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Campus Technology Insider Podcast August 2022

Listen: The Revolution in Higher Education Will Be Led Through Data

Rhea Kelly: Hello, and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast. I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.

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. In this episode of the podcast, we talked 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. FYI: A couple of brief spots in this episode have mild adult language. Here's our chat.

Hi Phil, welcome to the podcast.

Phil Komarny: Hi Rhea, great to be here.

Kelly: So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your role as chief innovation officer at Maryville University, and kind of what does it mean to be a chief innovation officer in higher ed?

Komarny: Well, that's a great question. I think it's, it's different wherever, wherever you ask that question. I think innovation inside of the higher ed vertical is looked at in many different ways. A lot of people love to talk about innovation; little, a lot of people don't do it, though. I think Maryville is all about action, or thinking about how innovation can take our, take our university to that next level. So my job is really helping, you know, our teams really understand how to implement technology in more of a collective fashion, so we can all be a part of that change. And I think innovation at Maryville is all about, is all about change, is all about positive change that's going to reach more and more students. So I'm really inspired by the university, the president and the team there. So much so I left a really great job, I was, loved my work I was doing at Salesforce as their chief innovation officer, or vice president of innovation. And really saw innovation happening at Maryville, so really want to be involved in some actual change. And Maryville really 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. So really proud to be there.

Kelly: Yeah, you know, I interviewed President Lombardi for this podcast, I think last year, and man, he is really inspiring. And what you said about, you know, talking about innovation and not doing it, it kind of made me think of, we did a digital transformation survey recently. And that was one of the big complaints that people had when they're, we were, we were asking questions about, you know, how far along is your institution and its digital transformation. And there were a lot of complaints about, you know, we talk about things and we don't do them. So it's kind of a parallel, there.

Komarny: It is. I see it across, I mean, from a previous vantage point at my former employer, seeing that for many sectors. I think education and government are the two, well healthcare is another one, those three are really kind of resistant — they have like corporate immune systems to change, a lot of times, where there's a lot of things in place that are there forever, and they've been there forever, and we're never going to change them. Some things are great to do that with, but a lot of things, and those three sectors really block and stifle a lot of innovation, where it becomes innovation theater, where we think about things and we talk about it, but we actually don't affect the change. I am not interested in that type of innovation personally. And neither is Maryville. So that's why it's a nice fit, and I think we're going to do some really interesting work here in the next year or two.

Kelly: Yeah, so you mentioned your, your recent position as VP of innovation at Salesforce. So I'm curious how your experience, you know, in the technology industry, and at Salesforce in particular, is going to inform your work at Maryville.

Komarny: Oh, wow. Yeah, I'm like a lifelong learner. I've learned through every one of my positions since I, since I started my little career way back in the day. But a lot of the things that I've learned through working both not just in Salesforce, in my previous roles, both in and outside of education. So 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, in like, Robots and Pencils, a service firm that really supports a lot of educational facilities right now with mobile application development and tech stacks that really speak to user experience and things like that. So really taking all the things that I've learned and done, I see Maryville as a, almost a culmination of everything that I was able to attain — a place where, really wants to see that innovation be driven. So there's a lot of insights that I can deliver, a lot of, a lot of, from my past failures, even, not from just all the success that I've had my past. But one of the things I've learned, because, in the past is, innovation is all about timing. It's not about having the greatest idea at the greatest time. There is no "new ideas," I don't think, in this space. You're really trying to get the right idea to happen at the right moment. And I think because of what we went through with COVID — I think COVID stands for catalyst of verifiable individual data. That's what COVID means to me. And I think we're starting to see how companies like Salesforce are pushing data out to the edge, and allowing verifiable credentials and verifiable data, with a customer or with a learner, start to build new systems that engage them. So I think, again, back to timing, I think timing is everything. And right now is a perfect time to start to show those solutions. I think we've been early in the past around blockchains, and things, things like verifiable credentials, self-sovereign identity. The conversation has matured, the tech has matured, and catalyst happened around COVID, where we have to be remote, we've went, spent two years on these Zoom meetings, never being in front of each other, really trusting each other. I think 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 very great experience. But I think we can build some validity and 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 I think 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. I think we're starting to see that narrative through the media, even with Apple's latest commercial around Ellie's Data Auction, and watching that commercial from Apple start to show how data is mistreated in our world. I think we can align with solutions that really show people the other side of that, and educational institutions that want to help people understand their data. I think we have, again, timing is everything. I think we're right at the right moment at the right time right now, Rhea, with this idea.

