Ellen Borkowski's CIO responsibilities at small liberal arts college include her twin technology objectives: make teaching and learning more effective.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

April 23, 2013

13 Min Read

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12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT

12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT(click image for slideshow)

Since Ellen Yu Borkowski became chief information officer at Union College in November 2010, she has had to broaden her focus to all the things a CIO must care about, such as security and bandwidth and budgets and winning "a seat at the table" for strategic discussions. Yet the thing she cares most about is making technology more useful to the academic missions of the university: teaching and learning.

Founded in 1795 in Schenectady, Union College was the first institution of higher learning chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. Today, it's known as a small liberal arts college that happens to include an engineering school and that supports a strong study-abroad program. Borkowski earned an bachelor's degree in computer and system engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in nearby Troy, but she spent most of her career at the University of Maryland working to improve academic computing systems, particularly their usability.

The key turning point in her career came almost by chance, she said. After graduating from RPI, she worked for a couple of years in industry. As a programmer for a defense contractor, she created software to support engineers who were designing engines. One day in the library, she happened to notice an advertisement on the back cover of a magazine for the User Interface Strategies conference organized by Ben Shneiderman, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland and founder of its Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

"I thought, wow, you could actually study how to create interfaces that make it easy for people to use computers! That was one of my interests in the job I'd been in, which was how to make it easy for these engineers to use computers to do their jobs," Borkowski said in an interview.

She went to study with Shneiderman, who later got her a job at the university working on the design of a "teaching theater" funded with a grant from AT&T. The concept was to put a computer on every desk and "change the lecture from a passive activity to an interactive one," Borkowski said. "I quickly became engaged with the idea of using technology to make teaching and learning better. The funny thing for me is a lot of what we worked on then is coming back. It's different technology now, but it's the same concepts."

Union College CIO Ellen Yu Borkowski

Union College CIO Ellen Yu Borkowski

Union College CIO Ellen Yu Borkowski

"It was very clear back then that the killer app was the network," she added. "It was the ability to connect students and share information in an instant, which is now something we do every day on the Internet." At the time of those early experiments, it was necessary for her team to create its own custom networked learning tools. For example, one was a "one-minute" assessment tool that prompted students to quickly type in the answer to an instructor's question. The responses would then be displayed to the entire group, anonymously, allowing the instructor to quickly divine how many of the students had learned that particular topic and how many were confused.

Today, similar quick-assessment challenges are often handled with commercially available clickers, Borkowski said, and it's no longer necessary to build a special room to enable basic interactivity. "Now we have networking in the classroom, so all you need are the collaborative tools," she said.

Yet a basic challenge that remains is designing instructional technologies that make it easier for teachers to teach, rather than getting in the instructor's way, she said.

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Borkowski worked her way up through a series of increasingly senior posts at the University of Maryland related to instructional technology and academic systems, ending up as director of academic support. Along the way, she also picked up a master's degree in education policy, planning and administration. "I wanted a better grounding in educational theory," she said.

Becoming a CIO has forced Borkowski to change gears. At each stage of her career, she worked with higher-level enterprise systems, she said, "but now it's not just for teaching and learning -- although that's where my heart is -- it's for everything. I'm looking at business processes and how we can be more efficient using technology. I want to look at [whether there] are better ways to help with advising, not just in the classroom but outside the classroom. There are all these other aspects of the institution that I was not involved in when I was at Maryland." She sought out the CIO role partly to advance her career but also because she wanted to move back to the Northeast for family reasons. She liked the idea of serving as CIO at a smaller institution and the character of Union College appealed to her, with its mix of liberal arts, engineering and multidisciplinary programs. She replaced a CIO who had retired after 23 years and whose leadership style was very different.

"I bring much more focus to the teaching and learning side, whereas the prior CIO was focused more on the administrative computing side," Borkowski said. Whether the search committee that hired her was specifically looking for that different focus, the timing was good, she said. "There are so many things that are commodity services and that we can easily outsource. The one thing that I think we can't outsource is that teaching and learning piece."

In general, Union College is nowhere near as aggressive in the use of instructional technology as her former employer, but it doesn't need to be because class sizes are not as large, she said. She just wants to make sure those it does use are effective.

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I asked Borkowski about the research study that found professors are highly skeptical of the value of classroom technologies. She said she wasn't surprised.

Although there have been great leaps forward in the availability of technology and ease of use, "it's still a pretty large time commitment to get started," she said. "The faculty have a lot of responsibilities. Some of them are actually interested in new technology, but what they don't have is time. The problem is when you start using a new technology, that's what you need, is time. You can only make the technology so easy. There's a tradeoff, where the interface can only become so easy before it becomes complex. If you give them something that's easy to get them in, then it doesn't have the deep functionality they want."

The best compromise often is to present the faculty with templates that simplify the delivery of educational content, Borkowski said. A learning management system (LMS) is a complex collection of tools, and it's a mistake to push instructors to learn every feature of the system at once, she said. It's better to get them managing a few simple daily tasks through the system and introduce more complex functions later.

