Using Technology to Make a Big School Feel Smaller: How ASU Is Integrating Cloud Technologies On and Off Campus
When it comes to discussions around innovation in higher ed, one school is often noted as one of the most innovative technologically: Arizona State University.
Not only is ASU known for its large, highly rated online degree program, but it’s also known for pushing the envelope with on-campus technologies as well, incorporating technology into everything from classrooms to residence halls.
But like many other institutions implementing cloud technologies, ASU is still in the midst of a few changes.
To find out more about what Arizona State is doing, we spoke with ASU’s Deputy CIO, John Rome.
Hannah Nyren: This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times. Today we’re talking about how universities are transforming to the cloud. Here with us is John Rome from Arizona State University. Hi John. How’s it going?
John Rome: Good. How are you today?
Hannah Nyren: So John, tell me, in a sentence or two, what do you do at ASU?
John Rome: So my title is actually deputy CIO. And I work in our central IT organization. But really, my day job is dealing a lot with analytics. So, I would say probably more than 50 percent of my day is dealing with, “How do I provide data to the university?” “How do we report on that data?” And, “How do we use it to advance the institution?”
Hannah Nyren: That’s interesting. And data has become more important in the role of higher ed. So tell me, why is this data so important today?
John Rome: Well, I think the idea is that we can spend our lives trying to do things anecdotally, but we think because we think a certain way, that we should react a certain way. But when you have data, it’s fact. Whether it’s survey data, or whether it’s data about enrollment — I now can then look at that data and take an action from it. Versus saying, well, I think students feel this way. Versus, you know, here is a survey of how students feel. So I think that’s really the importance of data. And ASU is really taking data seriously.
Hannah Nyren: So how is your university transforming to adapt to newer technologies today?
John Rome: Well, I can’t have an interview without letting everyone know that ASU is the most innovative institution three years running.
Hannah Nyren: Oh really?
John Rome: So, I think, clearly we’re using technology to help. Help us to be innovative. But I think it goes more than that. I think really one of the things we really focus on here is really around student success. How do they become successful? How do they learn? Because ASU is such a big place, one of the first things we do is, you know, how do we use technology to make our base feel much smaller, and much more much more intimate. And I think technology has that ability to do that.
Hannah Nyren: And how? How can technology make it more intimate?
John Rome: Well, I think they have the ability now to scale. You have the ability to to look at data and and just use that technology to make things easier for our students.
John Rome: And I think the way that we do that is that we provide them the information that they need. We provide them one-stop shopping. So instead of them having to go all these different websites, we provide information in this one place. If they’re trying to get into the learning management system, or they’re trying to to go to parking, it’s it’s one-stop shopping. And then also, like in the residence halls, we’re putting technology there as well.
John Rome: You know, we recently put [Amazon] Echo Dots in the new engineering residence halls. So, now they can ask ask Alexa a question and get a response back. So those are the ways that we’re really trying to use technology to help our students.
Hannah Nyren: And how does the cloud play a role in the integration of your technologies on campus? And you know, off campus?
John Rome: You know, that’s a great question. I think that the cloud is just really helping us to be able to move faster.
John Rome: You know, there’s a fear of the cloud. But I think ASU is in a unique position where we’ve used private clouds in the past, and now we’re moving more towards public clouds. But just the ability of the services that are out there that we can, you know, build servers much faster. Instead of us taking six weeks to get a server online, now it takes, let’s say six minutes to get a server online.
John Rome: You know the beauty about the cloud, especially the public cloud, is that you have this ability to move much faster. And the services that are available out there are just, are amazing, in how they’ve grown. As I’ve noticed in the past few years.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah, they certainly have grown. What way, specifically, has the technology that’s available changed over the past few years?
John Rome: Well one thing I think, alone, is really just the performance. I think in the past, you know, the cloud was still a little bit sketchy in terms of say, up time, or performance in terms of speed. And I think that a lot of those issues have been have been taken care of. And so, now that you have the ability to run in the cloud as fast as you would, or almost as fast as you would running things on-premise. I think that has been one of the major milestones, or the big jumping point of saying now, I can do a lot of the things that… I couldn’t do before in the cloud. Now I can do those in the cloud.
Hannah Nyren: So where is ASU in the process of implementing cloud technologies within your systems?
John Rome: I think that we probably adopted the private cloud a lot faster than others. But when people typically talk about the cloud today, they’re talking about the public cloud. I would say that we’re probably now probably into the second quarter of the game.
John Rome: You know, and I would say, a lot of higher ed, basically the game is just starting.
Hannah Nyren: So can you give a specific example of like what part of the process you are in? Are you implementing HR software, are you planning, trying to choose what software you’re going to use.
