CIO Profiles: Ellen Borkowski Of Union College

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

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