"For me, it's about understanding where [students'] struggles are, because that's where you want to help. It's a mistake to start with the tool, when really you should start with the problem," Borkowski said. For example, she said, if a professor reports that every year students struggle to understand one particular concept, maybe that's a topic where new technology could help.

At the level of instructional technologies such as online tutorials, the choices are usually faculty driven, based on experts selecting the products that make the most sense for their fields. However, Union's I.T. department expects to be consulted on issues such as hardware requirements, licensing, and integration issues such as compatibility with the LMS.

"That's the challenge for IT -- we can only keep up with so much. We have to be generalists in many ways," said Borkowski. "So mostly they come to us from their own niches with products their colleagues are telling them about. Then the question is: is this just for you, or will this benefit other people on campus?"

If others have a similar requirement, the IT group will try to drive the selection of one product or maybe a couple of alternatives -- but not 10 products because that would be impossible to support, Borkowski said. Often the choices have to be framed as recommendations, rather than requirements, but faculty members who choose to ignore the recommendations can't count on support from the IT staff, she said.

Although the current surge of entrepreneurial interest in education technology is exciting, Borkowski can't help noticing there is a lot that hasn't changed since the time of her teaching theater project in Maryland. "I still hear a lot of the same phrases being thrown around," she said. "Move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side -- we were saying that in the early 90's! How come that hasn't changed? The flipped classroom is just another name for something people have been trying out in classrooms for years." Still, the potential of that approach is something she has been talking about for years and still finds exciting. The argument she makes to instructors is, "You can actually do in the classroom the thing you do best. As an expert in whatever field, you show the students how exciting it is to do your job ... rather than lecturing to them, you spend the class time doing what you do. You know, applying it to something. Getting them to do it. Don't spend the valuable face-to-face time talking at them for an hour."

And yet it's not as easy as that. If professors are going to present material that they used to deliver via lectures as a series of videos, quizzes and interactive tutorials, they need time to produce all that. Maybe they would experience a productivity gain in year two or three, as they begin to reuse that material, but first they have to survive year one.

"They need the investment of time that they don't have up front, unless they were forced into it," Borkowski said. She tells the story of a University of Maryland hybrid class success story that only came about accidentally. This was the case of a professor who had arranged to spend a semester traveling in Brazil when another member of his department became ill, and he was her backup for a particular course, obligated to cover for her. Rather than canceling his travel plans, he taught the course online.

"When he came back, he realized, hey, I have all these lectures on video. Maybe I should try this hybrid thing everybody is talking about. So he told his students don't come to class on Mondays, but come to class ready to discuss the material on Wednesdays. What he found was the level of discussion went up. He didn't have to think of all the examples anymore because the students came with questions. So now he loves it. But it was one of those things where he was forced into this situation. He couldn't come back from Brazil but he had to teach the class, so he had to put the time in," she said.

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"That's an example of where it's still not easy to get in the game. Even though the technology is easier, and it's easier to make the videos, faculty members still have to make the videos and frankly be thoughtful about the videos" to produce something useful, she said. "It's not like you take whatever you do in class and stick it online." Where these programs have proven successful, faculty are often given stipends or release time, she said, or else they have enough enthusiasm to "carve out the time."

Union College is so far merely monitoring the rise of MOOCs -- massive open online courses -- produced by startups such as Coursera and Udacity, as well as the non-profit edX. Borkowski said she spends most of her time on more basic issues. For example, prior to her arrival one of the complaints about the IT group was lack of communication about what it was doing and why. She has tried to change that, while also combining what had been separate teams for academic and administrative computer support for better overall coordination.

"What I'm happy about is I'm 'at the table' in the strategic planning discussions" with university leaders, Borkowski said. "The staff felt the prior CIO wasn't at the table. Well, we're updating our strategic plan, and I'm at the table. I want the community here feeling we're working with them to help solve problems -- we're not the problem."

One of her biggest challenges at the moment is the state of the college's network infrastructure, which threatens to set limits on what's possible with flipped classrooms and other bandwidth-hungry applications such as videoconferencing. For example, many university buildings have old cabling that won't support anything more than 100 Mbps. "Some of what the faculty would like to do and what we'd like to enable them to do in the future won't be possible unless we fix it," she said.

In addition to access to learning tools, there is a growing research demand for big-data analytics, which requires the ability to access and download and transfer that data. Unfortunately, the network was never really designed, "it just sort of grew," Borkowski said. Senior leaders at the university were never given a complete picture of the network's strengths and weaknesses and design tradeoffs, and so they didn't know how bad it was, she said.

Fortunately, after conducting a network review and presenting the options, she has been able to secure the funding to start a network redesign -- not all the money she hoped for, but enough to start the process. Once the leadership team understood the situation, it was easier for her to lay out the options for doing the upgrade all at once or in stages and say, "Now, how long would you like to wait?"

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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