Kelly: So I was listening to a recent interview between you and Maryville President Lombardi on his Disruptor in Chief podcast and you said, "the revolution in higher education is going to be led through data." So you've been talking a little bit about data. But could you talk more about what that means?

Komarny: Yeah, sure. Yeah, I've been, I've been a CIO in this space. So I understand how, you know, these tech stacks are built to run the operation around student information systems, learning management systems, and all the ancillary systems that kind of affect a student's journey, or the way the business is run. Okay? If you start to think about how that data is servicing the business, kind of understand it, when, and I've seen, I've seen businesses outside of the sector, in my work at Salesforce, how well they can use data to really inspire their customer with that information to have a great relationship with them. I think what we've done in the education sector with that data, is use it to power our business, and that's great — but it's very episodic. We see them as admissions, where we allow them in, and graduation, where we, where we let them out, which is very an episodic business model. We're trying to look at, how do you, 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? So how can we stack the technology up to kind of power our future vision — not preclude us from it by creating these siloed systems that allow us to run the business the way we used to, but never, again, around admitting and graduating? I think we graduate, or fire our customers, at the end of this relationship, which is — it's not seen in any other industry. Really. It's, 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. What happens after we graduate? We go to alumni relations, and we get an account in alumni relations where they start to interact with us around donations and things we can do. But wouldn't it be a great community of learning that's constantly interacting with those people that have graduated, but now enroll and really need to be upskilled across their careers? It's not like I'm going to go back and get my MBA. Why is that still the solution that we have in our world? There's ways that we can use the content and assessments that we use at Maryville or any school to really interact with people across their lifetimes — not when they're admitted and graduated, like in this little episodic moment we have with them. So how can we use tech to allow our content and our assessments to use it to create a relationship around learning that persists across the lifetime — not for four years, or five years, or six years, or two, or whatever. We want them to be installed inside of our learning community. And I don't think it's just for Maryville. I don't think it's about a university. It's about a multiversity. There's ways that we're missing a lot of people with education. I never got a college degree. I wasn't, I wasn't privileged enough to go to college when I was younger. I grew up in the military, I was an Army brat. And at the end of, end of my, my high school, the internet happened, and I was really interested in learning this internet stuff in 1985. And there was really no schools teaching it. So I just took this very, I'll say a mercenary learning pathway, and started to learn it on my own. And here's where I arrived, at this unbelievable career that I've had. But it's just through the learning that was there for me to be able to go and, and partake in, but the community that I kind of worked in around the internet, when it started, I think there's ways that we can persist those now. And Maryville and other schools that really want to help people across their lifetime, not when they're admitted into our university just to get a degree, that's the, that's the interest that I have. And that's the technology that I want to unlock for not just Maryville but for the sector. Because we have a, I think we have a moral imperative in this country 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's other things that we can do, but it's going to take a deviation from our current business model in higher ed. And schools like Maryville that are truly talking about innovation, are literally the schools that I think are, can actually come up with that. We have great, great public universities that really talk about how innovative they are, and they actually do really great things. But I think those things, those institutes are so big. I worked inside of one at University of Texas — so hard politically, to kind of turn that ship. When you have a school that's the size of Maryville, or, you know, 20,000 students, 25, 30,000 students, with an engaged faculty, you can move those. And you can actually show the world how 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.

