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IT Leadership >> CAO 2.0

Do you know how to unleash the learning potential locked inside the technology your institution already has, or has yet to deploy? If not, here is solid advice from five tech-savvy chief academic officers.

CAO 2.0Most of the time, technology in the classroom is a “we” or “they” issue: On one side are the people who deploy and operate the systems, on the other, the academics and staffers who use them. But, typically, on both sides, everyone is so busy trying to prepare for the next class or the next term that there’s little opportunity to ask what new technologies are really adding to students’ education.

It’s an important question, and yet one that very few people on campus are in a good position either to ask or to answer. The sole exception may be the one executive who is paid to make sure students are learning all that they should be: the chief academic officer. But evaluating the degree of success of an electronic learning program, and learning how to replicate that success, requires a special kind of CAO—someone who understands curriculum requirements and, at the same time, truly understands the technology and its potential.

Though even two or three decades into the Digital Age, there still aren’t all that many chief academic officers who fit that description, we’ve found five who’ve earned the respect of their colleagues (and in some cases, the recognition of their institutions) because of the depth of their insight about technology. Take notes!

Marshall Goodman, VP and Campus Executive Officer
University of South Florida-Lakeland

Marshall Goodman, VP and Campus Executive Officer University of South Florida-Lakeland

“Technology works best when it is
holistic, linked, and networked. But
that g'es against the architecture upon
which today’s universities are built.”


Now trying to build a bold technology program for the University of South Florida-Lakeland, Marshall Goodman served (until recently) as the provost of the hometown college of the digital revolution— San Jose State University (CA). A political scientist by training, the USF VP says he began working on quantitative models back in the days of dual-floppy drives, and maintains that technology presents challenges for any provost. “Huge challenges!” says the enthusiastic Goodman. “Huge! Gigantic!”

Surprisingly, the problems tend to be more managerial than technical, he points out. “The hurdles are built within the structure of a university, which is highly decentralized. Yet technology works best when it is holistic, linked, and networked. But that g'es against the architecture upon which today’s universities are built, which is very much silos and colleges and centers and fiefdoms,” he explains.

At other schools in which he had been involved before he moved to San Jose in 2000, drumming up support for electronic initiatives was sometimes a problem. But at San Jose State, given that the 30,000-student campus is reputed to contribute more students to Silicon Valley than any other school, professors tended to be very enthusiastic about new electronic programs.

“They knew from living in the region that you had to be very flexible around technology and—very much to their credit—they were flexible. They were also open to thinking in new out-of-thebox ways about utilizing technology both in the classroom as well as for the running of the university,” Goodman reflects. Many departments worked closely with representatives of local industry, he adds, including with such market leaders as Apple and Hewlett-Packard, which provided support to help ensure students’ technical skills were up to speed. “It was very important for us to give the students cutting-edge skills,” he explains, “and the only way to do that is to make sure you’re having very frequent discussions with the industry you’re trying to move students into.”

In fact, when it came to the utilization of new technology, he says, the only problem was with the faculty: The difficulty was not so much in getting them to use new technology as in getting them to keep the amount of innovation under control. “The challenge [at San Jose State] was corralling it,” he says. “There were so many different projects underway and so many individuals innovating that it was sometimes difficult to get our arms around things, to ensure a safe and secure environment.”

Still, Goodman tried to keep the impulse to standardize within limits. Too limited, he says, and the technology is no longer solving all the problems it needs to solve. Giving everyone on campus the same computer d'esn’t make sense either, he says, adding, “It’s as though the IT department declares, ‘We’re going to give everyone a hammer even though 30 percent of people needed screwdrivers.’ That causes morale problems that come back to hurt you in the end, and ultimately outweigh any cost savings the school might have gained.”

Bryon Lee Grigsby, Provost and Chief Operating Officer
Centenary College

Bryon Lee Grigsby, Provost and Chief Operating Officer

“At the heart of our tech effort is a
desire to replace traditional lecture-
format classes with interactive,
experiential courses that help
students learn better.”


An English medievalist might seem like an unlikely champion of technology, but Bryon Lee Grigsby says his interest dates all the way back to his graduateschool days at Loyola University Chicago. His dissertation advisor was very tech-savvy, he says, and in the early ’90s, the two worked together to produce a game designed to teach students about the Middle Ages.

These days, Grigsby is still working on the technology edge, now as provost and chief operating officer for Centenary College (NJ). He says that at the commuter college of about 2,000 students, technology is already helping students with their careers (most students attending Centenary work more than 35 hours a week) and helping them keep up with their studies: Technology—especially that used for online study—makes it much easier for students to get to classroom and study material when they need it and not just when the campus happens to be open.

