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Podcast Remix

Driving Innovation in Higher Ed Through Data

Maryville University is working to put data at the heart of the student experience — not just for the traditional four-year degree pathway, but to inspire a lifelong-learning journey.


Hear the full interview with Phil Komarny in season 3, episode 10 of the Campus Technology Insider podcast: "The Revolution in Higher Education Will Be Led Through Data."

It's one thing to talk about innovation, but another thing to actually make it happen. Driving actual change is all about timing — having the right idea at the right moment, according to Phil Komarny, chief innovation officer at an institution known for innovation: Maryville University. And that moment is now: Phil sees COVID as a catalyst for utilizing data to revolutionize higher education and the student experience. Here, we talk about the potential of verifiable credentials, why graduation should not be the end of a student's learning journey, helping students make the most of their own data, and more. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Campus Technology: What does it mean to be a chief innovation officer in higher ed?

Phil Komarny: Innovation inside of the higher ed vertical is looked at in many different ways. A lot of people love to talk about innovation, but a lot of people don't do it. Maryville is all about action, or thinking about how innovation can take our university to that next level. So my job is helping our teams understand how to implement technology in more of a collective fashion, so we can all be a part of that change.

I'm really inspired by the university, by the president and the team there. So much so I left a really great job — I loved the work I was doing at Salesforce as their vice president of innovation. I really saw innovation happening at Maryville, and I really wanted to be involved in some actual change. Maryville sees innovation as change, not as theater. So they want to see things actually happen — not just talk about all this innovation and all this work we may or may not be doing, but really put something into the world that can reach a lot more people.

One of the things I've learned is innovation is all about timing. It's not about having the greatest idea at the greatest time. There are no "new ideas" in this space. You're really trying to get the right idea to happen at the right moment.

college student working on computer

CT: How is your experience in the technology industry, and at Salesforce in particular, going to inform your work at Maryville?

Komarny: I'm a lifelong learner: I've learned through every one of my positions since I started my little career way back in the day. I've had the privilege of working at pretty high levels inside of education — chief digital officer at the University of Texas — and then also outside of education, for example at Robots and Pencils, a service firm that supports a lot of educational facilities with mobile application development and tech stacks that really speak to user experience. Taking all the things that I've learned and done, I see Maryville as almost a culmination of everything that I was able to attain — a place that really wants to see innovation be driven.

I think because of what we went through with COVID — to me, COVID stands for catalyst of verifiable individual data — we're starting to see how companies like Salesforce are pushing data out to the edge, and utilizing verifiable credentials and verifiable data to build new systems that engage a customer or a learner. Timing is everything, and right now is a perfect time to start to show those solutions. We've been early in the past around blockchains and things like verifiable credentials and self-sovereign identity. The conversation has matured, the tech has matured, and a catalyst happened around COVID — where we had to be remote, we spent two years on these Zoom meetings, never being in front of each other, but really trusting each other. We've learned a lot in the last two years about digital, and how this can be done at a distance and can still be a great experience. And I think we can build some validation mechanisms inside of that experience, to make it even better, to make it even more trusted, to make people understand their data even more. So universities have a great opportunity here in the next two to five years to really help everybody understand how data has controlled us, and how data can power our futures.

CT: In a recent interview between you and Maryville President Mark Lombardi on his Disruptor in Chief podcast, you said, "The revolution in higher education is going to be led through data." Could you talk more about what that means?

Komarny: In my work at Salesforce, I've seen how well they can use data to really inspire their customer to have a great relationship with them. In the education sector, we use that data to power our business, and that's great — but it's very episodic. We see students as admissions, where we allow them in, and graduation, where we let them out, which is an episodic business model. We graduate, or fire, our customers at the end of this relationship — it's not seen in any other industry. Graduation is a ceremony that should be celebrated. There's nothing wrong with that degree, and that's really a celebratory moment. But it should be continuous.

We're trying to look at, how do you learn across a lifetime? Four years and out is not enough anymore. How can we engage with people to allow them to understand the skills they have, and also what's needed in the world, around a lifelong-learning journey? How can we stack the technology up to power our future vision? Wouldn't it be great to have a community of learning that's constantly interacting with those people who have graduated, but now need to be upskilled across their careers? How can we use tech to create a relationship around learning that persists across the lifetime?

