Oct 31 2006

Q&A with Emilio DiLorenzo of Rochester Institute of Technology

At RIT, technology is the common denominator among all campus constituencies.

Emilio DiLorenzo had a homecoming five years ago, when he was appointed director of infrastructure and technical support services for Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). After racking up experience and accolades elsewhere, he returned to his alma mater to take on a new set of challenges.

Now associate CIO at RIT, DiLorenzo has been challenged to ensure that the already IT-savvy institution continues a strong tradition of innovation and leadership when it comes to training the next generation of technology leaders. He spoke with EdTech Editor in Chief Lee Copeland about IT leadership at an institution where every student aspires to be the next Bill Gates.

EdTech: How has the nature of your support changed in recent years? One of the things we're seeing is that folks on the IT side are more heavily involved in the strategic goals and are being asked to provide more measures on the projects they're implementing.
DiLorenzo: We actually finished our university's strategic 10-year plan about a year ago. The vast majority of the goals and objectives in that plan include one or more flavors of technology. There has definitely been a shift in business planning; IT is now one of the most critical pieces in developing strategic plans. At RIT, technology is a key enabler to everything we do.

EdTech: Is that a change from the past?
DiLorenzo: Absolutely. A huge change. Ten years ago we had a booming enrollment, lots of growth. We were one of the first colleges in the nation to have an IT program outside of computer science. We offered networking technology, security and so on. Because of that we received a large donation from a private supporter to build the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, which is focused specifically on computing.

EdTech: Were these students interested in IT as their major?
DiLorenzo: Yes. But the learning dynamics are completely different from 10 years ago.

EdTech: What do you mean by that?
DiLorenzo: In the past, students would go to the classroom, take a lab, go to the library, maybe. Now we have a huge online learning program where students can choose to take online courses in their specific field. Full-time resident students in some programs – not just off-campus students – have the option of showing up for classes or taking online courses. Not every course is online, and some courses are available only online. Some courses are taught in traditional classrooms, and others are hybrids. The trend is heading toward the online, virtual classroom and away from the face-to-face, student-instructor type of learning.

Also, the content is being delivered in a very different way. We're using video, podcasting or virtual learning through online chats with fellow students or professors. Learning and teaching are much more virtual than ever before.

EdTech: Have you seen an increase in funding and headcount to support this new virtual learning? After all, a lecture hall is much easier to support than a distributed environment.
DiLorenzo: Yes and no. There are trade-offs. A lot of what we do is cost-avoidance, which means that we'll retire services that aren't necessarily being used to the fullest extent and reallocate resources and money into ones that are more strategic in nature.

A good example is our e-mail and calendaring system, which we ripped out a couple of years ago to bring in a new implementation. Originally, we had multiple products on different platforms, which we were able to retire. We used the money that had been supporting them to underwrite the new implementation. We also receive some additional funds that help support new projects we're not able to cover by reallocating projects.

EdTech: Is it harder to manage IT in an institution that's heavily focused on IT and training future IT leaders than in another environment?
DiLorenzo: Absolutely. We're a technology-based school and attract pretty smart people. It's a challenge. Our students have grown up in a technology environment, and this is all they know. When they come here, they have certain expectations: Do you have wireless? What are your different ways of communicating with me? They're mobile, 24-hour, anywhere, anytime students. It's not like it used to be where traditional students would go to the classroom, maybe the library and then go home.

EdTech: What percentage of RIT students are enrolled in technology-related programs?
DiLorenzo: It's hard to say because so many programs are technology-related, such as the traditional engineering disciplines, biology and biotechnology, and our newest addition, the Center for Biotechnology Education and Training. Even our College of Liberal Arts and the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences now have technology components associated with their curriculum.

EdTech: Do you have students who work as IT support on campus and in your department?
DiLorenzo: Yes, we have about 200 work-study students who do IT-related work, plus 15 to 20 co-op students.

EdTech: Could you explain what co-op students are?
DiLorenzo: RIT runs as a quarter school versus a traditional semester-based school. Each program requires its students to go out and get real-world jobs in their chosen fields for one or more quarters, which is called the co-op requirement. The students, with help from the university, get jobs in national and international companies, including RIT. They get credit for their work. Because RIT is career-focused, we give students as much experience outside the classroom as inside it.

EdTech: One of the things we hear when we talk to IT people is that when they graduated from college, they had no idea of how to get a job and what the difference was between what they learned in the classroom and what would be required in the real world. How does your program help bridge that gap?
DiLorenzo: Because the students are required to do co-ops, they bring their experience in the jobs and apply it in their studies and then apply their learning toward their co-op experience.

The college also provides ongoing two-way discussions with industry. Some departments in the college have advisory groups made up of industry people that come in and provide feedback on industry trends and such. I'm a member of the Golisano College's IT department's industrial advisory board, which meets twice a year for two days. We talk to the faculty about what we're seeing and what skills students will need to make them better prepared.

