he needed to teach people how to make money and how to be in business for themselves, when they you know, when they enter the workforce. So now, here we are in the United States, and it feels to me, like we are educating students for, in many cases, for one of those two models now. ‘Which company do you want to work for? And are you likely to get a job? And let's optimize your education for that’ Or do you want to be an employer? And let's optimize your education so that you can learn how to become entrepreneurial.’

Tom [35:07]:

Susan [35:08]:
Then you bring it back to the digital experiences. And in addition to those basic skills of confidence, and ‘Do I have the critical thinking abilities, the numerous abilities? Can I work within a group of people? And can I can I recognize myself as a member of society?’ In addition to those basic things, how do we provide them with the education they need to be able to shape the future that they need? And then where did digital experiences come into play?

Tom [35:40]:
So we're going to wrap up with — asking kind of your perspective, given the seat that you sit in and the vantage points that you have. So let's go 20 years out. What does higher education look like from your vantage point, 20 years from now? 

Susan [35:54]:
Well, you may or may not be familiar with the horizon reports that Educause produces, 

Tom [36:00]:
I am, I'm a contributor into them every time you give me the opportunity, Susan!

Susan [36:05]:
Wonderful! Well, I'm gonna make sure you get more opportunities, Tom. I'm going to make sure of that. Well, well, you know, then, Then you probably know that one of the things that–  one of the ways in which we changed the Horizon Report is, we've added scenarios to the Horizon Report. And those scenarios are based on, ‘Is the future going to be one of constraint, is it going to be one of abundance, etc, etc.’ So we've got four different potential futures. And so saying that, I'm going to answer it from a mentality of abundance. So rather than going dark, I'm going to try to go bright. 20 years from now, I think that we're gonna say it was one of those moments when everything changed. It was one of those moments when everything changed. And we understood the job that we had to do to be able to scale up higher education beyond the traditional student model that we were so comfortable with, to really truly become the place that everybody goes for lifelong learning. And we figured out how to do that and we figured out how to do it affordably. So that higher education– we thought that before the post-World War Two, that was the golden age of higher education. But really what we recognized now was that we took the pandemic and the learnings and the opportunities that it provided. We took climate change, and the learnings and the risks and the opportunities it provided. And from that, we developed a new model for higher education that fit the world that we're living in, and so much of it was based on technology.

Tom [37:50]:
That's great. All right. Well, we're gonna leave it there for today. Susan, again, thank you so much for joining us today. Really have been a big fan of your work at Educause and a fan of Educause and the work that it does for the higher education industry. So thank you so much for joining us.

Susan [38:07]:
Thank you, Tom.