Technology Alone can be the Answer, but it is Never Sufficient!

Sasi Pillay, Vice President & CIO, Washington State University

Sasi Pillay is an experienced Chief Information Officer with a demonstrated history of accomplishments in the higher education industry as well as in the US federal government as the CTO for IT at NASA and as CIO at NASA Glenn Research Center. Pillay is skilled in Business Process, Requirements Analysis, Enterprise Architecture, Systems Engineering, and IT Strategy. He is a strong information technology professional with a Master’s degree focused in Managagement of Technology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering from Case Western Reserve University.

Please shed some light on smart classroom ecosystem?

We are trying to create a student-centered ecosystem at the university, working with the potential prospect all the way through getting them enrolled as students, making sure they are successful finding internship opportunities and eventually employment, and then moving them into successful alumni. Entirely from the cradle to the grave, we are trying to build an 80-year old customer relationship with an individual. Academic performance, financial ability to pay the fees, health, and wellness of the individual, and a sense of belonging in the campus community—is very critical for the overall success of a student. Classroom technology is one such component that makes an individual successful under our care. At the moment, we are running an initiative to assess 300 different spaces across Washington State University (WSU), spread across 5 physical and an online campus. Leveraging the latest technologies, we are upgrading the classrooms and turning the professor’s lectures into a digital asset that students, who are either physically in our campus or remotely connected, can use later at whichever point. Mitigating the issue of accessibility of information, we ensure there is no distinction in terms of student-to-faculty interaction or student-to-student interaction. Besides upgrading the spaces to a state-of-the-art level, we are also progressively planning to address the high costs of leveraging the technologies.

"We are trying to create a student-centered ecosystem at the university, working with the potential prospect all the way through getting them enrolled as students, making sure they are successful finding internship opportunities and eventually employment"

Identifying the need is one thing while looking at ways to address that need from a technology standpoint is another. So how do you go about upgrading your systems and get the know-how for the matter?

One of the things we did was, we put together a comprehensive team consisting of both technology folks, as well as faculty members. We identified the need for more modern technology and how to interface it so that every time we connect to a classroom, it is struggle-free, intuitive, and standard. Developing a set of standards on how we want to address this need, firstly, we started video conferencing etiquette, ensuring that the remotely connected students get an enriched experience of a lecture. Through a short awareness session/course, we make the faculty members be adept at presenting lectures to students remotely by taking care of all the subtleties in terms of lighting, audio connection, on-screen presentation, and sharing.

Post establishing the comprehensive team, did you interact with any solution providers or vendors for that matter?

Our present system was reaching the end of life; so, we moved our on-premise infrastructure into the cloud, saving quite a bit of money. Our in-depth search for vendors that can replace our backend video conferencing capability came to an end with Zoom. Several of our faculty members already being familiar with the use of Zoom, the transition were really easy.

How has the outcome been of facilitating the idea of a smart classroom, been? Was there any visible benefits or return on investment that you were able to see or measure?

Like I said before, our team is still in the process of assessing the 300 different spaces, to come up with the recommended priority list of which rooms need to be upgraded first. We have already replaced the infrastructure, making the environment for upgradation far more stable. Universities have been successful in delivering top quality education by adding an operator in the room with the faculty member. However, with 300 spaces, multiple classes being held, and our vision to create digital assets, there is no way we can have operators in every single classroom delivering remote content. So, we are in the lookout for technologies that can help concentrate on the faculty member when he is speaking and capture everything once he uses the electronic board. We are trying to bring in more automation, as opposed to having a human being present.

Have you thought about the change management aspect of things when you introduce new tools and new methodologies? How do you go about ensuring its proper adoption?

Quite often, projects fail despite a successful deployment of the technology, because we have not addressed its change management component. This is why we have kept one team dedicated to technology and the other led by a faculty member to focus on the delivery of a successful video conferencing experience. The latter has put together short-term checklist guidelines that go through a preliminary orientation, to prepare WSU for bankruptcy, which is the most prevalent phenomenon. Break this problem into three parts, one is the infrastructure piece, that we have already solved very reliably. Second is the classroom upgrade, which we have set the plan and standards for, while the assessing process is on. The last part is the change management, which we have made plans for, based on the work done by the faculty-led team.

With a lot of technology implementation, how do you go about identifying the vendors? What is your checklist for a particular vendor to be your perfect match?

Firstly, we make sure there is a good fit for the vendor’s integration with our current environment. With some of the vendors being lenient today, we also ensure that we are not locked into the complete deployment of technology from a single vendor. We look for the best of the breed and the best value that they can render to our environment, in terms of the price they charge and the technology they use. Our last checklist point is the ease with which we can integrate the vendor with our existing infrastructure without extra work and expense.

The idea or notion of smart classrooms has been there around for a while so, how do you think it has all evolved? What are some of the recent trends or paradigm shifts that you witnessed, especially on university campuses?

Talking from the cultural standpoint, we are still pushing the belief of not having a distinction between on-premise education and online education. It has to be an amalgamated environment or a single ecosystem that supports both categories of students who can benefit from the tools. Our roadmap is to see a student have the freedom and ability to put together a degree plan for self.

How do you think the future of smart classrooms would evolve, with the penetration of technologies, such as mobility, AR, and VR?

AR and VR are our additional teaching tools, which can potentially be integrated into the online experience. Our university being based on a semester system of 16 weeks, we are developing courses as modules with clear learning objectives, and clear assessment processes, to help students learn in bite-sized chunks. For instance, we can break down an hour-long lecture into 20 minutes-long parts followed by 5 minutes-long online QnA or a quiz to make sure the students have understood the topics are discussed. This will then progress at a steady rate with us knowing when they are falling behind, and we can implement mitigating strategies to get them back on the track.

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