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Creating a Digitally Enabled University

Georgia State's chief innovation officer is tackling the flipped classroom, learning analytics, digital literacy and more.

The title "chief innovation officer" is still much more common in the private sector than in higher education, but at some universities the "I" in CIO is starting to stand for both innovation and information.

Phil Ventimiglia, who became Georgia State University's chief innovation officer two years ago, said that before he took the job he carefully evaluated the university's readiness to create such a role. "I have had the experience of trying to be that one person leading the charge and breaking through the wall and usually you just get bloody," he said. But after meeting with campus executives, he was convinced that Georgia State's culture was open to innovation and was "struggling with the how, not the what."

Ventimiglia arrived on Georgia State's downtown Atlanta campus two years ago from NCR Corp., where he had served as vice president for innovation and new product development and led a global team that acted as an innovation catalyst and development accelerator.

Speaking during a Sept. 29 Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by futurist Bryan Alexander, Ventimiglia explained why Georgia State sought a top innovation executive. "There was recognition at the senior level that technology was starting to impact the university in a strategic way," he said. University leaders decided to craft a cabinet-level position that has all the traditional responsibilities of a CIO but added the strategic visionary aspect. 

Because it was a new position, Ventimiglia had to define many of the job aspects himself as he learned. The university created a Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, which reports to Ventimiglia and the vice provost for academic affairs. "You have to have shared responsibility as you drive change," he said. "We had to bring in folks from other parts of university. That was a purposeful evolution."

His overall charter is to create the digitally enabled university. That encompasses many areas, including flipping the classroom, tapping into learning analytics, and embedding digital literacy into the core curriculum.

The center he leads has about 150 full-time staffers, but Ventimiglia said the goal is to be able to bring together people from many disciplines to create solutions such as new learning spaces.

Ventimiglia said his organization is now starting to be at the table anytime somebody on campus is talking about doing something new, such as working with open educational resources.

"We want to make sure we are focused on the outcomes, not the inputs," he said. "Sometimes there has been a focus on devices —let's put devices in student hands. There was hoopla around buying iPads as though the students were going to put them under their pillows and wake up smarter. We are changing the process to think like a startup and do a series of experiments and prove out the model and then scale it up."

The university has launched a staff innovator program, which includes a self-paced online program for staff and faculty to learn the process of ideation and marketing new ideas. That is being connected to a daylong innovation competition, where winners will receive resources to develop those ideas.

On the administrative side, Ventimiglia said the university has been targeting the student communications process, which is typically disconnected, with various academic units e-mailing students in an uncoordinated, shotgun-blast fashion. Georgia State has started leveraging Salesforce's Marketing Cloud product to link with the Banner student information system, gather more data and understand student preferences around messaging. It has been piloted across departments and will be managed at the enterprise level.

On the academic side, there has been a strong push to embed digital literacy across the curriculum. The effort started with 250 freshmen in the Honors College and is now expanding across the university, including the business school.

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Ventimiglia co-authored an article on digital literacy with Georgia State English professor George Pullman.

Ventimiglia was asked if there was any pushback from faculty at Georgia State about including digital literacy in courses. He said there was some reluctance, but that he held conversations with faculty to try to work through the issues. For instance, although historians did their own research using online databases and other digital tools, they were not always comfortable teaching students about the digital aspects of research. They might be concerned that not all students had devices or they themselves were not adept at teaching with the technology. "We worked to take those barriers away," Ventimiglia said. The university tried giving devices to 250 students in a pilot cohort and provided "concierge-level" instructional design and tech support to faculty. "We put that big net under you so you can't fall," he said. "It changes the conversation."

In just two years, Ventimiglia and his team have tackled projects ranging from learning spaces and instructional design of hybrid courses to digital literacy and the use of analytics to create an "Amazon-like" experience for students. At the same time, he is charged with meeting traditional technology and cybersecurity requirements. "We have to create a secure, efficient environment and at the same time drive innovation and conceptualize the functions of the university. We are developing an integrated set of resources to help us redesign the paradigm of education."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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