Kelly: So are you talking about sort of being able to tap into data that might, say, help Maryville develop programs that are, you know, most needed by its alumni or things like that?
Komarny: Absolutely. I mean, think about what we do now. We create a course catalog with a bunch of curriculum in it and try to guess on what people want in their future. So here's 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. So we admit them into school and we go, they're going after a degree, that's one pathway. Another way would be to allow them to see the skills that are, they already have in their profile. So a way to ingest their, their LinkedIn profile or their résumé or whatever, and output the skills that come out of that, so we have a language to speak to the world of work with. So I think what's missing between academia and industry is a, is a Rosetta Stone. And we've been working on that Rosetta Stone with the Open Skills Network, OSN,, or some of these other things that Emsi has put into the world around open skills. So we can create that language that gives people, in their, in their learning, 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. I think 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 to understand that, you know, universities are trying their best, companies are trying their best. The problem is there's no language between the two. Skills are like a great idea, but it's been, you know, it's been tried and we've tried this many, many a time. But we're really going after these open skills taxonomies and networks that are going to be what everybody can use to kind of move into this, this new, new way to deliver education across the lifetime. I think it's going to take that little bit of language, and the way we show it to somebody in their profile, how that motivates them to take that next step or take that next leap towards who they want to become. It might not be a curricular pathway, it might be a little module or a bootcamp or some learning moment that gets you moving in that direction. I think decomposing our curricular pathways into modules or whatever you want to call that grain size, and allowing somebody's abilities, and their dream, creates an individualized pathway around skills they need to get to that dream — we've just created an individual LMS, that every step of the way is based on data, is based on their dream. So what do you want to do next, the AI can put that, or our system can put that next step in your pathway. We don't have to guess that everybody's going to go down the same pathway, because a lot of the work I did at UT was exactly that, where we put, we showed the kids, the students their, their learning journey, and showed them where their goal was, and let them go on their own journey. So it wasn't one professor on the stage teaching everybody, that professor was not a sage on the stage, but a guide on the side, and they could all move as fast or slow as they want. And the outcomes of that were so much, so dramatically better than they were in the past, the professors actually thought these kids cheated, because they thought the technology allowed them to cheat. They gave them paper-based tests and they aced them. And I knew we were on to something at that point. When you inspire somebody with their data, and put all their learning in front of them, you can't stop them from the learning. It's impossible. I think what we've done is created a lot of ways that kind of stymies that, that ability to kind of move forward, with 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, and this is where you're at, how are you going to get there is up to you. And if we can motivate those journeys on an individual basis, Rhea, I think we can get to what I call the cohort of one. And that is magical, because it's everybody, and everybody's different starting point might get to the same ending point, but we're all going to start at a different place. So 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 to take two steps that they already, they already got that, there's no reason they need to do that. 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 what it represents. As long as we're aligning our, our delivery system, our content system, and we can talk about that if you want, how we modularize it and how we skill align it, what does that look like. That's, that's part of the, part of the innovation is that.

Kelly: When you talk about putting data into the hands of students, like their own data, that kind of makes me think of the ideas behind some of the initial uses of blockchain in education. So is this like a blockchain-based system, or?

Komarny: Yeah, absolutely. I don't even want to say the word because it's irrelevant, okay? So the way we use blockchain methods to really catalog and make that data secure, and really inspire people with it. So using, 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. Okay? What we do is kick all that data, put it in a data store and say it's secure. That's what we do. Okay? What we can do now is say, Rhea, 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 being, 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, that's the promise. I think the opportunity is getting people to understand that their data is so valuable that these big tech companies have been like literally, you know, building, we humans are products in every one of these systems right now. How can we flip that script a bit, because data is that valuable? Again, back to the Apple, that Apple ad. I love that they've done that and love that people are paying attention to it. I love that my mom asked me about it. That was fascinating. I'm like, yes, they finally got some way to show people what's happening with all this information. If we can do it in a positive light and give people some positive value for, 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.

Kelly: What, what's your take on what today's students, you know, how do they conceive of their own data, and you know, this concept? Like, are they ready for this? Or, or where are we with that?