At the heart of the college’s effort, according to Grigsby, is a desire to replace traditional lecture-format classes with interactive, experiential courses that help students learn better. “There’s pretty overwhelming evidence that the lecture format d'esn’t actually help the students develop any skills,” he says.

To improve those outcomes, some Centenary faculty are moving to courses where technology makes the program more interactive. “Our faculty is actively engaged in moving to courses that have high levels of student engagement in them,” he says.

In the past five years, Grigsby explains, the college has built interactive courses sequenced to fulfill the requirements of five complete degree programs. The courses are designed to function online without an instructor, he says, which helps ensure that they are also clear and useful in the conventional classroom. In addition, they are designed to interlock and reinforce each other, enhancing learning for the students taking the entire sequence of courses. Online programs range from an associate’s degree in liberal arts to an MBA. Developed in Blackboard academic software, program assignments revolve around real-world problems and teamwork, says Grigsby. “This is very different from throwing up a PowerPoint presentation or doing a podcast lecture,” Grigsby says.

Typically, the new interactive programs are designed by a cross-functional team that includes both a professor and a technology expert. “The faculty member is the content person,” he says, “but there are others who know which [technology] is best to engage students.” By working together, he says, a professor and an IT staffer are able to put together a much more compelling course than the faculty member could ever create alone.

More such conversions are on the way, according to Grigsby, who says that when the conversion process began, 10 faculty members were interested in working on the project. In the past year, that number has grown to 32 faculty members—over 50 percent of the faculty.

Next, Grigsby hopes to take the technology even further. He’s interested, for instance, in some experiments underway now at MIT in which students are given GPS-equipped handheld PDAs, and then are sent out into the field to solve engineering problems. Students could, for example, show up at a professor’s office, where they might be asked to come up with a solution for a hypothetical oil spill on campus, or to solve a history-based mystery.

Scott McNall, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
California State University-Chico

Scott McNall, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

“Whenever a new technology is being
evaluated, we ask the same three questions:
‘D'es it work?’ ‘Will it help the students?’
and ‘Will it help the faculty?’”

Scott McNall and his team at California State University-Chico are way past the “gee-whiz” stage of technology. These days, when professors announce to McNall’s technology team that they are going to put their courses online, “we don’t immediately tell them it’s a great thing,” the provost confides. “We say, ‘Why would you want to do that?’”

It’s not that he is anti-technology; McNall is reputed to be one of the more tech-savvy CAOs in the state, if not the country. But the former sociologist explains that he has learned over time it’s important that professors be very clear about what they hope a particular technology is going to do for their classes. So, when he asks “Why?” he truly wants to check out the motivation for the decision.

Then, to keep faculty on track as they develop their online courses, McNall reports that his team asks professors to work with the Rubric for Online Instruction (ROI), a set of guidelines for electronic course development his staff has developed. ROI “is based on the fundamental assumption that technology d'es not automatically allow you to teach a better class or engage the students,” the provost explains. Over and over again, his team has found that new technology cannot make up for bad teaching. “What we learned is that good teaching is good teaching, period,” he says. The same principles of effective teaching that worked before still work online, he adds, just in a different way. In particular, he says, organization still matters—perhaps even more than it did when a class consisted of a lone professor and a chalkboard.

Though on the surface his words could be taken as “old school,” in reality, McNall remains scientifically objective as he evaluates classroom technologies. “We’ve simply approached technology more from an experimental point of view than we have from a point of view which would suggest that we know exactly what we’re going to do,” he points out. To this end, for the past nine years, McNall has used a relatively small $150,000 annual grant from the state to evaluate new technologies within a particular section or department. He says this has proven to be a very effective way to conduct pilot projects of new technologies without disrupting the entire educational system.

Over time, the ongoing experimentation has led McNall to the same three questions, whenever a new technology is being evaluated: “D'es it work? Will it help the students? Will it help the faculty?” After much experimentation with the latest tools and technologies, he has some advice he’d like to offer other CAOs: Be very careful of approving proposals to build complex virtual “learning objects” such as 3D renderings of buildings or human anatomy. “Don’t do it,” he advises, “unless you’ve got a lot of money to burn up.” He learned this lesson from an ambitious project Chico conducted a few years ago—a virtual recreation of Chico’s Salisbury Cathedral, “an absolutely wonderful learning object,” he says. “You can watch the Cathedral being built, and if you’re an architectural historian, it’s absolutely superb.” But, there was a downside: The project took thousands of hours of programming time for the staff. “Unless the project is one that can be widely used across campus, or its development is supported by other campuses, you need to be really careful about heading down that road,” McNall warns.

That’s especially true now that so much good work has already been done by publishing companies, he adds. “We don’t need to invest in the creation of the technologies; our investment needs to be in faculty and staff development to allow people to use the materials that are already out there,” he explains.


