Digital Squared

A Culture of Care in a Technology-Focused World

October 03, 2023 Tom Andriola Season 2 Episode 2
A Culture of Care in a Technology-Focused World
Digital Squared
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Digital Squared
A Culture of Care in a Technology-Focused World
Oct 03, 2023 Season 2 Episode 2
Tom Andriola

On this episode, Tom talks with John O’Brien, President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, the international nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through technology innovation. Together they discuss a need for digital ethics across the curriculum, a renewed focus on what students want and need, and the importance of creating a culture of care in this world of exponential use of technology.

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode, Tom talks with John O’Brien, President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, the international nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through technology innovation. Together they discuss a need for digital ethics across the curriculum, a renewed focus on what students want and need, and the importance of creating a culture of care in this world of exponential use of technology.

Welcome to Digital squared, a podcast that explores the implications of living in an increasingly digital world. We're on a mission to inspire our listeners to use technology and data for good. Your host, Tom Andriola is the Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and data and Chief Digital Officer at the University of California at Irvine. Join us as Tom and fellow leaders discuss the technological, cultural and societal trends that are shaping our world. Today on the podcast, I'm talking with John O'Brien, President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, the international nonprofit association, whose mission is to advance higher education through technology innovation, John's career in higher ed is both equally varied and impressive. In the podcast, we hope to have brought out that wealth of knowledge, experience and perspective. Together, we discuss a need for digital ethics across the curriculum, a renewed focus on what students want and need, and the importance of creating a culture of care in this world of exponential Use of technology.

Welcome to the podcast. 

Thanks, Tom. Great to be here. 

I love people who have interesting backgrounds on how they got to where they are. And I think that's because I'm a little bit that way, but from Professor to Provost to CEO of a Global Technology Association, tell us about your journey. What are the constant themes that came out for you along the way, 

you're actually time kind there, because you only picked three erratic turns, my journey has been far less linear than that combination of Right place, right time, and a real active curiosity. So I'll suggest a couple of themes. But I moved around a lot, but it was always within the same system. So I know I'm talking to a system guy, I was periodically going from working on a campus to working in the system office, to going back on a campus leading an IT project to being back at the system. And the theme that makes sense of that nonlinear wild ride is every job I've taken that's different has been because I believed it would make a bigger difference. My first teaching job was at a two year college and you talk to people who are at community colleges, technical colleges, and it's just that idea of making a difference just gets fried into your brain stem. And I think of the first time I was a president of a two year college and I had the all staff meeting at the beginning. And I asked people in the audience, raise your hand if you're a first generation college student, and literally like two thirds of the people there raise their hands. So just always been about how to make a difference and how to make a bigger difference. And I suppose another theme and all this, for me has been really believing in technology and really believing that technology can make a bigger difference. And I know we're going to come back to that theme, again and again. But from the very beginning, I always had a strong conviction that the way to use technology isn't to push people into it. You've been doing this for a while too. And there was a big initial drive as technology was becoming more prominent. That's really when I got my traction as a leader. My first job was as a system director for instructional technology. It was evangelical work. And I just tried always to say we're not trying to push people into technology. I remember those days. Remember, it was like, we gotta get more courses on the web. I was actually at a meeting where somebody said without any irony, we need to throw up more courses on the web. Say more about that. Just always believe that this technology is so compelling, but it should be a pole, a pole toward a compelling use of technology, not a push to do it because you have to or because it's a trend or because of a word. I feel sure I'll use later hype. 

So when the opportunity came across your eyes become CEO of big claws. What were your first reactions when you saw that as an opportunity to have that greater impact?

My first reaction was totally selfish. It was that this is just an organization that I have been part of from the very beginning I was on the edge of cause wasn't EDUCAUSE review, it was another publication we had at the time. I was on the editorial board of that back in I think 1999 Because I just really believed in what this organization did just the thought of being part of it. It's a perfect bookend to many decades of services. I started off excited about the difference technology can make. And I was at the time I found out about that I was nominated for the job. I was a provost of a large system. And so I was not doing primarily technology leadership and the idea to be able to have my last job be a return to what I was so and have been passionate about throughout my career was just like a dream come true. And I think I had five interviews so I had lots of time to think whether this was a good thing for me and more importantly, a good thing for Educause, but it ended well, I think, I hope. 

So this podcast really focuses on and we call it digital squared, right. But it's about life in an increasingly digital world, some in the higher education space, specifically a survey that recently came out that leaders of institutions presidents see technology is increasingly strategic, from 12%, up to 87%. Over the last few years, Student Services is showing that they're using technology more than ever, with this view that you've had on this arc that you've had. Where do you think this is all taking us from an educational and experience perspective? 

You mentioned the Inside Higher Ed surveys. So that was a survey of presidents. And there's a lot to dig into in that survey. And you mentioned the highlight point for me. But what's interesting to me was that the big takeaway, which is 87% of college and university presidents believe that digital transformation is either a high priority or a medium priority, I may have the words not exactly right. The first take from Inside Higher Ed was to look at the smaller subset who said it was a high priority, and say that number is less than half. And my take on it is, but you have to take the mediums like to go from, let me tell you a story. So in 2018, Ted Mitchell, you've got me moving backward through time. In 2018, we had Ted Mitchell, the head of AC E, the president association in the US come to our conference, and he gave a talk on this term that was just starting to be used widely. And that was digital transformation. So he spoke about digital transformation. And he mentioned a data point that took my breath away again, 2018, the president survey he mentioned, they asked presidents what is the most important thing for you as president, and one of the things was technology as a strategic asset or something like that. At that time, only 12% of President said that they saw technology as a strategic asset. Again, I don't know the exact wording. But I went up to him afterwards, I said, Ted, just so you know, I'm going to be telling this story a lot. Because when you look at what's not happening with the use of technology across campuses, a lot of that starts at the top. Now that was 2018. Now, five years later, to go from only 12% see technology as a strategic asset to 87% acknowledge that they see digital transformation as either a high priority, and that's a sea change. That's dramatic, tectonic. And so that, to me, is a great example of where we are. And so the biggest takeaway for me is Tom, just this idea is settled science now that technology is part of our future in higher education. And we've known that but to have presidents acknowledge that is really powerful. Remember, in 2010, at our annual conference in Anaheim, one of the General Sessions was a debate between Brad Wheeler and Oh, my goodness, Brian about is technology primarily plumbing, or is it strategic? So 2010? We're still struggling with that. I think now it's settled science, we can move beyond that and figure out now how do we change the world. 

for someone in my role, where I talk about technology and data is changed the nature of the conversation with that President or in my case, a chancellor, but then all the way down through talking to your Dean's, it is a very different conversation than it was five years ago, we just picked that as the point of, let's say, an exponential change in perspectives at the institutional leadership level. 

It is Tom, and let me I do want to just add to that, and you brought this up in characterizing this data, the focus on students is also a major, really positive change. I think that's been a significant change since the pandemic, and to couple the idea that technology is seen from the very top as a strategic asset, coupled with the idea that we're going to focus on what's right for students. That's a really powerful combination of pretty dramatic, recent trends. 

It is. So I want to pivot because I have this way of explaining people. So you have to put technology and data into the same role, which is one of the ways I was able to create the role that I have today at University of California, Irvine. Because I say, look, technology to me is just a data generation device, the value proposition whether we're talking about students learning outcomes, cost effectiveness, it's in the data, right? That's where the insights are. That's what the learning is. That's what we're trying to get in to be able to figure out what does wisdom mean from a data perspective? So we talk now then a lot about the opportunities of data, the risks around data, the concept of data for good? How do you view the role that data has evolved into our conversation and its role within the institution with all the opportunities for positive outcomes and all the potential risks and pitfalls? 

I'm glad you mentioned data and in fact, I've been listening to the podcast for a while. And one of the things I love is that your intro talks about using data for good. EDUCAUSE has completed a strategic planning process. We're going to talk more about this at our annual conference in Chicago. But one of the changes we've done is to add data to our strategic planning expressions of who we are. We talked about technology all over the place. But you'll see when we have our new mission, it talks about technology and data, the two are now permanent, comingled features of what this new landscape is about, we can't separate them out anymore. We have data privacy of data security, and we have technology, but the two are increasingly inseparable. So just want to applaud that and say that I think that we're really at a very early stage and figuring out how to handle data beyond the sort of high level banner headline of cybersecurity and privacy. That's good and important. But what about the best practice for how to use data? Using it for good? And where are those lines? I listened to the presentation you had with Ravi talking about mental health and wellness? And he's talking about that borderline? Okay, how do we use it? And when don't we use it? And when do we use it? And and how do we use the data? What data do we gather? I'm old enough that a lot of my background with data is we would gather a bunch of data but not use it or not use it well. What's really important for us is to be thinking about using data ethically. And in a previous article I wrote I talked about creating a pause for ethics, I think we can figure out what that means. Higher education should be leading the charge on ethical use of data, we're training the next data scientists, for goodness sakes for the next generation or two, let's make sure that we're training them with a view toward not just the simple aspects of it. But the more complicated, what are the best practices? And what does it mean? It's a great data point to say human in the loop. But okay, what does that mean, exactly? And how does that interact with the data, we should be figuring that out. I'm a former English teacher, all my degrees are actually in English. And there was a big deal in the 70s. And in the 80s. And it was called Writing across the curriculum. Remember that, where we said, writing is so important, let's build it in intentionally across the curriculum. I think we need to have digital ethics across the curriculum and be working it into every academic program. But I think I said it was a fantasy.

fantasies have a way of coming into reality, right. That's what the movie and entertainment industry does for us, they come up with something they put out there, and it seeps into our minds. And it's Sunday, an element of it comes into our reality, if you think about any futuristic movie we've ever watched, I was on a call. Earlier this week, talking about the ethics around healthcare data is really interesting, right? Because you pointed out something that many of our listeners may not make the connection on, we are an organization like any other, except we are also creating the future in the form of the people who will be with us for a certain number of years, and then go out and be the workforce of tomorrow, who will bring these mentalities, these paradigms and these kinds of ethical value systems to the organizations that they go and join. So literally are creating the future at institutions of higher education. 

And the technologies will come and they'll go, and they'll come and they'll go. And meanwhile we have, the communities and the students we serve and the research that we support and serve, the technology is not the thing, the data is there. And that's a stream underneath it that is not going to come and go so much as be a stream that we need to navigate carefully. I mentioned our new enterprise strategic plan. And the hallmark of that, for me is our vision statement. And a vision is where do you want to be in five years? And our vision statement is to inspire the transformation of higher education in service to a greater good? And no, we didn't steal that from you. But I was really pleased to see how similar it was to what you're trying to accomplish with the podcast. But what's interesting about that is what's not in it. The word technology is not in our vision statement. It's focused on inspiring the transformation of higher education and service to a greater good, the technologies will come and go but it's the difference you want to make that matters and maybe this is rhetorical, but all my degrees are in English, so that's okay. But where do you focus? Is the focus on the technology? No, the focus is on what we're trying to accomplish with it. And that's when things like data fall into place the right perspective about the data and not getting caught up as we I fear might be now in the trains leaving the station before people have packed their bags and and the whole madness around around hype, which is trending upward these days. 

Absolutely. And of course, I have to ask about the height because they knock you from an A down to a B minus if you don't mention and ask a question of your host about AI in today's world...

we made it 20 minutes. Without mentioning AI. That's pretty good. 

That's pretty amazing. It actually takes out a little bit more meaning that I want to set the context for our audience, which is I'm going to ask this question of you leading a very large association that's focused on technology. But someone, as you've mentioned, multiple times has all their degrees in English. And that's one of the amazing things about the generative AI movement is it's brought something to a level of English that we haven't seen out of technology before. I like the phrase that I heard recently from Adam Slutsky at AWS look around all this hype, we're three steps into a 10k race. I'm going to frame the question for John this way, what excites you about what you're seeing with the hype? And what worries you the most about what you're seeing around the hype of generative AI? 

I'm smiling, because if you saw me look distracted for a second, while you were talking about AI and hype, my robot vacuum cleaner was bumping against the wall of my study trying to get in. I wonder what that means?

What a wonderful, interesting data flow that someone is harnessing somewhere to talk about a cleanliness rating that you're gonna get. 

Certainly, yeah, the 3k into a 10k. Race is a really wonderful metaphor. But it would have to be a 10k race, where we don't know the route, then you're trying to pace yourself and the beginning of a race, if you don't do it, you put too much into it at the beginning, you don't save enough for the end. And I think that is what worries me so much about this. There were some big headlines a while back, I won't go into it, where some important leaders of technology companies were talking about a pause didn't happen. It didn't happen. In fact, there was speculation that they were strategically arguing for a pause so that they could have a strategic advantage and to play was that kind of thing. It's probably impractical to ask to pause a race and say, let's stop running for a second and talk about what we're doing here. Because there's the race to market. And so the worries to me are the hype, the racing to the market, and makes my writing in 2019, about digital ethics and creating a pause for ethics to almost seem precious and naive in the current environment, because we're just moving too fast. So that's my, my, my worry. And even Ravi in the podcast earlier that I listened to, and he has a great voice as a startup, because he actually said, Yeah, at one point said, I think we move too fast. So if the startup world and the corporate entities that are doing important work, creating the technologies that are going to take us where we want to go, if they could come to that realization, I think it would be wonderful. I think that it would also be really helpful for higher education to weigh in. And I know, I've had been in conversation with leading CIOs and other universities, and they are all thinking about how can we try to grab the reins? Now I'm mixing my metaphors. How can they even find a way to bring our voice to this? Because otherwise, we know what the voice is of 'we gotta go to market' we know that voice. We also know that the voice of saying we need to focus on ethics, we need to focus on data integrity, data hygiene, all these things gets lost in the, in the other very loud voices. 

As I thought about this, in how to create the right types of conversations, so one of the things I've learned in coming into the higher education sector is the importance of finding the right question. I've learned that from the great researchers that I've been able to get to know since I've come in. And it's been a powerful kind of metaphor for me to think about how to do my role, even though my role is almost nothing to do with research. But we've been talking about in how we're trying to approach this around, we need to start a lot of experiments, experiments are going to help us learn. Once we learn we're going to understand what's possible. It's not where we should go where we should not right. So like we can finally figure out where we think the finish line is that to work on your analogy earlier. And then we'll have an idea of what we really want to do. And I think some of this is we got to go to this, we gotta do this. We don't even know if that's the right thing yet. So let's sprinkle a lot of experiments around the campus in different parts of the organization, the different parts of the mission. And let's focus on learning and understanding before we try to figure out what strategy that's how we've been talking about it and it's been fun to watch those flowers start to take root and start to grow. 

Yeah, I love what you said about learning to ask the right questions. And that's a great leadership capability to be thinking about. We're talking about one AI, generative AI there's an AI I like even more and get excited about and that's remember appreciative inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry says to me says, instead of focusing on what's the problem here, the problem is hype. The problem is this. The problem is that instead you focus on, when is this working really well? And I think back to what do we do in higher ed, one thing we could do is to recognize, celebrate and champion, those companies, entities that are developing generative AI, apps and functionality that does it right, let's celebrate the heck out of those and talk about your presentation, or the previous podcast talking about mental health apps might be one example. There's so many pitfalls relative to using AI, in anything related to mental health, and your listeners know those painfully well, but we can talk about that all day. But we could also talk about who's figured it out, like who has navigated that tricky landscape effectively, and celebrate and lift those up? 

I want to talk about a piece I recently read that you wrote, because I was fascinated by it. You mentioned earlier about the momentum of digital transformation of leaders of higher education institutions. But you talked about this thing called cultural transformation and a culture of care. Can you elaborate on that for us, I found it a very fascinating way of thinking about what's ahead of us, 

