Higher Digital President Joe Gottlieb sat down for a chat with CEO Wayne Bovier to dive deeper into his recent blog post that addressed why higher education executives must continue to make distance education a strategic imperative. He shared the top five investments institutions can make now as budgets are stretched, and how to expand their reach to engage more students while lowering costs. Listen in to learn more!
Joe Gottlieb (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to our very first Higher Digital coffee talk. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President of Higher Digital, and I'm joined by Wayne Bovier, our CEO and Co-Founder of Higher Digital. Welcome, Wayne.
Wayne Bovier (00:10):
Thanks Joe. It's great to be here with you. So what do you want to talk about today?
Joe Gottlieb (00:14):
Well, this being our first Higher Digital coffee talk, I thought we would talk about a recent blog that happens to be on a really, really great topic. This blog is all about technology investment and the recommendations that you make on how institutions should grapple with technology investment and how they can leverage the urgency of COVID to really drive this as an extension of mission. So, I'd like to really dive into that piece. Sound like a plan?
Wayne Bovier (00:37):
Yeah, that sounds like a great plan. Sure thing.
Joe Gottlieb (00:39):
Alright. Let's get started. Alright. So you titled the blog, How to Leverage COVID-era Urgency to Extend your Institution's Mission. We'll get to the recommendations a bit later, but first I want to talk about the point you made in the very beginning about how buildings have been the unit of evolution in higher ed for the last several centuries and how we need to reframe that unit of evolution, in the digital world. Help me with that one.
Wayne Bovier (01:05):
Yeah, sure. So, higher education has been around for centuries and essentially, it has evolved, but not significantly to any degrees. And, even in today's world, in COVID worlds, you see, you pick up a newspaper and you read about a lot of institutions that are really struggling and in particular, their finances. And historically, the response that institutions have had about, well, "How do we get more students? How do we attract? How do we become more prominent?" always pretty much centered around an investment around buildings. "Do we have a great rec center? More dorms? A lot more academic buildings?" And so, this cuts across the globe in terms of that tendency and leaders to date really have looked at a building, and buildings as a way to establish and create their personal legacy, as part of their fingerprints on kind of that institution and their traditions and so on. In what we're starting to see is that there really isn't much. I mean, when you really dig into it, there's really not much of a difference between the concept about building buildings to attract more students versus building more technologies to reach more students.
And the investment in the wind to go through those types of investment, they're similar in many ways. Technology can be more nimble, but the planning, the strategy, the effort, the prioritization, just with staffing, to figure out what we should do, is really not being done on the digital side. It is not treated as something similar to that. And so, I brought that up in the article to really drive home a point that, when you look at it from a purely kind of like MBA perspective, like a business perspective, higher education is going through a real disruption. It is not really that different than retail, as a parallel example on this. And so, how they reach students, what they need to invest in.They have the capabilities, right? They know how to do buildings, but they just haven't brought that kind of approach and thinking to an actual digital world. And that's really why I started out that article with that point.
Joe Gottlieb (04:00):
So the upshot being, take the same level, if not even greater level of urgency of planning, of crossfunctional engagement, that you would in building a new building, which might be supporting a new degree program, bring that same level of engagement to the way you start to construct your digital future, the way you roll out online offerings, et cetera. I love it. I love it. Let's talk about timing. Why is it so urgent to leverage COVID as a forcing function for technology investment? And help me with some of the, maybe some of the potential blow back that's been resulting from COVID, and how we can reframe that in a way that's very positive and sort of, enabling and triggering for organizations that want to change.
Wayne Bovier (04:48):
Yeah, that's great. Great question. As an entrepreneur and going kind of through my background and my experience and training, and anytime there's a challenge to your business, you have two choices really. You retreat from it or you view it as an opportunity. And really the point I'm making is that this is really an opportunity, for that. And so, this is really an opportunity, right? COVID presents an opportunity for the higher education industry, and the good news, I think, as an industry, I mean, this is absolutely unique situation, that is going to have long lasting impact for every higher education institution.
