The Ever-Changing Role of the CIO in Higher Education

05/03/2017 10:23 pm ET Updated May 04, 2017

Many say that the one position in education that has evolved the most in recent years is Chief Information Officer. Whether it’s K-12 or higher education, the scope of fast-paced changes in technology are breathtaking. I recently talked to Georgia Allen, CIO at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), who has experienced this advancement firsthand.

Georgia works with students of today - advanced digitally literate students who have used technology their entire lives. There are challenges in presenting EdTech to students where technically complex improvements need to appear simple. For instance, a single sign-on platform for identity management across all campus platforms. Georgia expands on ways UNC integrates multiple cloud and cloud-based platforms to allow students and faculty to access all personal campus-related data through one online identity.

Additionally, Georgia shares her remarkable 20-year journey as an EdTech professional. A job that began as Manager of Commodity Services, purchasing servers and installing operating systems, eventually morphed into a multi-faceted entrepreneurial position. Today, Georgia Allen acts as a strategic partner with students, faculty, and staff, working to leverage technology to improve education and research in new and extraordinary ways. Through it all, Allen has remained focused on the intricacies facing identity management as it relates to higher education systems.

The role of Chief Information Officer is more important and exciting than ever before and it appears to be on an upward trajectory. The interview below pulls the curtain back to give an inside look at the life and ever-changing role of a CIO in higher education.

Interview

Rod Berger: Georgia, we were talking earlier about the excitement around campus on winning the national championship.

What does it do for your role as a CIO when you get to participate in the campus and the university in a way that transcends the day-to-day that we're all trying to do in supporting students and faculty and objectives at the campus level?

Georgia Allen: Certainly as the CIO for the Kenan-Flagler Business School ─ the Dean Dome is right out our front door ─ we feel the impact of the national championship. But, more importantly, those players are student athletes and some of those student athletes are here at the business school.

It's about making sure that our education is a space of learning excellence. It’s a world where we have students coming up through K-12 who are digital natives. They've been using technology since they started kindergarten.

It's important that technology is a part of their education, but doesn't get in the way of learning excellence. It should enable our faculty in their teaching, and allow our students, who have an expectation of “anywhere at anytime,” that it’s about what education technology can bring where the traditional face-to-face has its limits.

RB: I'm talking to a number of folks in higher ed about creating opportunities through technology that are fueled by identity. Tell me about your perspective on that and how you sniff out the good from the bad. There are a lot of technologies out there that sound great in practice and theory, but when you put that layer over an entire university with all of the integrated systems, it's a different story.

How do you look at that when you think about being fueled by identity or for identity?

GA: In today’s world where we're moving towards a more nimble IT environment, and we need to deliver faster. We are leveraging cloud services, cloud platforms, and software as a service in many ways to increase the speed of delivery.

But along with that, many of those platforms come with their own identity and access. In our particular case, we are leveraging identity access management tools that allow for a single sign-on for our students across platforms.

It's important that our students have a seamless experience, whether they are in the face-to-face classroom or they are in our learning management systems with online instruction. As they move to another platform through that learning management system, the experience of their identity needs to be consistent across the experience.

We have our internal systems that we build, custom-developed applications versus the platforms, and our students experience it all seamlessly. They don't know that they have traveled from one in-house system to a cloud platform; and identity access tools allow us to do that.

RB: How do you manage expectations? I think what's really fascinating about someone in your role is understanding that you've got faculty, you've got students, and you have different generations with different expectations of the ways in which they should be interfacing with this seamless identity through technology. I would imagine that there are varied experiences that you have with the different levels, whether it's student or faculty or program chair or dean, to help not only convince, but to lay the foundation for what you know to be the best path forward.

How does that play out for you?

GA: I'll address that answer when I go back to the question you've asked before and that is: “How do we know what tools, platforms, and systems to use in an educational environment?”

With our faculty, which has truly started to embrace learning technologies in their teaching, we do a lot of pilots. We will look at new platforms or a services. Sometimes they are start-up platforms. Sometimes they fit the Gartner Magic Quadrant so they're heavy lifters.

We look at all of that and test it with a classroom and faculty member. We talk to the faculty member about their learning goals. We talk about what they want that student experience to be. We try it out. As the CIO, I bring in both this innovation experience and pilot experience, as well as the thought process of enterprise delivery.

So if it‘s successful, how do we deliver that across multiple programs, multiple degrees, and multiple courses? Is this start-up in a state in their business that they can support an enterprise rollout? Those are some of the ways in which we transition innovation into mainstream educational experience for our students.

I'm sorry I forgot the second question.

RB: [laughs] What I think is fascinating is the way in which you have to be a bit of marketer, not only with yourself but with your team. You've potentially established that this pilot has worked out. Now, you start thinking about large-scale adoption. The conversations that you have at the faculty level versus the student level can be very different but with the same goal in mind.

GA: Yes. I do a lot of shark tanking, if you will. I do a lot of explaining, creating momentum, and creating excitement. My office sits right on the hallway. I get elevator pitches all the time. The students love technology. They want to come and talk about it. We talk about “How do I transition or how do we transition the idea you're presenting into something that could be used at the business school?”