it goes back to your made the crucial mistake of asking me to think about my past. And as I was moving from job to job, one of the system office positions I had was leading a statewide initiative in 2009, called Students First. And it was, I think, ahead of its time that we had done some process mapping from students and ask students to identify where technology could improve their experience in 2009. And they told us and we implemented a handful of projects specifically to accomplish that. So I've always had this idea of what would it really mean to focus on students in particular, in the slice of the universe related to technology, and I've been spending a lot of my time talking about digital transformation, which is crucially important to us in our world. And I would have been trying to do is to say, and there's another transformation alongside that, which is a transformation of moving toward focusing more and more on students and focusing on the intersection of the two, where can technology promote this idea of caring for students. And so I spent a lot of time exploring different initiatives, clearly talking about how like the president of Vassar wrote a piece for EDUCAUSE review, in May of 2020. So there was one or two other things going on at the time, so you might have missed it. But talking about how mental health applications of technology can make a huge difference. Think of this, the surgeon general just announced recently, that social media did you catch that social media is hazardous to your health, that was unbelievably arresting. The Surgeon General months earlier came to a meeting with AC E, and talked about how technology plays a critical role in mental health for colleges and universities and basically said, We made strides during COVID, we can't reverse that we have to continue to be thinking about how technology. So think about the tension inherent in those two sort of statements from the one person who goes to sleep at night worrying about the well being of Americans and for him to make those two statements. So we're at a really interesting point in thinking about what does it mean to care? And what is the role of technology there? As I've been giving this talk more often about what does it mean to say, we're having a digital transformation? We're also having a transformation of caring? And what does that mean? And I've really fixated on the idea of caring at scale. Everybody in higher ed cares about students. It's why we're there. It's what energizes us frequently. But what does it mean to care at scale, not just caring for one student, but developing an infrastructure that allows us to exponentially increase how we demonstrate that caring, and I think technology has a potentially important role to play there. 

Is it just about personalization, John, or is it more and deeper than that, as you see it as you're trying to explain it to people? 

Yeah, it's funny, because next thing, you know, you're back to talking about AI. And what's interesting is, even though chat bots are a thing we've been talking about for a very long time, there's still institutions that are implementing different ways of chatbots. And you look at another insight higher education survey was a survey they do call the student voice survey where they talked to students, and I remember the findings there of the most recent student voice study and what does students want, they want more technology used to improve their experience. They want chatbots that tell them how to talk to a person. Students don't have mental health crises during business hours, they have them after hours. So they will want to talk to a chatbot to find out when I'm in crisis, when can I talk to somebody? When is the office open? What are some resources I can use right now to deal with what I need? And the personalization is for sure a thing, but also, what's the basic infrastructure of providing information to students when they need it, where they need it. I saw an article recently in the Chronicle, and it was talking about a college that's bringing counselors into dorms. And you want to say, That's really clever. That's, that's meeting students where they are, but I would argue where they are is on their phone. So let's meet them there. And, and so my only point is yes, personalization. As the ability to use data to personalize the experience gets better, that will become increasingly important. But meanwhile, the students want to schedule meetings, students want to get a notification when they have a an important milestone, like a test or a deadline last day to pay it'd be nice to get a notification about those things. And that's not highly sophisticated, personalized information that's just using basic tech infrastructure to improve the lives of our students. 

So my final question for today, John, is, I like to ask this question, because I think it really brings it back. Because I talk a lot about technology. I love tying technology and data together, as you referenced earlier. But the third pillar that I talk about my role at the institution is about human potential. And that human potential is about our students. It's about our faculty and staff and helping every person be all that they want to be get out of the institution what they can. So a lot of technologies we talked about as a way to enhance and create progress and create a culture of care. How do we not lose our humanity with all of this technology starting to take a deeper root into our lives?

I go back to that idea that I shared earlier that from the very beginning, for me, the exact wrong way to promote technology is to push people into it, the exact right way is to create a vision of technology that's so compelling, that people will gravitate toward it. If you do that, people will see technology as a way to accomplish what they already are passionate about to solve their problems for institutions to see the grand challenges and understand how technology could help us solve them. If that's the dynamic, and if that spirit animates the way you talk about technology, it will never overshadow the people. We did a lot of work with iPass technology advising solution. And everybody you talked to you would say the technology is important, but it's the people that power it. And so to me, it's that idea of this is a technology solution, powered by people. And losing sight of that just means you're not going to do a very good technology implementation. Keeping it at the center of our gravity is what makes technology deployments work. And that also gets back to why are we here? Why do we love being at a college or university? And it's because it's making a difference in our communities. And you focus on that you could never lose sight of people at the center of that. I think ,I hope. I've been doing this for a while and I continue to believe that hope isn't unwarranted?

Absolutely. We all hope for that. John, I want to thank you so much for joining us stay on the podcast, sharing your perspective, your experiences and a vision, a compelling vision for the future. So thank you. 

Thank you. Thanks, Tom.