This is not like anything we've seen in the past, and it certainly has accelerated the expectations across prospects, families, parents, employers, everybody. Their expectations have changed. And so, now isreally the time to take advantage of this. And, I always view that these opportunities are, I do view these as opportunities. But in particular, you have to set aside time. And we're seeing too often that institutions are scrambling. Certainly back in March, it made a lot of sense. And I wouldn't have doubted that being in kind of reactionary mode to the reality, I don't hold anybody responsible for that. You've got to do what you've got to do to overcome emergencies and things like that. But now that we're sixeight months into this, we should be at a point and institutions should be at a point, where they're really stepping back and saying, "Okay, how do we really take advantage of this situation?"
Because what the corporate world has learned is that location becomes less important and hiring and office space is really being questioned about how valuable that is. And so, that is something that, that genie's not going back in that bottle. And as an industry, we need to figure out a way to take advantage of this. And one example, we'll get onto it at another coffee talk, but the idea about how people really learn. There are some enormous advantages that are really untapped and really not considered that technology provides and distance learning provides. And we are really at the beginning of all of this. Just the technology alone is what I would call very elementary. Innovation and where things are going to go is going to be a lot more immersive and engaging.
But I also think it's an opportunity for those that teach, on how do they use technology to teach? How do they become more effective at teaching? And so, this is now the time to do it. Lots of institutions are investing in it. They're moving forward. They're leaning into this. And that's really kind of the point that I'm making is that, don't let a good challenge or reality of COVID go to waste. This is a great time to at least start to talk about and put down some paper and plans on how to do this better.
Joe Gottlieb (08:30):
Yeah. I think it's important, just to build on what you're saying there, to not look at this as binary, right? This is, sure, the genie will never fully go back in the bottle. This won't become the completely new normal, but we won't change back to the old way. And I think what COVID has done both for business in general, but also in higher ed, it's really accelerated, as I know you like talk about. It's accelerated the advance into what's possible with online education, because it became the necessary delivery method for education to continue. Just like remote work became the necessary engagement model for all other businesses and all other industries. And so, like you say, office complexes aren't going to go away, but they're probably going to be at better optimized and perhaps utilized less and become less the point of emphasis for the future of business. Similarly, not only given what's possible with online delivery technology today, and what's needed to get through this pandemic and perhaps be prepared for future scenarios that are similar. We are, I think, discovering some of the awesome potential of technology because that forcing function is actually creating it to be an opportunity for it to be more normal. So we see leaders out there disrupting the education industry, pushing online and pushing new methods. And frankly, a lot of institutions are caught a little bit, in a mode where they may be defensive or not yet prepared to join in. And so I want to next ask you about the fact that you pin the purpose of the blog to help institutions think about how they might leverage urgency and COVID to extend the mission. First, let's talk about missions in higher ed. What's the state of missions today? Because I think it's an important context for how institutions are finding themselves in this.
Wayne Bovier (10:32):
Yeah. This gets to the meat of everything. Look, let me start by saying, there's a economic and practical side to technology and investment. And let me explain what I mean by that. Prior to COVID, you're a parent, I'm a parent, right? We see all different perspectives of this, but literally for the last five to ten years in particular, certainly at the federal level, there's been a lot of conversation around the cost of higher education and how it's an incredible barrier for too many people. And when you compare that to the cost of living increases, compared to the cost increases, the financial increases that most institutions have made, it is significantly above year, over year of the cost of living, and type of increases.
And so, when you look again at just a pure business perspective, and I know in higher ed that word business is frowned upon by a lot of people, but the reality is, it is a business. There's revenue associated with it and costs and all that kind of stuff, basic balance sheets, is that, that somebody is funding these inefficiencies, right? And institutions have kind of have gotten away with it. And there's a lot of reports about like just the administrative overhead in the last ten to twenty years has increased a hundred percent across almost every single institution. So, ultimately the practical side of investing in technology is you have to lower the costs. Your mission should be at the end of the day, for the most part, teaching students.
Yes, there's research-based and that's all super important, but what we're talking about here with technology in particular, is about broadening your mission or coming home to your mission. And at the core of that is, we want to engage students, whether they're a liberal arts college or a big research I institution, the reality is you have to engage with students. You want to graduate them because employers need the training, they need to hire younger talent to fill certain jobs and roles. And so technology is at a very basic level, a way to extend your mission but there also is a practical side, that it is really the only option that institutions have to try to drive efficiency through their administrative processes.
