Ray Schroeder, Director of the Center for Online Leadership at UPCEA, interviews John O’Brien, CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology.


SCHROEDER: We read about the incredible number of data attacks on institutions in higher education—many institutions fend off hundreds of attacks daily. Earlier this year one Russian hacker was identified in perpetrating more than 60 attacks on universities and government agencies. What do academic administrators and faculty members need to know about this growing trend? 

O’BRIEN: There is no question that information security is a pressing concern for higher education. Since 2007 it’s regularly appeared in the annual EDUCAUSE Top Ten IT Issues, and last year and this year it tops the list. Having said that, it’s important to point out that it seems that the actual number of reported data breaches in higher education are steadily decreasing. None of this is helpful if your college or university is under attack, of course, and everyone is vulnerable. I’m aware of one public university that was selected as a target solely because the name of the university reminded the teenage hacker of a university in a movie he liked.

EDUCAUSE has been working as part of HEISC (the Higher Education Information Security Council) to make critical resources available to colleges and universities to mount an effective defense. For example, you can find all of the materials necessary to launch an awareness raising campaign on your campus, or you can download a handbook for implementing a “self-phishing” initiative, among other effective strategies for raising awareness and mitigating behaviors that put our institutions at risk. We support risk assessments, and our research shows that about 80% of campuses have completed a risk assessment, which is great: but that also means that about 20% have not. In addition, we believe that raising awareness is crucial, since in the end most breaches are linked to human behaviors. Mandatory training is an excellent way to raise awareness, and we see about 75% of faculty and staff experiencing some mandatory training, but, again, that needs to be 100%. When it comes to mandatory training for students, the numbers are more like 25%, so there’s another opportunity for action. Our members understand the need for information security training to raise awareness and reduce risk, and many report that they are aligning their own resources to improve training and awareness activities. So there is lot happening in this area.


SCHROEDER: Faculty members are concerned about unconstrained growth of Artificial Intelligence in higher education. There is real anxiety that the technology driving Jill Watson, the AI teaching assistant at Georgia Tech, and other such “smart” systems may cut into the role of the faculty. Do AI technologies threaten the professoriate? Should we be concerned? How can we work together to assure that a careful and well-reasoned approach to implementing these technologies is taken?

O’BRIEN: Faculty are not alone in expressing concern about the growth in artificial intelligence, though we should probably also acknowledge that many of us welcome AI advancements in our personal lives when it comes to finding the quickest route in changing traffic or when we ask our phones to complete other tasks for us. I certainly appreciate the notes of caution, but frankly I’m far more worried about the urgent need to move the needle when it comes to student success. In the end, I am confident technology—including technology powered by AI—offers great promise to get us the traction we need in this high priority area. Without a doubt, AI systems could be implemented in a way that threatens privacy or damages the relationship between faculty and their students, but AI advancements could also be deployed in such a way that that transactional efforts can be handled by these systems, leaving faculty to spend more time working directly with students in the way they love most and in the way that makes the biggest difference in terms of outcomes. We just need to use these “smart” technologies in a smart way. No one wants AI systems with hardwired bias, prejudice, or profiling. There’s no better cautionary example than Tay, the Microsoft AI chatbot that went from innocent to incendiary in a day, taught racism and misogyny by internet trolls. So I’m supportive of efforts like the near $30 million fund being administered by MIT and Harvard to attend to the ethics of AI applications and work to prevent developments that could harm society.


SCHROEDER: There is much being promised about “adaptive learning”—it is often confused with “adaptive release” in learning management systems and personalized learning classrooms. Just what is “adaptive learning” and what role might it play in higher education in the next few years?

O’BRIEN: I think these terms are different perspectives of the same approach, developing learning systems that change the learning experience for individual students based on their performance or other factors determined by the learning platform. Basic “adaptive release” is one of the blunter personalization tools, since it doesn’t so much change the learning experience as stage the presentation of a set experience: You finished unit seven with a score greater than 85%, which releases unit eight. What is exciting about more sophisticated, comprehensive adaptive learning systems is the increasing degree to which they take in click-level student data and deploy algorithms to help the student learn in ways that better serve that particular student. At a more basic level, an adaptive system might recognize that a student is struggling with fractions and require more drills and quizzes before moving on to a math concept that builds on knowledge of fractions. At a more sophisticated level, an adaptive system might recognize that a student responds better to video content lectures than drills alone and change the presentation of content to accommodate the student preference that produces the best learning outcomes. There are promising results with adaptive learning software, including higher course completion rates and accelerated completion. Last year, several major textbook publishers reported that digital sales surpassed print sales, and adaptive learning sales are growing, as are the number of products available. Less clear is the economics of systems like these. Can under-resourced colleges and universities afford to purchase them? With the uproar about textbook costs and affordability, is it acceptable to pass these costs onto students? So: details to be worked out, but it’s clear that adaptive learning will be a characteristic of the future of higher education.


SCHROEDER: “Blockchain,” which is the backbone technology of Bitcoin, was originally designed as a secure means of continuously recording currency transactions. There are early rumblings that blockchain networks will have an impact in higher education. What are they, and what role might they play in higher ed?  