Komarny: That's a brilliant question. Two years ago, I was at Eduventures, or three years ago, I was the Eduventures keynote, me and Hunt Lambert from Harvard, we were the keynote for Eduventures event. And back then, Hunt started to speak on stage with me about, he had a dream about people understanding their data. And 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. When you, because when I asked them, I asked the head of like, I think she was from Ohio State, she was like a student representative to their senate, and I'm like, forget her name, asked her this direct question: What would you do if this data could do this? We don't, we don't even care about our data. We have no idea what what's happening with it. I think it's an educational moment right now to show that to happen. And if we can show that and show them why they want to hold it, 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. I think it's wrong. If it was right, it would have already happened. I think what we're trying to show people is, one, the world is starting to see how data is abused. I mean, it's, it's a narrative in the world right now. Secondly, how can universities use that information to really grow their enterprises? I mean, right now they're all fighting over top of the funnel, who are they going to admit. What we're talking about, there's so many people that need upskilling and reskilling and constant skilling, because our world is constantly changing because of technology, and all these other things, how can we put in a system that allows that to happen? That data is the biggest part. Now, here's the interesting part. Universities, I don't think, do what, when I was at Salesforce, we called Voice of the Customer, where you really understand how your customers interacting with the system or this company that you've created. Maryville is doing that. Maryville is really looking at that in a very deep lens, like doing experience analysis design to understand how students, how our faculty, how our constituents see our enterprise currently. Then once we have that, that is our North Star. Our, it doesn't, you know what our jobs are at Maryville? Everybody in 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, through, through that information, through data. And that's, first you 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 done enough. 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. So that becomes a way that the university can look, move forward, by, through engagement around learning, not just through our 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 be, come in back into our, into our community and inspire the next group of Saints to go on their learning journey. So why haven't we pulled that community card out, as universities, to do more than we than we have in the past? Because data now can be represented by the person. And that, that's like uber inspiring. Uber inspiration for people that I've seen, and I've interacted with. So creating a way for universities to see it, and for businesses to see it, I think, is the key. And again, that data is, is the most important thing, and inspiring people to understand that it's theirs, and we see them this way through their information. How can we motivate them to understand how to store, secure and share it themselves? And I think that's what is down the road. But as we start to interact with people and start, they're going to start to realize, yeah, my data means something to me. Unlike the kids I talked to two and a half years ago, I think the world's changed and now they're starting to understand that digital, digital's, digital first. We see this first now. It's not like knock on my door. We're Zooming usually. And how do I know that's you for real? I think there's, there's something in this digital world that's could be a lot more validatable with, with, with this type of, with this type of platform and this type of, these types of standards like verifiable credentials and things like that.

Kelly: When you say something like our only job is to recruit and retain students, what do you say to people who, who would challenge that with like, well, what about teach students?

Komarny: Yeah, that's, their job is to teach. But as they're teaching, they're recruiting and retaining them, 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. So I think it's getting people out of the mind state that thinks that, you know, 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, okay? And it wastes their time constantly. And if you look at some like really great business models like Amazon's, when you look at their customer obsession, they'll talk about taking, creating your customer's time as sacred, treating that 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 I don't, no one ever has brought up to anybody. But if we start to think of it that way, everybody recruits and retains students, doesn't matter what department you're in, you might be cutting the grass or might be the college president, you're all the same, same really job. And how do we work together to get this to happen? So I think information technology needs to be destroyed first. All those departments on a college campus, technology needs blown up 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 some, 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. And how we do that with degrees is one thing, lifelong learning is another. And there's different ways to put the stack of tech in place that can let us do both. So a lot of that story is going to happen at Maryville over the next year to 18 months. And I'd love to talk to you more about as we get this thing out the door, you can talk to faculty and staff, to hear, in students, to hear the difference in the way Maryville is taking this next step forward. And they are, they're a special place, they really are. I've told the leadership this. Just came out of a weeklong retreat with the President's Council. It's not a, it's, the way that Maryville is is led and the way that they lead it is not a normal university. It's not a normal company. And I think that's the opportunity that they have to kind of help the world see through the fog that we currently have to where we can take it.