  1. First decide what it is that you are trying to achieve or accomplish. Don’t try to keep up with technology for its own sake, says Russell Willis, recently of Champlain College. It’s surprising how many school technologists and administrators forget this very simple rule.
  2. Don’t assume one size fits all. Always recognize “how different the various parts of a university can be,” advises Marshall Goodman, USF-Lakeland (formerly of San Jose State).
  3. Don’t bank on cost savings. According to Scott McNall, CSU-Chico, “There are efficiencies of scale that can be achieved in selected classes but, generally, the technologies require a greater investment of time and resources.”
  4. Don’t demand converts. “What we try to do is encourage the faculty to use technology in the classroom, but by the same token, we don’t demand it, because we recognize that that’s not an appropriate way to approach this issue,” says Joseph McCormick II, Penn State-York.
  5. Cooperate with techies. Cross-functional groups of professors and IT people can develop much better courses than those created in isolation, says Bryon Grigsby, Centenary College.

Joseph McCormick II, Director of Academic Affairs
Penn State-York

Joseph McCormick is an unreformed gadget guy. Since the mid 1980s, when a colleague first plugged in an early PC, the political scientist says that he has always wanted the latest and greatest technology. Yet that personal enthusiasm for whizbang technology hasn’t led him to force Penn State-York professors into his own vision of the future.

“What we try to do is encourage the faculty to use technology in the classroom, but by the same token, we don’t demand it, because we recognize that that’s not an appropriate way to approach the issue,” he explains.

McCormick believes that there will be real cost savings for universities as technology advances. Last year, for example, the York campus overcame the lack of an organic chemistry instructor by broadcasting the lectures of a Wilkes-Barre professor’s lectures in a two-way, realtime videoconference. But as aware as he is of the potential of electronic learning via videoconferences and online courses, McCormick remains concerned about a country in which the “digital divide” was continuously addressed by ’90s policymakers, yet isn’t much anymore. He says he tries to remind professors that not all of Penn State’s commuting students have the ultra-high-speed connections that are available on campus.

“We tell our instructors, ‘You have to be sensitive to the fact that everybody in your audience may not have the technology at home for assignments, so be cautious about how much work you ask your students to do online,’” he says. The CAO takeaway from this: Technology d'es not exist in a vacuum; so, always take into account who the targeted user is, in what culture, and under what circumstances.

Russell Willis, Former Provost and Chief Academic Officer
Champlain College, Burlington, VT

Russell Willis, Former Provost and Chief Academic Officer

“The ongoing challenge for higher education is:
How can the pedagogy drive new product development?”

For technology to be truly successful in the classroom, says the college provost (in transition as of this writing), it must be all but transparent to the student and the teacher. “If you’re doing it for technology’s sake, then you’re probably not doing the right thing,” Willis advises.

A former engineer who found his way into administration after a stint at teaching ethics and philosophy (including social and ethical issues related to technology), Willis d'es not believe campus t e c h n o l o g y should lead an unexamined life. Although Champlain is ahead of the technology curve in many respects (undergraduates, for example, can major in video game design), the college tries to ensure that the purchase and deployment of new technologies is carefully examined before new products and services are introduced on campus. “The approach Champlain has taken is not to continually push the envelope, but to think of technology as a tool,” Willis says.

Rather than trying to stay on the edge, he explains, the school has tried to make sure that technologies are rolled out in a consistent way. For example, he says, most “smart” classrooms on campus are replicates of one another. Because of that, “professors who get accustomed to using a given technology in a routine way know that they can use it in pretty much any classroom setting they find themselves in.”

That d'esn’t mean Willis is not personally interested in “hot” technology; he is. But “as a CAO, the biggest issue for me is to get beyond my fascination with technology and look at the quality of instruction,” he says. “The ongoing challenge for higher education is: How can the pedagogy drive new product development? If we’re going to be using the technology, how d'es higher education steer some of this technological development so that we’re not just accepting that the technology is there to aid learning?” One of the big questions for higher ed now, in Willis’ view, is how to push technological development so it’s geared specifically toward learning and not just adapted from another industry application.

The limits are also being pushed at Champlain. To wit: Using a variety of communications tools, some classes have created online projects that are team efforts of the Burlington campus and students at the college’s Mumbai, India, campus. One recent undertaking: a discussion among business students on each campus, comparing advertising in India and in the US.

Willis says he sees many exciting possibilities ahead for technology in education, particularly if the insights into the learning process that some game developers have found can be incorporated into the curriculum through online games. “Many games have a necessary teaching aspect,” he explains. “They have to teach you the rules; they have to teach you how to manipulate the game; and I think some of those games and game designers are getting better and better at understanding how people learn and then using that in the technology.” And, he asks, “How much better would higher education be if that were an essential component of new product development?”

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