John Rome: Some of the applications that we’re running in the cloud, that would include Salesforce. Also ServiceNow. We also just kicked off a Workday implementation for a new financial system. And so those are all, you know, our true SAAS application, software as a service, running in the cloud. When we look at our other major systems, ERP systems, like student and H.R., those are running in a private cloud, right?
John Rome: So those are. Those are some of the systems that we’re running in the cloud. Where, what I’m thinking of as a little bit more, a little bit differently in terms of trying to run our servers up in the cloud like infrastructure is. So, we’re in the process right now of of moving all of our business intelligence, that would be all the databases where our data is. And the reporting that’s associated with that, into the, into the into the public cloud right now. And that would include everything from from running databases out there, moving data there, and then also providing the tools where where our customers can go and run queries or run reports to get the data that they need to to run the institution.
Hannah Nyren: And for such a huge university with an even bigger online program, that must be really complicated.
John Rome: Yeah. It gets, it gets very complicated. You know, this is a huge place with a lot of different technology groups as well. And so I think that part of it is that, as being part of the central I.T., we’re kind of making those inroads into this environment. You know, it’s a little bit harder than we thought in terms of some of the technology around it, but I think the thing now where we’re doing the inroads now that will help us move much faster as an institution. So if departments like our our online community, our ASU online technology group, wants to take advantage of the cloud. We’re prepared to help them. Or say the colleges or businesses around the university want to use the cloud. We’re kind of making those inroads for them to come in and then just join us as we go on this journey to the cloud.
John Rome: It’s almost like the cloud is becoming more safe than a lot of your stuff on-premise.
Hannah Nyren: So what are the unique challenges of implementing cloud technology in higher ed, and how have you overcome these challenges so far?
John Rome: Sure. I would say that, one of the biggest challenges that a lot of folks have is really around security and privacy. About now, I’m taking this data that that either I’ve stored it on premise for all these years, about Now I’m going to move it the cloud. And, you know, is is is that data going to be safe there? And I would say, that the amount of resources that our cloud providers have now in terms of protecting that data, is much greater than it’s ever been. And it’s in some ways almost safer than a lot of the data that we have locally.
John Rome: So that’s I think that’s one of the first major challenges you have to go over. And then I think some of the other challenges that we’ve had here is that, our staff have to be sort of re-trained or sort of rethink about how they do things, that you know no longer do I have to worry about hardware because the public cloud is taking care of that. A lot of our staff now are, you know, they’re no longer worried about unloading boxes and bringing servers in, they really can spend their time about how do I set up infrastructure and services.
John Rome: So those are some of the big challenges. Then how do I, how do I then move up the value chain? And I think those those are probably the two biggest challenges that I can think of. And then it’s just a brand new set of tools and software and user interfaces that you just have to become accustomed to, that over time, it’ll just become more and more familiar. And I think we’re on that road we’re on that road right now to, how do we become more and more comfortable in the cloud.
Hannah Nyren: And how has your staff responded? I know a lot of people in IT worry that they’ll be displaced but umm, you know, it’s a little bit more complex than that. Can you tell me how your staff has responded to this shift?
John Rome: I mean I think that most of them have responded really positively. They see this as a, you know, the new opportunity. They understand that over time, you know, mainframes go away and then we have service technology. They understand that with technology, it’s changing constantly. I mean, who would have thought that something like a mobile phone would have transformed the industry like it did. So I would say that those who adapt to change do fine. And so I think there’s this huge opportunities for a lot of the staff, who are of course skeptical. But I would say that when I look around our organization, again being this innovative institution that we are, they in our staff are looking for these opportunities to grow their skill sets, to look at new opportunities. and they know by using these new technologies they’re just going to make lives easier for everyone either for themselves, or for our customers who use technology or.
Hannah Nyren: Yeah I think that’s the case with a lot of different people I’ve talked to about this subject. And I’m glad actually that your staff has adapted so well. Because some people have a little bit more resistance to change.
John Rome: Yeah, no doubt about that at all. And umm you know one of the other things I would mention is that the other thing that we’re trying to do too. So in addition to using the cloud to run our systems that run the university, whether these are ERP systems or reporting systems, or just servers alone, we’re actually doing more and more looking at how does the cloud help help the classroom. And so I teach a big data course in our business college. And we’ve decided in this class to move all of the assignments, all of the work into, the public cloud. First of all, it’s great experience for our students who, you know, don’t necessarily understand the complexities of how do I build servers. But they don’t have to worry about now, because they can now build servers in the cloud. And having that ability to sort of teach them about the cloud and the advantages of that, but then also just having the ability of not having to run things locally and having things go down, it seems that the cloud is so resilient. All that really makes for a great experience for students to start learning this. And then as an instructor, I really don’t have to worry about the technology. Is there enough memory in that machine? Is this database going to have enough capacity to for all the students to query it?