And I'm not necessarily saying that technology needs to replace people's jobs, but I think there's an inordinate amount of manual processes that are accepted because they can afford it. You can look at community colleges as an example, and community colleges are a good example of the building conversation we just had. Most community colleges have limited budgets, and in many cases they don't have land. So, they were forced to be creative on how to use technology and all these other ideas about how do we engage with students a little bit more? And so, to me, I don't see any difference between the historical traditional missions of these institutions and investing in technology.
Joe Gottlieb (14:08):
Well, I think that's a good setup. I'd like to now get into the five recommendations you make, because the context here is, "What can institutions do to leverage this urgency, frankly, through investing in technology?" Now, we point out that it's one of the main mechanisms available to tap into advances in learning, what we're learning about learning science. We're going to talk about that in another time, but you also mentioned what's happening in education. I think is more and more the need to examine efficiencies and overhead. There's the delivery enhancement, but also the automation and operations efficiency behind any business today. Higher ed not to be excepted. The first recommendation you make is that, "Boards, Presidents, Vice Chancellors, and Provosts must own, and drive this change. You cannot delegate. Institutional viability could be at stake." I think that's a great way to start because it has to be led from the top. Let's talk about that.
Wayne Bovier (15:06):
Yeah. That is one I run into almost on a daily basis, and simply put, historically technology was viewed as a cost center. Most institutions at least now are starting to recognize that it's not just a cost center. The reality is when anything, technology being the topic, but when anything becomes from a tactical to strategic, those leaders that own the strategy have to own it. In this case, it is this evolution that technology really has got to be a core competency, and it has to be treated strategically. There are some real structural challenges within an institution that are unique to higher education compared to other industries including the siloed nature of budget authority and decision-making. A lot of Deans and Vice Presidents have full budget authority. Traditionally, those departments, in some lights have been competitive with other departments for budget and have been very focused on their department, and not taking a holistic view. That in turn, impacts their technology purchases, and anybody that knows anything about the technology ecosystem of any institution knows how complicated, convoluted, and challenging it is just to maintain. And so, when you have that structural challenge on top of it, it gets in the way of a digital strategy because you have an enormous amount of what we call technical debt, which we'll address in a future coffee talk and in that article that I'll be publishing here soon, is that, if the leaders that ultimately are responsible for the entire footprint of the institution, if they are not doing it, then inertia and the historical structural realities of institutions are going to continue.
So, you need to use technology as an enabler. Just like, again, going back to buildings, we have to be really thoughtful, that if we're going to spend several million dollars on a new building, let's be really clear and thoughtful that we have the entrances where we want them. The actual labs and the rooms that we're going to be giving the lectures are good for acoustics. Most institutions do spend that level of effort, and they need to do the same thing with the technology. At the end of the day, leaders have to do it. We see too often that if you try to delegate, it will fail. It may not fail immediately, but it will fail. It will come back full circle, and it will land right back on the senior leadership.
Joe Gottlieb (18:16):
Okay, so top leaders have to own this, but in the second recommendation, you encourage, "Higher ed leaders, those same leaders that have to own this, to establish the necessary organizational changes, to implement executive ownership of your digital strategy, for example, promoting IT leadership to the president's council or other similar bodies, and establish or assign an enterprise wide executive to own all technology priorities and investments like a Chief Digital Officer." So, that then starts to build the linkage between ownership and the driving and the execution of this. So let's talk a bit more about that.
Wayne Bovier (18:51):
That's a great question. We see too often strategic plans at institutions that don't include IT. Even in the construction of these strategic plans, they, in many cases, like one of our recent clients, they didn't even have the word "mobile" in there. That is for today's day and age. That's a real problem. It's a miss. And so, especially given today, there are simple steps that institutions can take that move down this path. Yes, it sounds daunting. It sounds complicated. These are new muscles that institutions are going to need to build. And so, they can start by making, and hopefully they have one, an IT plan, but they really need to take their existing IT plan and merge it with a strategic plan.