We have a moral imperative to really look at what's needed to move our country forward. And degrees are great, but they're not really meeting the bill right now. There are other things that we can do, but it's going to take a deviation from our current business model in higher ed. This can get a lot better, a lot more inclusive, a lot more equal for a lot of people, if we just think about admissions and graduation a bit differently.

CT: Are you talking about being able to tap into data that might, say, help Maryville develop programs that are most needed by its alumni?

Komarny: Absolutely. Think about what we do now. We create a course catalog with a bunch of curricula in it and try to guess what people want in their future. Here are our degrees, this is the curriculum we're going to have, you're going to be a computer science major, here's a computer science degree. That all works; there's nothing wrong with that. What I'm saying is that same content can be broken up into very small modules, and can be aligned to somebody's learning pathway.

We admit students into school and they're going after a degree — that's one pathway. Another way would be to allow them to see the skills that they already have in their profile — ingest their LinkedIn profile or their résumé and output the skills that come out of that, so we have a language to speak to the world of work with. What's missing between academia and industry is a Rosetta Stone. And we've been working on that Rosetta Stone with the Open Skills Network or some of the things that Emsi [now Lightcast] has put into the world around open skills. So we can create that language that gives people a representation of what they're learning and what's valuable in the world today, and what employers are going to look at and ask for. If we can build that language, or that Rosetta Stone, we can inspire not only learners, we can inspire universities and companies to start to come together. We're really going after these open skills taxonomies and networks that are going to be what everybody can use to move into this new way to deliver education across the lifetime.

It's that little bit of language, and the way we show it to somebody in their profile, and how that motivates them to take that next step toward who they want to become. It might not be a curricular pathway; it might be a module or a bootcamp or some learning moment that gets you moving in that direction. By decomposing our curricular pathways into modules, and allowing somebody's abilities, and their dream, to create an individualized pathway around skills they need to get to that dream — we've just created an individual LMS. Every step of the way is based on data, is based on their dream. What do you want to do next? The AI can put that next step in your pathway.

When you inspire somebody with their data, and put all their learning in front of them, you can't stop them from learning. It's impossible. I think what we've done is created a lot of ways that stymie that ability to move forward — course catalogs and curricula and things like that. But showing people, "This is the world of knowledge that you need to know, here's your goal, this is where you're at, and how you are going to get there is up to you" — if we can motivate those journeys on an individual basis, we can get to what I call the cohort of one. And that is magical, because it's everybody, and everybody might get to the same ending point, but we're all going to start at a different place. Why can't we as educators take that into account, and just spend a bit more time to put somebody on a journey that doesn't bore them, or doesn't waste their time or money? Let's get them to that next thing that motivates them to keep going, keep going, keep learning. That's what I think data can do for us in this space — individuals' data and what it represents.

CT: Putting data into the hands of students is reminiscent of the ideas behind some of the initial uses of blockchain in education. So is this a blockchain-based system?

Komarny: Yeah, absolutely. I don't even want to say the word because it's irrelevant. Just saying blockchain or Bitcoin or all that, it's not about that. It's about how that mechanism allows trust to persist with the data when it's transient. What we can do now is say, "This is your data, there's a way to make it validated with us, you hold it, and we will ask you for it if we need it." I think the world is screaming for a new way to relate to a business through their data without it being stolen and scraped and mismanaged and all the bad words that we're seeing in the world. How can we create a relationship by saying, "This is you. This is how the university sees you. This is how we want to develop you. All you got to do is share that data with us and we can put you on a journey that's going to get you into a career." That's the promise. If we can do it in a positive light and give people some positive value for sharing that information with us, that's a relationship with data that I want to unlock for folks and show them how valuable it is.

CT: What's your take on how today's students conceive of their own data?

Komarny: That's a brilliant question. Two or three years ago, at the Eduventures Summit, I was speaking as a keynote with Hunt Lambert from Harvard. Hunt started to speak on stage with me about having a dream about people understanding their data — that was his dream. And it was so funny: I thought every student in the world would glom on to that and say, "Yes, we need our data." You know what happened? They don't give a shit about their data. None of them. I asked a student from Ohio State, a student representative to their senate, this direct question: "What would you do if this data could do this?" [Her response:] "We don't even care about our data. We have no idea what's happening with it."

