The CIO of Columbia University's Teachers College helps put the right infrastructure in place to ensure the school is prepared for the future.
By D.P. Morrissey
With continued growth at Teachers College, Columbia University's Graduate School of Education, Health and Psychology, the school's IT department realized it had a problem: Its infrastructure wasn't up to the task of handling the expanding needs of mobile connectivity, personal devices and overall bandwidth. Uprading the school's infrastructure was no simple task, but it was an essential one, according to Naveed Husain, CIO for Teachers College. Husain said giving students dependable access via their own mobile devices both in the classroom and around campus was the key driver behind the college's decision to replace its legacy wireless equipment and update the network. In this interview with CIO Insight, Husain explains what the classroom of the future will look like, why a balance of in-classroom teaching and learning with the tech-based tools of today is essential and where the ever-evolving world of technology is taking higher education.
CIO Insight: We've come to expect that our devices will be able to connect to a network without missing a beat, whether at home, at work or on campus. What happens when a connection isn't there when needed?
Naveed Husain: That's a good question to ask our students! There is still an issue with smartphones transitioning from WiFi to LTE and this is not as smooth as it could be. You have to turn off the WiFi and run exclusively on LTE for the best performance. So there is the elegance portion, but many learn to adapt and then there are some who just complain. Not being able to connect to WiFi these days is like being in a desert on a horse with no name. Seriously, unacceptable. When a company hosts a conference with executives at a hotel and the hotel does not provide acceptable WiFi speeds, the participants do not talk about the awesome sessions, they talk about how they could not connect to the WiFi (Internet) to send their emails. Access to network and connectivity is like access to water now. It's no longer a project-it's how we connect to the rest of the world. When it's not there: It tarnishes the image of the host and host company.
CIO Insight: Is it difficult keeping all systems up and running at Teachers College?
Husain:Technology is not easy. There's a perception in the world of smartphones that everything works and apps are easy to deploy elegantly for 99 cents. It's true that some apps are easy and compared to the COBOL programming of the 1980s, app development is certainly much simpler now, but it's still a difficult task to achieve "elegance" in applications beyond the first release and scale beyond an original deployment.
At Teachers College, we are in build mode and are constantly working on our environment. Much like a utility company, many days we are digging holes, blocking the streets and causing discomfort and we know that after we are done, the customers will receive a more secure, unified, reliable and functional experience. For a long time, Teachers College did not have the technology, policies or processes that have become common in many colleges across the country. Now the College has a laser focus on technology, digital teaching and learning and tech for research. To get us there from where we were a year ago is a huge challenge with the decommissioning of older systems and re-architecting and implementing a new foundation. To achieve this we have: a) partnered with manufacturers and service providers who truly believe in our vision and are helping us build this new world of higher education; b) worked to bring our internal staff up-to-date because many of them worked on legacy infrastructure and don't have the skill set to deploy and maintain the new technology. They are now having to "leapfrog" past what is already deployed in many of our peer colleges and move beyond this to where we want to be.
CIO Insight: I understand Teachers College is creating a "classroom of the future." How is this progressing?
Husain: We have completed the first prototype classroom and the faculty have provided considerable feedback. We are examining lessons learned and determining how we scale the one classroom to move beyond Phase 0/1 to where we will build six new classrooms that are scheduled in the fall for Phase 1a. These classrooms will incorporate Aruba's MyClass App in the future with location awareness and multiple screens and flexibility for clustered teaching to provide both in-class and e-class support. The eventual goal is to have the classroom know the faculty and the class scheduled and adjusted according to the day's curriculum. Once we accomplish this goal, we will look to obtain the funding to finish the remaining 52 classrooms.
CIO Insight: Is there a place in today's world for a university that doesn't make digital initiatives a core focus?
Husain: I used to think that once digital was in place, universities wouldn't need the brick and mortar, but I recognize now that balance is critical - a balance of in-classroom teaching and learning while leveraging the tools available today. Security and sound infrastructure are key to providing this balance.
We can now profile our services to our clients and provide them tailored experiences that are as fluid as turning on the light when someone walks into a room. We need to get to a world where the classroom extends to the Internet and back based on purpose, not because we are forcing an online class but simply because that is where the content creation and distribution makes the most sense.
So, yes, digital initiatives must be a focus, but we still need to incorporate the traditional things that make us human. Instead of asking if it makes sense, we should ask how we keep our traditions while leveraging the future.
CIO Insight: Higher education often involves mass amounts of research data. How have you prepared to keep this data flowing correctly as it's moved, shared and stored?
Husain: Data is critical, but all of the people who will help us with the data interpretation process - the Data Scientists - will be even more critical in the future. Teachers College is big on "Big Data". We have many notable faculty who are gathering data on student engagement and gun violence in schools, for example. They are part of a contingent of amazing faculty that will change our education system and the way our children learn.
We are still doing traditional work with the College's Enterprise Data Warehouse to study things like the links from admissions process to retention to student performance.
As data mass grows we need ways to expand storage economically while maintaining security needs to meet HIPAA and FERPA standards. To account for this, we are expanding local storage and buying additional pooled cloud storage.
CIO Insight: Any thoughts on what the next tech revolution will be?
Husain: I think the world needs to think about all of this technology and how it is now impacting civil liberties and our willingness to give up the tenants of the bill of rights and the constitution of the United States for convenience. We need to be truly engaged in the cyber decisions our lawmakers are making without consideration to the long-term impact on the Republic. From my perspective, we need to create a balance between what is possible and how it is implemented. We must not compromise our freedoms and humanity to our fears. I think the technology companies like Apple and HPE will help direct the limitations of our lawmakers as did Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Edison and other greats who moved us in our darkest hours.
As for future technologies, I think we're moving toward virtual reality becoming full immersion so it is as if you are there and to the participants on the other side there is a virtual "you". Virtualization will become the delivery mechanism to software as a service for many higher education institutions (aka VDI). Immersion technology like Google, Box and SPAN/Prysm technology for collaboration will disrupt technologies like WebEx and Google Hangouts. Among other key trends I foresee:
*The network will personalize the user experience.
*Cloud Services will continue to provide agility and market readiness.
*Data Sprawl will become a huge problem that will need to truly be contended with.
*Data Science will no longer be a peripheral word but a formalized practice.
*Cyber warfare and terrorism will become a serious concern. Currently, I believe people view it similar to how they view global warming.
*Power grids will need to be upgraded as there becomes a need for power efficiency.
*Internet of things (IoT) has already emerged but now people who never thought of technology as part of their jobs will become dependent on the sensors, scanners and alerts and these systems will become as easy to use as consumerized ITunes apps.
*There will be world disasters caused by global warming, rise of the water table, reduction of potable water and the new wars will be about sustenance rather than oil. Therefore, technology that alleviates the impact of these threats will become crucial.