These typical strategic planning exercises take years and costs hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars in some cases. You don't need to do all of that. What you need to do is turn it around quickly, and merge the two, and come up with a consolidated and centralized plan that really starts to prioritize what you want to do as an institution. How does that attach to the mission and strategic imperatives that we have? Because the strategic imperatives are really the most important thing, and everything should hinge off of that. You really want to make sure the technologies are enablers. It's not the end all be all. It's an enabler to accomplish what your strategic imperatives are. You just need to put together a short-term plan, twelve to eighteen months, and you should be looking at it at least on a quarterly basis. What'll end up happening, is you start to build new muscles and new capabilities where in the past you did in five- to ten-year strategic plans. All of a sudden, now you're doing a more continuous planning type of process.
Joe Gottlieb (20:58):
I know we talk about IT being at the table, not under the table, or even absent from the room. They need to be part of the way that you think about and evolve your strategic change, your strategic evolution. In your third recommendation, you said, "Implement a 12 to 18 month enterprise wide digital transformation plan driven by your strategy," I think this is really important, "driven by your strategy to renew the importance of a quality learning experience for students, intentionally well-supported pedagogical environment for faculty and effective delivery of student support services." So, three, I think really important points of emphasis there, but I want to double-click on the importance of faculty support and how effective leadership in this area can eliminate a lot of the finger-pointing and get everybody focused on extending the mission. After all, we're here to educate students. Faculty are the biggest part of the product in that endeavor. And so, we need to do a good job of enabling them with technology when they might not be particularly comfortable technology. Faculty might've signed up in an era where it didn't require them to rethink in a new way, the way they construct a course for these new methods. The "winners" or insitutions are figuring out how to bridge that gap and not finger-point, but instead create once again, an innovative atmosphere for those faculty.
Wayne Bovier (22:29):
Yeah, that is a great one. Faculty have really been underserved by technology software companies. IT departments, and at the end of the day, have not been prioritized. What has resulted, is within the industry, faculty is looked to as the ones that are going to stop innovation and stop progress. When you really look at it, and from my perspective, faculty at the end of the day, want to teach. Really over the last twenty to twenty-plus years, technology has just introduced one barrier after another, added to their workload. The results are the same in many cases. There really hasn't been a concentration on faculty and how they should be using technology.
So, there's an enormous gap there. I know that there are institutions that prioritize this, but it really just hasn't hit any mainstream level of understanding. If you free up your faculty away from these technical barriers, you now have an opportunity for them. In most cases, a lot of faculty are interested in evolving how they teach. There are definitely some old school, "This is the way I'm teaching. This is the way it's always going to be." There is nothing anybody can do to change that. But, going back to, Sanjay Sarma, from MIT who wrote, the "Grasp" book and gave a phenomenal lecture at ASU GSV, last week, he really talked about how people learn, the cognitive science and psychology behind learning.
He made a comment that most faculty don't even understand that. Ultimately, technology presents a way based upon how our brains work, how technology can really provide better training. To be honest, when you look back over the last twenty years, when Blackboard first came out with the LMS, and distance learning was a brand new concept, there was a lot of pushback. I would say, a significant 90 plus percent pushback from faculty saying, "This is really ineffective. You need to be physically present to learn." The reality is, there's been research after research that has proven this to be absolutely wrong. There is a lot more retention. There is the ability to master a subject based upon online learning. Now, if you think about online learning today, again, you can't just look at it today and say, "This is it?" What institutions, and faculty need to do is put in the structure, including the enablement of technology, to evolve.
They need to try new things and take advantage of how students learn. The fact, like lectures, perfect example, again, Sanjay Sarma basically highlighted the fact that after six minutes in a lecture, our mind wonders. And so, there are ways to leverage technology to be more engaging. How do we get there? I don't have the answer to that today, but we know we need to figure that out as an industry, but we need to start to deal with our current reality so we can get there and try these new things.
Joe Gottlieb (26:30):
I know we will tackle that topic and the Sanjay Sarma perspective, and how we might utilize it in helping institutions to rethink their strategy and rethink their approach a bit to enroll faculty, again, particularly the pioneers that want to evolve the learning, and lead by example. We'll talk more about that, but I think for this piece, it's important to just recognize that there's been a lot of finger-pointing. I think IT has had a tendency when not being invited to the table usually, to just look upward and figure out, "Well, what are the things that I can just make available digitally that are known?" What are the common things, the horizontal things like syllabus? With Zoom, it's like, "Okay, we'll put lectures online." That achieves a stop gap, but it doesn't tap into what's possible with asynchronous learning andfeedback mechanisms, where each student might learn a different way or at a different pace.
We'll get into all that. Let's now talk about the fourth recommendation, "Evaluate and audit your entire technology ecosystem to (a) identify your technical debt, (b) prioritize systems and/or technical debt to refresh or retire, and (c) identify investment areas that will enhance your student satisfaction, financial performance, and operational efficiency." So, this is a big one, but I think what it really represents is the need to own it. We talked about the need to create linkage in the organization. We talked about the need to make it driven by strategy, and extension of mission, and cross-functional. Now, this one, I think, looks at how we need to grapple with the technology infrastructure we're dealing with. If there's technical debt, how do we get off of that technical debt that might be holding us back? How do we help the infrastructure we get leverage and hopefully the ability to do things faster, not slower? How do we move that forward so that we can be even more agile with our strategy, even more capable of rolling out new programs, more quickly, being able to tune things based upon feedback? The feedback loop in education and the improvement cycle has been relatively slow. So, this is a big one, but I think it's at the heart now of the technology, sort of looking up into strategy and understanding, "What can it do to anticipate the need for a better platform for change?"
Wayne Bovier (28:59):
This is a big topic, and we'll cover this relatively briefly, but dive into it more in a future date as well. Ultimately again, getting back to senior leadership, every institution has technical debt. Every institution has it. I would say it's a pretty significant amount. Technical debt is defined as essentially any customization. This is really the easiest and pedestrian way to define it. It's really any customization that has been created over the last, in many cases, thirty years to get any one system or systems to either talk together, integrated, or do a unique thing which ultimately impacts the software. There's maintenance involved. So, there's a lot of pieces to this. However, if you do not understand the level of technical debt that you have, you can put together the best strategy and everyone is going to buy into it, but you're not going to be able to execute on it because you're being weighed down by a huge anchor.
You want to start to run and sprint as an organization, but you're dragging along 300 extra pounds. Therefrore, creating your strategy, putting a plan together, is really an important part, but it is just a part. If you don't have a realistic and comprehensive understanding of your technical infrastructure, then you're not going to be successful. Again, going back to the buildings, if you're not maintaining your buildings, or if you create something unique in your buildings, and you want to start to do something new, there's a lot of debt associated with that. So, it's a similar type of concept here.
Joe Gottlieb (30:59):
I love that. Let's go back to that analogy. I like that. So just to play off of it a little bit, if you've constructed a very proprietary building with very proprietary plbing systems and subsystems, you can't hire anyone to help you fix it. You have to maintain a staff that is able to maintain that building. You cited, I think the number one use case for technical debt, the number one source, and that is, we want to take a shortcut, not changing our process. We want to customize a platform to do things the way we currently do it rather than consider maybe doing it a different way. Maybe that's been built into the software because people are doing it in a new way that we should consider. So, that becomes the worst kind of technical debt. Another way I like to think of technical debt is just any shortcut that doesn't take the time to architect for future possibilities and frankly, future velocity. So, it's these shortcuts we take and it's because technology complicated. This would be, again, like another analogy, if you're a car person, and you attach really advanced systems on your car that you don't know how to maintain. Now, you're beholden unto the specialists that can come in and maintain those. They get expensive, and if you have new things you want to do with the car, things go South in a hurry.
Wayne Bovier (32:17):
Yeah. I mean, it's totally true. It's risk. There's not only financial risk, but what you highlighted is staff risk. A lot of institutions have older, retiring IT staff. We have a handful of either existing engagements or opportunities in front of us where there is significant risk to the institution because they customized, let's say a grading system. This grading system is independent, runs on Microsoft Access, was created twenty, thirty years ago, twenty-five years ago, that only one person knows how to technically maintain. Well, that is your historical grading. That is your database for grades. If you lose that and that person retires, what are you going to do? So, really the risk associated with this, both for the staffing and knowledge as well as the actual operational risk, is a real challenge for institutions to face.They have to understand what risks that they face on this.
