Brown University’s CIO Touts the Digital Classroom

Brown University has a stated goal to be the leader in appropriate use of technology among its peers and beyond. Ravi Pendse serves as the vice president and CIO of Brown University, and in that role, it is his responsibility to enact that vision. He is also a Professor of Practice in Computer Science and Engineering, and therefore is the rare CIO who also teaches students. As he tells CIO Insight contributor, Peter High, he is a technology evangelist through the multiple hats that he wears.


Peter High: Ravi, please describe your role as CIO of Brown University.

Ravi Pendse: I have the privilege and honor to serve as the vice president and Chief Information Officer at Brown University. My areas of responsibility include academic computing, network and telecommunications services, infrastructure services, enterprise applications, desktop and support services, and information security. I also oversee research computing which encompasses high performance computing, a state-of-the-art visualization CAVE, and data science practice. It is our goal to make Brown University the leader in appropriate use of technology among its peers and beyond.

While I have a strong team of 225 reporting to me, I really see myself as working for them. I ensure that they feel empowered to do their job by setting the vision, creating opportunities, assisting them when needed, and getting out of their way when not needed. In addition to our centralized IT staff, Brown has around 160 additional IT staff who work for different units and schools. Some of these positions have dotted reporting lines to me. Overall, yes, we have a federated model. We work collaboratively and strive to add value.

High: You are also a Professor of Practice in Computer Science and Engineering. How much time do you spend teaching versus your role as CIO?

Pendse: I am very passionate about teaching and sharing ideas. Typically, I teach one class every year, advise both graduate and undergraduate students, and conduct research. While most of my time is spent being the technology evangelist, I find time to be in the class and with students. I guess sleep is optional when you are a CIO and a passionate teacher.

High: You have worked extensively at Brown and at Wichita State before in the design of the digital classroom. Please describe some of your thinking relative to that topic.

Pendse: I believe that classroom design should involve partnership and collaboration with faculty, students and applicable staff members. Staff such as instructional designers and media support professionals should play a key role in this process. It is very important to partner with facilities management to enable a collaborative classroom. In my opinion, flexible learning spaces should replace all bolted down chairs and tables. Of course, this means a smaller capacity classroom. Research shows that proper classroom configuration, mood lighting, just-in-time technology, and a well-trained instructor will result in an incredibly conducive learning environment. Technology also powers anytime, anyplace learning; one should always ask the question “If you want to go to class, is a room (classroom) really necessary?” Thoughtful collaboration between all stakeholders will provide an inviting classroom to empower learning.

High: How does your work as a professor inform your insights as a CIO?

Pendse: Technology is a tool. In some classroom situations, it is very appropriate, while in others, the good old chalkboard may be all that is needed. Being a Professor allows me to see both sides of academia. I understand the value of technology but I also appreciate how technology can get in the way. Something as simple as ensuring that the look and feel of technology and interfaces is identical in different classrooms can make an impact. As a faculty member, when I step into the classroom, I don’t need to think about what the chalkboard might look like. It looks the same everywhere, the user interface is identical, and the writing equipment does not change. I want academic technology to give me the same feeling. Its presence should enhance teaching and not get in the way of sharing ideas.

High: What other strategic imperatives are you and your colleagues pursuing currently?

Pendse: We would like Brown University to be a technology leader among its peers and beyond. What does that mean? It means that anytime an institution of higher education asks the question “Who uses technology most appropriately?” Brown University should be at the top of that list. We have our work cut out for us, as there are so many innovative leaders who are driving change in many great institutions. At Brown, we have taken leadership by exploring digital strategy everywhere. We were one of the first institutions to move our HR and Finance systems to the cloud. Every time we consider deploying an application, we have a “cloud first” strategy. We also want to support movement towards mobile first and emphasize screen size flexibility with practices like responsive design.

We are also driving initiatives to think about “career security” instead of “job security.” This is very empowering to my team. Facing change, which is constant in our field, is not a threat but an opportunity to learn new skills.

We have a laser focus on customer service (yes, I used the word “customer”?) and an emphasis on Collaboration (C), Innovation (I), and Service Excellence (S). My organization Computing and Information Services (CIS) excels in all these aspects.

High: You also have an expansive security program. What are some of the major tenets of security in your mind?

Pendse: Cyber-security is one area that keeps me awake at night. We need to be strategic and operational. We need to ensure that everyone in our organization thinks about security and must take both a top-down and bottom-up approach. We all need to recognize that when it comes to an organization being hacked, it is not a matter of if but when. It takes a village (an entire organization) to keep us safe. In case of a security incident, it does take an entire organization to respond. When developing a comprehensive security posture, one needs to keep this fact in mind and engage all stakeholders. Our security is only as good as our weakest link. Often times, our weakest link is all of us, “people.” Along with appropriate tools and technology, a well-trained security staff is critical, so it’s crucial to ensure that staff have access to excellent cyber-security programs and are encouraged to pursue them. We need both cyber-warriors and cyber-leaders. Brown University just introduced an Executive Master in Cybersecurity to develop cyber-leaders. As our world gets hyper-connected with Internet of things, more than 50 billion devices will be connected by 2020, and the need for cyber-professionals will continue to skyrocket.

High: Do you worry about security getting to the point of impeding innovation?

Pendse: While we work hard to protect ourselves in our hyper-connected environment by using excellent tools, hiring talented and creative staff, providing regular training, and communicating frequently, we have to be ready for all possibilities. We need playbooks for different situations, playbooks that are used for regular training and not just dusted off when we need them.

There is always a balance between security and innovation. We work closely with the Brown community to provide the best possible security without impeding innovation. In today’s technology landscape, we need to have a Bring Your Own Thing (BYOT) mentality; Internet connected “things” are everywhere. We have opportunities to innovate in the security space by partnering with my faculty colleagues and students in Computer Science and other departments. In this case, with the right mindset, we can have our cake (security) and eat it too (innovation).

High: What role do you think CIOs more broadly should have in entrepreneurship?

Pendse: I’ve been very lucky to have opportunities to work with some of the most amazing students at Brown University. As part of its world-renowned open curriculum, Brown challenges students to take courses outside of their major (concentration). This variety enables interdisciplinary ideas to flourish. Innovation comes from a diversity of ideas, a diversity of life experiences, and the ability to freely share these ideas and experiences. Brown culture is a vehicle that empowers ideas, often resulting in many entrepreneurial initiatives. Brown students also want to do good in the world; they believe in social entrepreneurship.

One recent student who I had chance to work with for a short time had been mentored by my faculty colleagues prior to my arrival at Brown. I learned more from him than I could ever teach him. He started an organization called Learn Fresh, creating a game that teaches math skills using the game of basketball. I am working with several groups this semester as they try to develop ideas in the Internet of things world. I always like to say, “if you can observe something, chances are you can measure it, and if you can measure it, you can change it to enhance human experience.” Internet of things and associated sensors give us that power to enhance human life.

Many of these ideas are powered by technology. I have no doubt that the next Google or Facebook or Cisco will come out of Brown in Providence, Rhode Island. CIOs can play a key role in assisting in entrepreneurial initiatives since almost every modern business is a digital business, requiring significant technology support. As CIOs, we need to be willing to embrace innovative entrepreneurial ideas and be willing to take calculated risks. We also have resources, both technical and financial, that we can use in partnership with our faculty colleagues to encourage and support entrepreneurship. As technology leaders, I believe that it is our responsibility to support innovation, nurture entrepreneurship, and hopefully assist in creation of entrepreneurs who are also world leaders.

Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. He speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.

Latest Articles