The faculty take that information and tailor their programs accordingly. For example, a few years ago, there was such a tremendous focus on teaching students straight technical stuff that they didn't have any social, business or project management skills when they got out of school.

The college now requires students to take classes in business and project management. Our students graduate not only with the core technology education but with some business knowledge as well.

EdTech: I see that RIT has an overwhelmingly male student population. Is that changing at all?
DiLorenzo: A lot of efforts are under way, and the administration is focused on trying to attract more women students into technology fields that have traditionally been held mainly by men.

EdTech: What percentage of your technology staff is female?
DiLorenzo: I'd say that out of 95 full-time people, maybe 15 percent are women.

EdTech: There are so few women in senior leadership roles in IT. How are you encouraging strong female talent on your staff to help them move to the next levels?
DiLorenzo: We definitely encourage staffers, especially women, to participate in a professional development area that focuses on what they really want to do in life. Some are very content being technical people. Some want to be senior managers and leaders. Either way, we try to help them achieve that through training, at classes within RIT or elsewhere. We encourage them to participate in national and regional women-focused organizations, to be involved, to network with other professional women in technology, and to make good contacts.

EdTech: For the second year in a row, RIT was named as one of the 25 most-connected colleges. To what do you attribute the fact that your campus is regarded so highly in terms of tech access?
DiLorenzo: Most of it has to do with the dedication and support of senior administration, from the president on down, who understand that technology enables students to get the knowledge they need to get the jobs they want. RIT long ago made a commitment to provide every single student – in a dorm, an apartment, a lab, a classroom – with access to the Internet, online applications and the school's intranet.

There's been a tremendous effort in the last five years to wire the campus. Every dorm room has two data jacks that students can plug into directly. Also, over the past five years we've implemented wireless across the campus.

Students whose notebook PCs and handheld devices have wireless access want to walk from their dorms to their classrooms, surfing the Web as they go. Our wireless effort has helped them do that.

EdTech: What percentage of students uses PCs as their primary computer?
DiLorenzo: Every year we see more people coming in with notebooks than desktops, and some have both. It would be safe to say that about 80-plus percent have their own PCs.

EdTech: Do you offer students BlackBerry access to the university e-mail system?
DiLorenzo: It's available to anybody who has a BlackBerry device or even a Windows-based operating system, a Treo, Palm, HP – any sort of handheld device on which you can read e-mail. We have that service to let them synchronize e-mail and calendaring. On the BlackBerry side, it's a little different because it's license-based and uses a different infrastructure, but we have that service as well.

EdTech: Do you have data on which students use the BlackBerry service?
DiLorenzo: We actually launched the BlackBerry service a few months ago [March 2006]. The service is available to all faculty and students who want it. I'd estimate that we have about 70 to 80 users, a mix of faculty and students. There's a one-time activation fee of $70, which covers the licensing cost; beyond that there's no additional charge for users.

EdTech: What were some of the pilot results that helped you make the decision to move forward or not to support it?
DiLorenzo: A lot of it had to do with security. We wanted to ensure that the infrastructure worked and was secure enough, that we were able to support it and it integrated well into our mail system. We had a pilot group of about 100 people – a mix of faculty, staff and students. From their experiences and feedback we decided that it was definitely feasible, and then we moved into a production mode.

EdTech: So will you make it more available to students and market it to students for the school year?
DiLorenzo: Yes, we'll have a marketing and communication campaign announcing all these new services that students can take advantage of. There are still issues: Depending on the carriers, beyond the voice plan that people have, there's also an additional fee that carriers charge for data, more so on the BlackBerry side.

So it may be cost-prohibitive for some people to have to add a decent chunk of money to their monthly plan just for data transfers. It's cost-effective for travelers, but not for casual users. Prices are coming down, though, so we'll definitely see an increase in usage.

There are advantages. For example, I use our wireless network on campus as a phone. Basically I don't have a voice plan. There are no carriers involved. I use our wireless network to communicate as a phone.

EdTech: Is that available to students as well?
DiLorenzo: It's available to anybody. The downside is that you have to be in a location where there's wireless available. There may be some dead spots or spots that you can't get coverage. But I can take this home. It's programmed with an RIT phone number, and I can use my wireless network at home to call anybody without having a cell plan that I have to pay for each month.

EdTech: Do you have a one-to-one computing program at the campus? Is there a mandate in any way that all students must have either a PC or a notebook PC?
DiLorenzo: We leave that completely up to the student. We have open computer labs across campus in every one of our colleges. By far the vast majority of students have desktops or notebook PCs that they come to school with.