Joe Gottlieb (33:36):
Interesting. All right. So the fifth recommendation, the fifth and final is, "Determine and review your IT technology budget. If it falls below 5% of your overall budget, then seriously consider increasing to 10 to 15%, at least during this period of fresh strategic investment. For many institutions, this will require tapping into your reserves or endowments, but just as you justify this for the development of new buildings in the past, you should be able to justify this investment your digital future." Now I read that aloud because I feel like it is a big recommendation. I think it's the kind of medicine that a lot of institutions know they need to take, but undoubtedly, it will be controversial. There's a lot of pressure on finances. And so, let's talk about what it takes to reframe the importance of investing in mission at a point where it's,"This is not a typical annual budgetary expense. This is something that's going to have to propel us for the future of education, the future of learning." So how should we go about thinking about this? This is going to be tough.
Wayne Bovier (34:41):
Yeah, and another big one. There are a lot of pieces to this one because just throwing money at something is not going to solve the problems. I also want to highlight something right upfront, which might sound like it's self-serving, given what Higher Digital does in our business, but ultimately this is really about helping the institution start to think differently and move forward, and make the necessary changes. One of the key things I learned early on in my career as well, again, going back to my business training is, you can't cut your way to growth. In order to grow, you will have to do some things differently and you will have to invest.
Again, it wasn't that long ago, building buildings was a way to grow. Even during tough economic times, there was a really good business justification to build buildings, to increase the budget, to tap into the endowment. This holds true here, with technology. I would actually even argue it's even more so because the benefits, the efficiencies, the cost savings. The potential there for cost savings is enormous, then the efficiency and the engagement, and the reach. Again, part of the physical nature of institutions is they recruited physically within communities. So, you're a hundred miles away. There was a radius of people that they would try to recruit from. Well, with technology, location really becomes less important, and you can attract way more students.
There are a lot of examples out there like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire, and Arizona State University that are successful in providing a cost-effective and accessible way to access an education and get a degree. The institutions just have do a better job of investing in this. Let me be clear too, when I say the budget needs to increase, this isn't just a technology thing like, "We need to invest in moving from on-premise to the cloud, or we need to buy this new software package. We're going to replace our ERP." It is also inclusive of your organization and your operations. So, you need to think through, in many cases, we've talked with a lot of our clients about this, which is, Who owns your digital strategy?
The natural answer is, "Well, the CIO." Well, in most cases, the CIO runs a team that's super efficient. The team has everything down to where they have all the trains running on time, but no one is stepping back by saying, "Okay, where are new prospects coming from? What are the trends in innovation technology? How can we take advantage of that?" That's from an organizational point of view. A new role we've seen created in other industries is a Chief Digital Officer, or a Chief Online Officer. Two of our clients like UMGC, University of Maryland Global Campus, and American University created two new roles, one Chief Online Officer with AU and a Chief Digital Officer with UMGC. These are new roles. They're moving. They recognize this. There are other institutions that are moving down that path and that's part of that investment. It isn't just in technology or the increase in IT staff. It also is inclusive of your organization and how you operate.
Joe Gottlieb (38:38):
Right on. Alright, let's bring this coffee talk to a close. We've offered five recommendations. Any suggestions on prioritization, sequencing, or working these things in parallel?
Wayne Bovier (38:49):
Well, I think you need to put together a plan. You need to centralize a plan. You have to take those silos head on because that is a major structural challenge for institutions to overcome the digital disruption that they're all facing. It is the path to get to providing more access, reaching more students, and diversifying. If you're a traditional four-year institution, maybe you need to look at certificates and associate's degrees and master's degrees. You have to look at potentially diversifying, because employers need it. The actual students need it right now. We're in a different era where education and training is much more important. The reality is, automation is accelerating and requiring new training every so often. This idea that you get your degree, and then you spend thirty, thirty-five years in a career and you stay in that, you're good, that era is over. We're going to have to constantly learn. And so, put together a strategy. Start to really understand, and do a technical audit and due diligence of where you are, what systems you have, where are your risks. Those are the two places that I would start.
Joe Gottlieb (40:09):
Good stuff. Wayne, thanks so much for joining me today and thanks to our guests for joining us as well. We hope you have a great day, and we look forward to hosting you again on another coffee talk here at Higher Digital. Thanks. Great. Thanks, Joe. Thanks everyone.