I think it's an educational moment right now. It's not, "Hey, you need to have all these badges and all this crap in your wallet. All of that, all that wording, all that language is wrong. If it was right, it would have already happened. There are so many people who need upskilling and reskilling and constant skilling, because our world is constantly changing — how can we put in a system that allows that to happen? Data is the biggest part.

When I was at Salesforce, we had something called Voice of the Customer, where you really understand how your customers are interacting with the system or this company that you've created. Maryville is really looking at that with a very deep lens, doing experience analysis design to understand how students, how our faculty, how our constituents see our enterprise. Then once we have that, that is our North Star. You know what our jobs are at Maryville? Everybody at Maryville, we do two things: recruit and retain students. That's it. Doesn't matter what we do, we recruit and retain students. Because everybody is starting to understand that departments and divisions have only got us to this point in education. Maryville, everybody, we've got to this level of education with our current model. If we start to think about people and their information differently, and how we can inspire them through learning, we can take it to the next level through that information, through data. And first you've got to understand their journey and understand what works and what doesn't. So I commend Maryville for doing that deep work. That's not easy.

But once that's there, it's not done. That's an active map that you're constantly delivering delight to. These are our customers; we're constantly delighting them. What do they want next? That becomes a way that the university can move forward, through engagement around learning — not just through degree learning, but through lifelong learning. How can we open up a relationship with our alumni that's around learning, not around donations? We want them to come in back into our community and inspire the next group of Saints to go on their learning journey.

CT: When you say something like, "Our only job is to recruit and retain students," what do you say to people who would challenge that with, "Well, what about teach students?"

Komarny: Their job is to teach. But as they're teaching, they're recruiting and retaining students, because it's part of our community. It's not like you're here to do this one thing. You might be cutting the grass in the quad — your job is to recruit and retain students. What you're doing is helping with that.

We have these so-called divisions and departments — you've heard it all, like admissions, enrollment, all this stuff. And what happens is the student gets passed between those departments, and it wastes their time constantly. If you look at really great business models like Amazon's, when you look at their customer obsession, they'll talk about treating your customer's time as sacred. Talk to a bunch of administrators at a college and ask them how sacred they think students' time is. That's something no one ever has brought up to anybody. But if we start to think of it that way, everybody recruits and retains students, it doesn't matter what department you're in, you might be cutting the grass or might be the college president, you're all doing the same job. How do we work together to get this to happen?

I think Information Technology needs to be destroyed first. And it needs to change to something like Collective Technology, not Information Technology. You want the organization to own the technological vision — you don't want it to be delivered from the basement of the library. Nine times out of 10, that's where IT is located. So if you think of it that way, you engage the business differently around data, because we're all going to share it, we're all going to see it, and we're all going to use it to drive the business forward to recruit and retain students.

CT: Higher ed of course is notorious for being slow to change, maybe even resistant to change. So how can you break the status quo at a university that's not Maryville and doesn't have that culture of innovation leading its strategic vision?

Komarny: I think it's through clarity. Maryville has done the same type of planning that Salesforce does. It's called V2MOM: vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures. Having the university adopt that type of methodology to drive clarity and consistency with what we're doing over the next year — show me another university in the world that's doing that. I don't know of one and I've worked at Salesforce. They've been doing it for 20 years. That's why they're a $30 billion company — because they drive clarity. There's no confusion. Everybody understands what everybody else is doing. It all flows down from the top to everybody, and we all have a concise plan of how we're moving forward. Every university should adopt that type of clarity across their divisions.

Salesforce bought a company called Credential Master back in November of 2021. What they do is allow data to move to the edge through verifiable credentials. That means anybody who's using that CRM can give the data to the customer, and create a relationship with the data through a verifiable credential. That is a trust network. That's extending trust as a value proposition. I think there are going to be a lot of companies that are going to see ways to deploy trust in their business models. Universities should jump all over that, because that is a trusted relationship they have with these students, but it gives them a better way to expose that trust, through these types of new mechanisms and measures like verifiable data or verifiable credentials. That's what I think is next. That's what universities and schools can start to look at.

We're deviating from the way we used to create systems. And we want to put that learner, or that customer, or whatever you want to call them, at the center of it. If that's true, you don't surround them with the data, you give it to them. And let's interact with them through a relationship with their data. We can teach them about their data. We can show them how important it is. We can deliver delights at every moment.

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