John Rome: So not only are we seeing it in in running our infrastructure in the institution. We’re now seeing it being used more and more in the classroom, and in classroom delivery. And there’s just huge opportunities. And of course we’re starting primarily in the computer fields. But I see other opportunities as we look in other disciplines as well.
Hannah Nyren: Great. So what outcomes do you expect in the next five to 10 years. How will the technology innovations that you’re implementing now change the way that ASU looks online and off-line?
John Rome: Well I have to look into my crystal ball now, because you know who would have thought that technology changes like it does. First of all, the cloud is inevitable. When we talk to all of our vendor partners, a lot of those who are running our systems right now, guess where they’re moving? To the cloud. These companies who use to manage their own data centers, where are they moving their technology? To the cloud.
John Rome: So, first of all, it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen. And, you know, it’s really hard to sort of see what the future is going to look like, five years, let alone 18 months out. But I think that you’re just going to see services. These micro services, or this ability to take advantage of technology very quickly.
John Rome: Let me just give you one example. We decided that students really complain about Wi-Fi at Arizona. And like, how do you really get a pulse on that? Well first of all, we realized that social media is the place that it happens. And we were able to quickly, within a three or four day period, first go out there to social media like Twitter and find all the tweets that had the word ASU and the word Wi-Fi in them. And we were able to take that streaming data, we get almost a million tweets a year about ASU, and we were able to pare those down to Wi-Fi. And then we actually shipped those off to our help desk in a slack channel.
John Rome: So within a five minute period, the ideas of students complaining about Wi-Fi we had the ability that an agent, a helpdesk agent at ASU, responds to that saying, “Hey, Johnny I’m sorry you’re having problems with Wi-Fi. Please call this number and we’ll help you out.” Just that ability to move that fast to provide service. We we don’t have that ability in the past to do it. Clearly it would take six months to get a server and then you have to write all the technology and services a round that. And you wouldn’t have the programming interfaces to go get the Twitter feeds and load databases and push it to technologies like a Slack channel. We just didn’t have that ability.
John Rome: So I think that our ability to move much faster, to provide better services, that’s really really going to be the change out there. And then just looking at the technology that’s coming, whether it’s big data, artificial intelligence, virtual reality. All of that capability that’s coming with the cloud, sort of helping enable that, is just going to make this world a…I think just a great place. And you know that students’ experiences are just going to be so so great for them to be in these learning environments. And that’s really what the cloud is going to be able to provide.
Hannah Nyren: Great. Well, I’m excited to see what really does happen in the future. See if your predictions are correct.
John Rome: Yeah. Let’s have this in five years and see see what happens.
John Rome: Let’s come back in 18 months, because I think… you know, the other thing that we’re noticing right too like, just within the last year alone. I’m talking about voice enablement. Whether it’s the Amazon Echo or the Apple device or the google home. No longer are we talking about graphical user interfaces on mobile phones, now we’re talking about voice user interfaces. I can speak 150 words a minute versus type say 40 words a minute. Students can ask questions versus type questions. You know, think about Star Trek and that ability to sort of live in that world. That’s becoming more and more reality. And I think that there’s clearly some novelty that goes along with that.
John Rome: But I think that in the end you know as these markets sort of these new innovations, whether it’s voice enablement, whether it’s virtual reality, as these things play out, this is really going to be world up there. And technology is really going to help it. And technology is really what helps us scale at this university, as I said earlier. This gives us the ability to provide great service to our students. And we have over 100000 students at ASU. A lot of online students. And that ability to deliver content is pretty incredible in making that experience great.
Hannah Nyren: Great. Well thank you for speaking with me. I’ll go ahead and schedule our next interview five years from now.
John Rome: Ok. Great.
Hannah Nyren: But that was very insightful. So thanks for speaking with me today.
John Rome: Thanks, Hannah, for this is opportunity. It’s always great to talk about about ASU. It’s just a great institution. Not only innovative, it’s just a great place for students to be and to learn.
Hannah Nyren: Awesome.
Listen to the full series, Transforming Higher Ed with Cloud Technology.
This episode is brought to you by Huron.
Huron is a global professional services firm with an extensive history in higher education. For nearly two decades, Huron has provided consulting services for over 500 educational institutions, including all 100 of the top research universities in the United States.
You can learn more about what Huron does by visiting huronconsultinggroup.com.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.