Kelly: So do you have any advice, you know, I mean higher ed of course is notorious for being slow to change, maybe even resistance to change. So how can, you know, at a university that's not Maryville and doesn't have that culture of innovation, you know, leading their, their strategic vision, how can you foster innovation? Like when you're talking about something like blowing up IT, you know, like how, how do you help break the status quo at a, at a regular university?

Komarny: I think it's through clarity. I mean, another thing that Maryville has really done, like the same, the same type of planning that Salesforce doe. It's called V2MOM: vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures. Having the university adopt that type of methodology to kind of drive clarity and consistency with what we're doing over the next year — show me another university in a 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. And there's no confusion. Everybody understands what everybody else is doing. We all understand our view. It all flows down from the top to everybody. And we all have a concise plan of how we're moving forward. I think that's a, that's a, that's, every university should adopt that type of clarity across their divisions. That, that would really help them see through the, I would say, see through that fog that we've put in place ourselves over time. It's not done by design. It's just like, how many, how many people do this because that's the way we do things here? Like this is the form we got to fill out because it's the one form that's going to make this thing happen. When you start to work that way over time, it gets so uber complex. There's no, nobody's fault, it's just, it's just the way we've done things over time. If we stop for a second and understand in the last two years, catalyst of verifiable individual data happened, COVID. And how can we treat data differently? Look at Salesforce, as a company, bought a company called Credential Master, back in November of 2021 I think. It's a small little company, right after they bought Slack for $28 billion, they buy this little company, bring them in. What they do is allow data to move to the edge through verifiable credentials. That means anybody who's using that CRM could give the data to the customer, and create a relationship with it through a verifiable credential. That is a trust network. That's extending trust as a value proposition. I think there's going to be a lot of companies, a lot of customers of Salesforce's, they're 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 type of new method, mechanisms and measures like verifiable, verifiable data or verifiable credentials. So that's the, that's what I think is next. And I think that's what universities and schools can start to look at. It's not like, 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, student, at the center of it. If that's true, you don't surround them with the data, you give it to them. And watch, let's, let's, let's interact with them through a relationship with their data. Instead of me, you know, IT guy, store, secure, share that information, total technical debt, I can never realize it, I'm never going to get rid of it, all I'm going to do is lose sleep at night thinking my data store is gonna get hacked every week. But there's ways that we can, instead of do that, let's persist it with the learner, and now we have a relationship with them, that we can teach them about their data. We can show them how important it is. We can deliver delights at every moment, that way, instead of a store, secure and sharing the way we used to.

Kelly: I just want to, I'm curious what you think about some of the areas with the most potential for innovation in higher ed. You know, is it all about data, or are there other areas too?

Komarny: Yeah, I think, I think it's, it is about the, I think it is all about data and the way we treat it. Because what it's going to do, what I want to do at Maryville is, I think everybody is like waiting for Superman, just like waiting for this AI to magically be delivered to us, so we could pay money for it, it's going to solve all these automation problems and do all these magical things for learners. That doesn't, that's not, that's not reality. What I think I want people to realize, especially at Maryville, and we're going to do this formally, is we all create the AI through the data we collect, and understand the context of that data, and how can we, how can we all partake in that, understanding that the endpoint is this intelligence that we want to apply back to the business. But we all have to be involved in that. It's not something IT or some tech company is going to come and drop in and say, here's the magic AI that does this. There's, there's some concepts that I can't speak about right now that I will, I would love to talk to you again, that we could show you, I could show you some of these things inside of like platforms like Slack, that not only engage the learner, but inspire them through, through some of this technology, through their own information. And that's, that, I really think we have we have such, such, such a chance there to really scale this into ways we haven't in the past. So I'm really excited about it.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on the major podcast platforms or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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