The faculty themselves are truly engaged in technology. They will invite me to come and listen to the ideas that their students are bringing in or ideas that they are bringing in. How can we leverage that? Is it something that could be leveraged across the multiple programs that we offer?

RB: Give me the state of the union. Are we at a point where you could safely say that faculty in general, even outside of UNC, are at a place where they've got buy-in and technical savvy?

They've had the professional development to get them to the point where half of the problems or challenges are not just in pitching in and getting the ideas sold, but also in technically getting people up to speed so that they can jump in have a successful implementation?

GA: I would say to you that I'm quite lucky here at the Kenan-Flagler Business School. We have a very successful online MBA program. It's the top MBA online program in the country. Our faculty is fully bought into the idea of virtual learning. We've moved past the basic “you should do it” and more into the innovation: “How do we do more with it? How do we introduce new ideas?”

For instance, we have a faculty member by the name of Steven King who is bringing in virtual reality. If we are talking about global business, how can we leverage that virtual reality experience in negotiating, in starting a business in China, or in starting a business in a different country without actually packing up our students and sending them over to that country?

We are very fortunate in our position that I don't have to do much pitching that technology can be useful anymore. They're already there. In fact, they're at the point where we are leveraging instructional designers, which is a new field. We are growing in that area for the business school, leveraging our instructional designers, leveraging multimedia, and leveraging the newer innovative ideas, like how to take those tools and bring them into the educational experience.

I'm part of the group of the top CIOs for business schools across the country. Some of them struggle with telling the faculty that virtual learning, and using technology in learning, can deliver the same educational excellence that these business schools want, need, and are proud of.

RB: Is there a lesson that can be learned from what you're working on at the university level with regards to K-12? I think that we look at some different parallels and we say, “Okay, we're doing a little bit better job of understanding that K-12 does tether to our higher-ed experience, and to college and career readiness.” In the end, these young people grow up and have very successful, rewarding, and desirable positions in the workforce.

What can we learn with technology in the same way? Are there things that would help support your role and what you're doing if K-12 was aware of what higher ed is doing and vice versa?

GA: I would actually question an assumption that you might have. I think that K-12 is, in fact, leveraging technologies more so than we give them credit. Certainly, over in the UK, they are using technologies in the K-12 experience that we in higher education can learn from.

I would say that we should be entertaining more conversations with our K-12 partners. We should be learning together. We can bring some of the research and the undergrad and graduate student experiences to K-12. There are things to learn from what K-12 is doing

RB: That's a very refreshing perspective. You're right. The narrative is that there have been a lot of mistakes along the way, and they’re being forced by policy and procedure to implement when they're not ready.

Let's close with this and talk a little bit about your role. I think what's fascinating is that with every day that passes, there's something new. There's a new world of college students and a new way in which they look at higher education and how you can play a very pivotal role in connecting the dots for them.

How do you see your role changing over the next few years and what excites you about the unknown?

GA: I've been in higher education IT leadership for 20 years, and it has changed significantly. When I first came in, we were really focused on commodity services like servers and operating systems, email, web development, and those sorts of things. It has changed dramatically. I’m needed to do less of the commodity services which has opened up more areas of entrepreneurial innovation and engagement with our faculty in their research and in their teaching.

Going forward, there is a desire to not be simply the operations or the enterprise thought leader, but to be the strategic partner with them as we move forward. A lot of the cloud services are giving us opportunities. And introducing us to these new technologies is making us figure out how we could leverage those new technologies through experimentation.

Those are new doors for us in the CIO position that I'm thrilled about. I once had a faculty member tell me that it’s important is that we see every day through our students that the unimaginable is possible. I would say that with technology, that's where we are as CIOs. It's to listen to our students and our faculty and know that we can do something that we thought five years ago was impossible.

I believe that every day.

RB: I think you sit at an amazingly, never-ending, and exciting seat at the table of higher ed. It's vital in redefining the role of what a CIO does on a day to day basis. The impact that you can have in the daily experiences of the students and the faculty is changing the narrative in a very positive way.

About Georgia Allen:

Georgia Allen is Chief Information Office and Associate Dean of IT at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. In addition to serving as chief information officer at the School, she is responsible for the strategic management of technology teams and initiatives supporting application and website development, instructional design and consultation, infrastructure and technical support. She is accountable for the fiscal and operational success of the department.

Prior to joining the School, Allen was the assistant dean of information technology at the UNC School of Government where she served as the chief technology officer and was responsible for the operational direction of the IT Division. She was also the assistant director of information technology for the university library at Florida Gulf Coast University, and she has served as a technology consultant in the corporate sector.

She holds a bachelor's degree in Communications and master's in Public Administration. She is also a Certified Government Chief Information Officer from the UNC Center for Public Technology. Georgia has been a featured speaker at several local, regional, and national conferences on topics ranging from strategic IT management to developing collaborative partnerships with faculty.

Follow Georgia Allen on Twitter

Further Reading:

Additional Reading:

Leadership making a difference in global education

EdTech in schools that help with student assessment

Venture capital interested in education funding

About Rod Berger, PsyD.

Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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