O’BRIEN: Blockchain amounts to technology that enables a vast public ledger (made up of data blocks) to record data/transactions in a secure, verifiable way. At EDUCAUSE, we’ve been watching these developments with great interest, and the next issue of EDUCAUSE Review will continue the conversation. After all, there are so many different potential applications of blockchain networks, with some suggesting that this is the framework for alternative learner-grounded approaches to credentialing, transcripting, or competency-based education. Some in our community, like Jane McGonigal, present a more sweeping vision in which blockchain ledgers radically expand which instances of learning are worth recording, potentially recognizing and capturing learning whenever and wherever it occurs, including outside the traditional contexts of formal education. Without a doubt, the role blockchain will play in the future of higher education is not entirely clear, but at this early point the talk ranges widely (and sometimes wildly).


SCHROEDER: What are a few other technologies we should be following if we are to keep up with the trends that will likely change our field? And, how can we best keep up with them?

O’BRIEN: I think there are exciting developments ahead for virtual reality and augmented reality technologies as they move into the mainstream and find their way into our classrooms. Combining these dramatically more immersive technologies with practical advances like voice recognition and advanced haptics (interactions involving touch) opens the door for deeply engaging simulations and games for learning. It’s one thing to participate in a learning simulation with pull-down menus to “talk” clumsily to virtual characters. It’s quite another to literally talk and be understood by the software-powered simulation characters we encounter. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the best way to keep up with new technologies is to be active members of organizations like UPCEA and EDUCAUSE, whose mission is to keep members up-to-date on such things. For example, our members get news from reading EDUCAUSE Review and regularly perusing our 7 Things briefs—as well as face-to-face and virtual events. I’m excited that beginning in July of this year, all members of EDUCAUSE will have access to all our teaching and learning/research resources, where before they needed to subscribe separately to ELI and ECAR. This will make it easier for folks to keep current with emerging technologies like these. I should say, too, that in the thrill of contemplating the new tech, we should not forget the classroom. After all, this year “active learning classrooms” tops the 2017 EDUCAUSE Top 10 Strategic Technologies list.


SCHROEDER: How do you envision the university of the future? Will it be more like the faculty-centric university of the last century; will it be more like a customer-(student) conscious enterprise; will it still be campus-based, but filled with virtual and augmented experiences; or will it be something that we would not recognize as a university today?

O’BRIEN: I was promoting teaching with technology in the 90s, when Junk Bond King Michael Milken was telling all of higher education that he was going to “eat our lunch.” And he is only one of a number who have predicted the demise of the education world as we know it. There’s a reason colleges and universities have persisted and thrived as long as they have, and I have no doubt that something recognized as a college/university will continue. However, there is no doubt that our enterprise is becoming more student-responsive. There won’t be a choice there, as technologies empower the individual and make performance on outcomes more transparent. I’m really very optimistic about what this could look like, though when I think about the future, I do have one ongoing worry related to my larger, brooding cultural concern about the widening gap between haves and have-nots. I worry that if we badly deploy the new technologies and systems we’ve been talking about higher education could become dramatically two-tiered: a technology-rich, high tech/high touch option for those with means and something else for those without means. This possibility keeps me up at night; on the other hand, developments like Georgia Tech’s low-cost, online master’s degree is a democratizing development on the same horizon.


SCHROEDER: How is the role of the CIO changing? How can we benefit from working more closely together?

O’BRIEN: Technology has changed so much in our daily lives—how we get things done, how we track our health, how we connect with people we care about, how we ignore those we don’t, and how we learn and find information on demand. With this deepening role of technology, IT professionals have seen their role change. Technology is embedded in facilities in ways it wasn’t a few years ago, cloud services support work across campus, and all academic disciplines rely on technology more than ever to rise to the student success challenge. Since technology is everywhere, it’s no longer possible for a CIO or other technology leader to work in isolation. I’ve said many times that the future of IT is not IT talking to itself; rather, IT needs to become an organization committed to relationships across the C-suite and across the campus. At EDUCAUSE, we’ve taken on this challenge, making it a big part of our strategic priorities for the next five years. We’re going to work to help CIOs work more effectively as a strategic influencer on campus and connect ourselves, as an association, with brother and sister associations that serve other stakeholders across campus. We simply have to work together more closely in the face of higher expectations and diminishing resources. Unfortunately, our EDUCAUSE research shows that a good number of CIOs are not included in strategic, especially academic, decision-making. For example, EDUCAUSE research reveals that only 32% of CIOs often or always participate in shaping institutional academic directions—a crucial missed opportunity. On the positive side, we’re seeing more CIOs become presidents themselves, like David Lassner (University of Hawaii) and Michael McRobbie (Indiana University).   



John O’Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. Throughout his 25-year career in higher education, John has been deeply engaged with the IT and educational technology sectors as a faculty member and administrative leader. He writes a Homepage” column for the EDUCAUSE Review, and his other EDUCAUSE publications and full bio can be found at https://members.educause.edu/john-obrien-5.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield and Director of the Center for Online Leadership at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). A long-time EDUCAUSE member, he has been engaged in online learning for the past twenty years. His publications and presentations include a bi-weekly column for UPCEA entitled “Online: Trending Now” and the widely-read daily blog “Professional, Continuing, and Online Education Update by UPCEA.” Links to publications and more: https://sites.google.com/site/rayschroeder/ .