EdTech: Do you have any policies to ensure the integrity of your network and its security? Do you ever get pushback from faculty or students or staff, because the more secure and restricted the network has to be, the more of a problem it might be for students and faculty, who like to have their environment as open as possible?
DiLorenzo: We have to strike a balance between them, and security is on everyone's minds. There's such a heightened awareness of security now that it makes our job easier. When we have to lock things down, they understand it better now than they did a few years ago when it wasn't such a high priority and there was less awareness. As an institution of higher education, we have to be as open as possible. But at the same time we have to be mindful of our core competence and our mission-critical systems to keep them as safe as possible. We've been able to strike that balance.

EdTech: Does the RIT Web site fall under the purview of IT or is it done somewhere else?
DiLorenzo: We manage the infrastructure for the site in our central IT department. All the colleges manage their own content, and we have an internal university relations department that's responsible for a piece of that as well. We have a Web Advisory Committee that sets standards for the site. The first two or three layers are very consistent in look and feel. After that, we let the colleges vary their approach.

EdTech: Most universities have said that the Web site is increasingly important in terms of making an impression with the parents and potential students at the time they're applying. If it's lackluster it can hurt your application rates. What are you doing to make sure that people get a positive vibe about the campus environment when they visit your site?
DiLorenzo: That's actually the mission of our Web Advisory Committee. Part of its mission is to test-market our site. They'll use a controlled environment and give various people – students, parents – a script to follow, let them navigate the site and provide feedback on how easy or difficult it was to find information. We solicit their suggestions on how to improve the site. We do that constantly to ensure that the site is up to date and easily navigable, with all the right information.

EdTech: Are there any points you wanted to cover that we haven't touched on yet?
DiLorenzo: I wanted to mention some things we're doing to prepare IT students for the future. Videogaming is becoming huge. We actually have a concentration in the IT department specifically on videogaming design that we're trying to develop into a degree program.

Another exciting program is the newly launched master of science degree in security technology from RIT's Center for Multidisciplinary Studies. More information is available at http://www.rit.edu/~930www/NewsEvents/2006/Jun01/t1.html.

EdTech: Do a lot of schools offer a degree in videogaming?
DiLorenzo: We're one of the first. We've been doing it for quite a while, and we're trying to make it more visible because it is catching on.

EdTech: What accomplishments are you most proud of at RIT?
DiLorenzo: I've been here about five years. During that time we were able to implement a full wireless solution. We have multiple high-bandwidth connections to the Internet and to Internet II –which allows higher education and some other institutions to share information and collaborate – and we've done that at a very cost-effective rate. So we have lots of bandwidth – both on campus and externally.

We're moving into technologies such as the convergence of voice, video and data. We're looking at providing cable service over Internet Protocol, which combines voice, video and data into one IP-based technology. For example, as a user I have a phone number, an e-mail address, maybe an IM screen name and various other pieces of info that people can use to reach me.

In this new system, a caller needs only one piece of information. If someone calls my phone number and I'm not there, the phone can send me an e-mail message, or ring over to my cell phone or my BlackBerry. This technology changes the way people are being communicated to, which also changes the way curriculum and content will be delivered in the future.

EdTech: What books are you currently reading?
DiLorenzo: Good to Great, by Jim Collins. As part of RIT's strategic plan, our president has challenged us to be not only good but great. One of his references was Collins' book. He also challenged us to consider how we can execute great ideas. That's why I'm reading The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy. If you can't deliver it, what's the sense?

EdTech: What's your worst tech habit?
DiLorenzo: Trying to keep up with e-mail.

EdTech: What's the most important tech trend that you see?
DiLorenzo: The convergence of voice, video and data. It's tremendously important – not just for education, but for society as a whole.

EdTech: What's your hope for the future?
DiLorenzo: ID management – to be able to track an identity cradle to grave, so that we would be able to track anyone who touches RIT at any point, from being an interested, potential student, going through the application process, being accepted, becoming a student, graduating to alumnus status and on throughout the person's entire career.

Lee Copeland is editor in chief of Ed Tech.

Rochester Institute of Technology

Location: Rochester, New York

Enrollment: 15,200

Founded: 1829 (known then as the Rochester Athenaeum; formally named RIT in 1944)

Founder: Revolutionary War veteran, Col. Nathaniel Rochester

Tuition: 1886: $8 per term for drawing; $12 for painting and modeling; evening classes, free

Network: Installed campuswide network in 1982

BlackBerry Access to E-Mail: Some Points to Consider

It's a good idea to set up a pilot program of faculty, students and staff to determine whether the system is feasible on your campus. Use the pilot group to explore these issues:

1. Does the infrastructure work as promised?

2. Is it secure enough?

3. Is your IT department able to support it adequately, in terms of staff and funding?

4. Does it integrate well into your mail system?

5. Is it robust enough to scale up if needed for the future?

6. Will you charge a fee or use other some other payment system to cover licensing?

7. Will the fee or payment system be accessible for your student demographic?