Digital Transformation Expert Series: Paige Francis, Associate CIO, U. of Arkansas

In our Digital Transformation Expert Practitioner interview series, we spend a few minutes talking with individuals who are hands-on in exploring opportunities and dealing with challenges imposed by emerging digital technologies. We recently spoke with Paige Francis, who serves as Associate CIO at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville, about digital transformation in higher education. Paige is focused on shaping the University’s digital landscape and preparing it for today and where it plans to be tomorrow. Prior to her current role, Paige was CIO at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

Eugene Signorini: Paige, I know you’ve spent a lot of time driving technology initiatives at the university level, both in your current role at the University of Arkansas, and before that at Fairfield. Can you talk a bit about how digital technology needs of students have evolved over the past few years?
Paige Francis: Evolution in general continues down the “more, better, faster, stronger” path. However, I’ve pivoted environments in the past year and the change in focus has certainly been interesting. At Fairfield University, I was continually combating this perception that students were wanting versus needing technology. Our students averaged six to eight devices each, all expecting concurrent connectivity. And if we didn’t supply or support their latest technologies you could throw a rock and hit three other schools that would. So, the want versus need debate carried little weight. It was a “get ‘r done” scenario. Physically, classrooms were sleeker, more plug-and-play and we had a continuous stream of innovative classroom projects in the queue. Thus, the benefit of a small sailboat in transformation.

I moved to a massive ship last July. My focus is quite different at the University of Arkansas. Our classrooms are more traditional and there is a true drive for unattained consistency - we’re getting there! - alongside a visionary dream of more plug-and-play environments. Of course, I want all our students to experience competitive technology and our faculty to be afforded a comfort level in playing with tech in the classroom, but here the discussion of the need is a legitimate one. While driving for smart change, I worry about students’ actual access outside the classroom, away from campus. I worry about our students who go home for spring break, to the Delta region of Arkansas, or similar, and have the technology in their hands but can’t access school resources due to bandwidth restrictions in their hometowns. Or students that might be restricted by an older model tablet or smartphone in a low-bandwidth environment. So yes, while we define our vision and long-term strategy to encompass innovation, we also need to level the playing field for our students – now. For this effort, a virtualized mobile desktop environment will be crucial and we’ve started to baby step into that direction by deploying basic virtual desktop infrastructure [VDI] in our labs. Access everywhere from any old device - literally - as long as it has a very basic internet connection is coming. All powerful curriculum software that tends to drag and run sluggishly on personal devices? No more in the virtualized arena. The heavy lifting will take place on our servers, not on the student device. Seemingly cost-neutral, but with different funding models likely to spook those holding the purse strings, we are about to embark on true transformation and meeting our students where they are, quite literally. So, while all the technologies are similar-to-same across various student landscapes, the drivers can be very, very different and absolutely important.

ES: What about faculty? Is there a general willingness to embrace new digital technology for engaging students and evolving teaching approaches? Or is there some apprehension?
PF: Trying to use new technology in a classroom sounds like a great idea until that one time nothing works and you’re flailing in front of 300 staring students. Here is what I know: If we supply consistent training, reliable support and can help answer the “why” for technology in a classroom, faculty will absolutely be adventurous with just about any device out there. There was a time in history where IT departments pushed technology use in the classroom simply for the sake of technology use. Using technology to complement the teaching and learning experience is a highly personalized process that requires a bit of play to see what works and what doesn’t for the individual. That should be the focus: getting the tech in faculty members’ hands and allowing them to see what works and what doesn’t. Another real shortcoming for tech use in the classroom seems to be a lack of thoughtful, consistent training and introduction to best practice on the technology itself. At the University of Arkansas, we are absolutely including that need in our long-term vision. And while our seemingly decentralized environment gets closer and closer every day through collaboration, we are on the cusp on implementing a cross-campus classroom technology support pilot that will likely be pivotal in our drive to exceed our faculty and student classroom experience expectations.

ES:Given some of the challenges you mentioned, how do you implement a plan for emerging technology that pushes forward innovation yet doesn’t leave any users behind?
PF: We need to ensure that we not only continue down our path of mobile first, but we truly focus on user-first as well. For the University of Arkansas, user-first will take a variety of forms. The University did a great job of implementing a new content management system a few years back.  A solution was chosen with the end-users in mind, not the developers, which immediately bolstered adoption and usability. We need to make sure as we pursue emerging technology that we are seeing the total package, including how this might impact our less tech-savvy folks. We always assume our students are practically creating the next Facebook behind the scenes when the traditional student today does what they do well on their own personal device, but they are no more tech-savvy than my Dad with technologies that aren’t in their daily rotation. All our users will need guidance and instruction on. Continuing to focus on that experience will allow us to pursue more interactive technologies. Bottom line? Emerging technologies are only innovative in a useful way if we communicate the “why” and relentlessly teach the “how.”

ES: What are some approaches that you are exploring at the University to drive cross-collaborative innovation among students and faculty?
PF: A virtual-reality environment that ties into coursework and academics would certainly be a comprehensive collaboration by empowering students to use technology in their coursework while providing a true learning experience and proof-of-value to deeper use of tech in the classroom. We are also batting around the idea of a variety of competitions to fuel some competition among our best and brightest – and yes I mean faculty, staff and students. We have quite a few best and brightest. We are also in the search process now for a new-to-us position within IT, an Academic Technology Innovator. We are investing a much-coveted headcount that promises to be dedicated to furthering cross-campus collaboration and innovation. Super-excited to see where this takes us!

ES: In a previous conversation you mentioned a “PlaySpace” environment you’re establishing to explore some new digital technologies. What are some examples you anticipate?
PF: We are hoping to ramp up the technology playground presence on campus. I envision fun, hands-on type technologies like 3D printing pens, buildable robots and similar. We’d also like to implement AR/VR [Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality] interactions that tie into curriculum as well. We are currently discussing how to utilize beacons in a fresh, thoughtful way. Again, we are a very traditional environment. We aren’t looking to simply scatter devices across the Union, we want to be deliberate and leapfrog our peers in excellent use of innovative technology. I am absolutely competitive, but shouldn’t this be everyone’s goal?

ES: Traditionally, state-run entities and education have lagged behind other industries in terms of technology adoption. Are there specific barriers you face when trying to implement new technologies in a public institution?   
PF: I think the problem is oftentimes blanket state legislation and legalities as it pertains to technology acquisition. The University of Arkansas is an R1 institution [doctoral university at the highest level of classification] and the flagship for our system. Our needs for research, for example, are very different than a system community college, yet we are held to the same rules alongside basic state administrative offices. We need to be innovative supporting our innovators. It can be difficult to reach a peer level with the other R1 institutions when we show up at a steakhouse with a dollar-menu burger. I’m all about picking my battles, but the basics need to be fought for to be a contender. And when faculty and student attraction/retention relies on our competitive edge, pursuing excellence simply needs to remain at the forefront. A side of fear is healthy in any technology venture, but it can’t be the basis for how we move forward. I get it, technology use can be scary and unknown. My confidence in our campus IT team to manage and drive innovation runs high. We continually re-align to meet this need and I can near guarantee that within the next very few years our stature will be elevated if we can just keep pushing.

ES:Thanks for your time and insights Paige. It’s great to hear about how digital tools and technology can impact education.
PF: I welcome the opportunity I’m afforded to share my thoughts on the possible impact of technology in just about any environment. Really, the impact is limitless once you erase the old-school vision of technology (utilities, feeds, speeds, pipes) and replace it with the digital and virtual interconnectivity and outreach of it all. It’s quite powerful. Thanks so much!

Take a look at the first piece in the Expert Practitioner Series, a Q&A with Scott Snyder, CTO of Safeguard Scientifics.