Jul 27 2021

How Are Colleges Defining DX?

To be successful, college IT leaders say digital transformation requires a combination of cultural, workforce and technological changes.

Brown University’s digital transformation effort was once fragmented. Its IT team and digital team, which includes mobile and web developers, worked in separate organizations, and tension paralyzed the effort. William Thirsk was hired in 2019 to fix the situation.

“There’s tension because they come from different worlds,” says Thirsk. Digital staffers, he explains, are more creative and like to brainstorm ideas to improve user experiences, while IT workers are more technical and focused on keeping systems running. As the university’s first combined chief digital officer and CIO, Thirsk took charge of both groups and trained them to better understand digital transformation, customer service and communication. Today, he says, they’re a cohesive, collaborative unit.

Higher education, like every industry, has embraced digital transformation (DX), particularly over the past year, when the pandemic forced schools to pivot to remote work and learning. EDUCAUSE defines DX as the process of optimizing an institution’s operations, strategic direction and value proposition, but it requires coordinated culture, workforce and technology shifts. That means creating a culture that embraces change, adding new roles and training staffers to implement DX. It’s also more than just one-off projects; it’s a larger, coordinated effort.

“It’s the coming together of those three areas that make transformation possible,” says Betsy Reinitz, director of the Enterprise IT Program at EDUCAUSE.

Technology that enables DX includes mobile apps, cloud, storage and data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, all of which enable better decision-making, she says.

Every college’s DX journey is unique. Some are well on their way to DX, while some are just starting out. However, their efforts have many goals in common, including improving education, student success and business operations.

A DX Roadmap for Higher Education

Located in Providence, R.I., Brown has concrete goals for DX, half of which the school has already completed. Still, Thirsk and his team are flexible and pursue new projects and new ideas.

“People ask what the roadmap is for the next five years,” he says. “We are like Lewis and Clark: We create the map as we go. We’re taking opportunities as they come up.”

Thirsk defines DX as creating new value for the campus community. Within several months of his arrival, he and his staff launched a mobile app that provides the campus community with information and the ability to order food, check the availability of laundry machines and get real-time information on shuttle arrivals.

The university also launched a portal site for faculty, staff and students. Administrators, for example, can access applications, see important alerts and view their schedules and tasks for the day. “It’s very much a one-stop shop,” he says.


Not every DX project is customer-facing, however. Purging Brown’s systems of “technical debt” — the accumulation of applications and code deployed as singular, short-term solutions — is another DX success, Thirsk says

Brown’s IT staff has eliminated about 370 custom programs that integrate applications, replacing them with standard application programming interfaces. “That was a lot of custom code to maintain,” he says. “Getting it out of the way is the only way you can create room for actual transformation.”

The IT team also collaborates with campus departments on DX projects. For example, the university deployed Internet of Things sensors to improve facilities management. It’s also integrating applications and data to create dashboards to provide staff with insights on grades, conduct and more. “If students are having trouble, we can reach out to them and provide support,” he says.

Modernizing the University of Southern California

In Los Angeles, the University of Southern California recently built a new IT organization and invested in new IT infrastructure, both of which serve as foundations for the university’s DX initiatives, says USC CIO Douglas Shook.

When he became CIO five years ago, Shook inherited a legacy-based, traditional IT department primarily focused more on maintaining administrative systems and less on customers’ needs.

“We knew we had to change the way we worked,” Shook says. “We knew our products, deliverables and services needed to be digital. Our customers are digital natives who are used to sophisticated customer interfaces.”

He and his team built a new IT organization. They created 160 new job titles and launched new IT offices focused on transformation management, customer experience, culture and communications, and staff development. Today, the 300-person, diverse and gender-
balanced staff is focused on DX and customers’ needs. “We had to change how we were organized to enable this kind of change,” he says.

Douglas Shook
We knew we had to change the way we worked, we knew our products, deliverables and services needed to be digital.”

Douglas Shook CIO, University of Southern California

USC recently upgraded to a state-of-the-art network built with Hewlett Packard Enterprise Aruba switches and Wi-Fi gear to ensure fast, dependable access to digital content, says Susan Tincher, USC’s associate CIO of infrastructure services. The university is also upgrading servers and storage with Dell VxRail hyper-converged infrastructure to ensure scalability and speed, she says.

The school is also pursuing additional DX projects throughout campus, including an improved digital hub for students. The first version was built in nine weeks during the pandemic, giving students access to student organizations and online events. The IT team is refining it and adding academic information, says Veronica Garcia, USC’s associate CIO of application services.

“This app tells you your grades, that you have an exam coming up, a bill due or that it’s time to leave for class,” she says.

RELATED: John O'Brien advises universities on using DX as a springboard to strategic IT.

DX Acceleration in Community Colleges 

Universities say the pandemic helped them speed DX adoption. In Northern California, Foothill-De Anza Community College District had the tech tools in place for remote work before March 2020. However, it took the pandemic and resulting lockdown to prompt widespread adoption, says Joseph Moreau, the district’s vice chancellor of technology.

Before, only a few groups at Foothill College and De Anza College used the digital tools, which include Zoom and Adobe Sign digital signature software. When Moreau first tried to convince departments to abandon paper processes and go digital, most said they were too busy to make the switch.

“Before everyone transitioned to working from home, they asked, ‘How could we work remotely?’” he recalls. “I told them, ‘Don’t worry. We have you covered. Remember when you said you were too busy to learn the technology? Now is the time to learn.’”

In the past, most administrators insisted on face-to-face meetings. “Now we have people asking, ‘Why did we insist on making people drive back and forth between campuses?” he says.

The pandemic has led to a culture change that will drive more digital transformation activities in the future, Moreau says. “It’s spawned a new type of thinking. They realized it’s not that hard, and now they want to try other new things that will save time and effort.”

Alex Williamson

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT