Category Archives: academic

Great Possibilities for my New CIO Role

I just finished up a visit to Western Washington University where I will be the Interim CIO for a year starting June 20th. I pleased to say that I am very excited about the prospects for the job and the university. Once I came out of the wilderness at the end of 2015 I decided I was ready to return to higher education and the opportunity that I selected was this unique role as an Interim CIO for one year. This all began thanks to a recommendation from an external review of the WWU Information Technology organization conducted by Marty Ringle, President of the Northwest Academic Computing Consortium, NWACC. One of the recommendations offered was to consider hiring an Interim CIO who would be able to work with the TBD new President exploring how WWU might want their Information Technology organization to be structured. Well I was one of the possible candidates and the stars aligned with respect to their believing in me and my ability to commit to this interim role.

Spending 2 days in Bellingham meeting most everyone who has a vested interest in who the new Interim CIO will be was more exhausting than a typical job interview. This was because we had dispensed with the possible and commenced to the real issues that we want to consider. Think about this opportunity. We joked about how I can blame everything on my predecessor CIO and how I have an exit strategy. Translated, that means we can actually place issues on the table with the freedom to actually address them. The reality is that my predecessor, who is retiring after an impressive career, has done a great job to set the stage for moving the IT organization forward. Everyone agrees that budget cuts after the 2008 downturn hit IT especially hard and it has taken a number of years to recover to the point now where they can focus on building rather than just surviving. Yes, I am really excited about the role I will be able to play in leading the Western Washington University Information Technology organization. WWU is a great university located in the beautiful Northwest near some fabulous backpacking opportunities, imagine that. But more important, it is a university where people want to be and that is why I am excited to be one of those people.

Views of Western Washington University

A MOOC Strategy that Worked

It appears that Udacity, one of the early MOOCs, founded by Sebastian Thrun, has found a profitable model based on vocational training. When the MOOCs started out the assumed model was the college course which made total sense with respect to attracting university partners and investment dollars. What a frenzy they created 3-4 years ago as the elite universities strutted their expertise in education technology. MOOCs could make college accessible to the masses, unfortunately, that may not have been what the masses needed nor what the higher education wanted. The elite universities jumped on the bandwagon to make sure they had some control over the destiny of these Massively Open Online Courses, MOOCs. MOOCs have been successful with respect to exposure of college courses to the masses but they have been a dismal failure when evaluated against traditional college courses. That is exactly what higher education wanted, validation that their course delivery model was superior to these new online options.

The New York Times article, “Udacity Says It Can Teach Tech Skills to Millions, and Fast” gives us the story on how transitioning to a vocational training model is paying off for Udacity’s bottom line and for the careers of their students. The test market was obvious, software development, which has been pioneering new models based on the boot camp concept of intensive training typically under the guidance of the interested employers. Good jobs exist for coders of today’s popular development platforms. AT&T has been a leader in trying to manipulate the traditional computer science degree feeder system. I was highly impressed with their Georgia Tech and Udacity partnership to create an affordable MS degree in Computer Science. But that degree program was about affordability and marketing, not about a more successful MOOC model.

Udacity’s new program, Nanodegree, “Credentials built and recognized by industry leaders to advance your career”, appears to be the successful outcome to all of the trial and error experience gained by the MOOCs. The financial commitment of $200 per month with the incentive to receive half of it back upon successful program completion within a year is the motivation needed by the 10,000 students currently enrolled. The concept is still work at your own pace so one could turn this into a very affordable boot camp solution. I am currently enrolled in the Udacity course “JavaScript Basics” for the fun of it and so far Udacity has done an excellent job of coaching me to be successful.

The MOOC supporters such as AT&T may have finally found the right formula with Udacity’s Nanodegree. Instead of hiring college graduates with programming aptitude and retraining them maybe the corporate employers have finally found a way to satisfy their appetite for software developers.

Teaching Real Business Skills

SAP University AlliancesI recently attended the SAP Academic Conference Americas 2015 in Tempe, AZ. I was invited to help present a session on how we had stimulated teaching and research with the purchase of our own HANA appliance at our university. I have mentioned this in previous posts but that was more about the strategic reasoning for why I invested in the leading “Big Data” solution. This conference was for the business professors who are committed to teaching SAP ERP and are excited about teaching the upcoming S4HANA Business Suite.

Yes, everyone was very impressed with how we have integrated HANA into our teaching curriculum and have shown how it can aid in scholarly research. But that success is due to our dedicated and talented professor, Bih-Ru Lea, who totally gets what our corporate partners want from her graduates. The conference attendee audience really could not fathom how a CIO would invest in technology that would actually advance their academic mission. This was flattering for me but what I took away from interacting with these professors was far more interesting. I sensed that most of the academics were just glad to have a job and teaching SAP ERP was a dependable niche. Many were at the conference hoping to discover options for how to get their research publication selected by an accredited journal with the inevitable goal of achieving tenure.  And most seemed to be very frustrated with the lack of support they receive from their institution.

There were a few shining stars at the conference though, such as Robert Léger at HEC Montreal who helped develop and now champions the use of the ERPsim simulation or Bret Wagner at Western Michigan, another ERPsim contributor who is developing improved algorithms. This was encouraging to see this commitment to giving students an education that directly translates into real life jobs. However, the stars had to buck the academy in pursuit of this more effective teaching strategy. You see, developing this real life business simulation gains very little credit toward promotion and tenure. What I loved was that this didn’t really matter. They were way beyond that lunacy.

There is change in the air but Higher Ed is not behind it. The underlying stimulus for building a curriculum of these useful business skills is coming from the private sector. Obviously SAP has a vested interest, but they have to balance their commitment. SAP still wants to make a profit off their professional training but expanding awareness of their product justifies their support of the higher education ERP program support. It is the consulting companies who are beginning to supply the fuel to this development.

We have been working with a group from Deloitte who are doing their own research on enhancing their student recruiting strategy. PWC was at the conference and I’m sure the other firms are aware of the value of hiring a more experienced work force from higher ed. I know that the graduates who have been fortunate enough to acquire this hands on ERP knowledge are being well compensated. So why isn’t higher education catering to this demand? Because this model does not fit into their academy. And it is the pressure to adapt to the academy which is generating the greatest stress among the professors involved with the SAP Academic Alliance. They need to get published.

I don’t have the time or the stomach to debate the current state of the promotion and tenure process of higher education, but it is broken. I just applaud the professors out there who have abandoned their concern for the process and are actively working on improving their teaching deliverables.

The Great Potential of SAP HANA

DeloittePresentationSM

The experiment with integrating SAP HANA into teaching and research here at Missouri S&T is paying off. Last week I observed our Business and Information Technology, BIT, students presenting their ERP Simulation projects to a team from Deloitte SAP Service Line. What caught my eye was that the students are now incorporating data from our Autism gene mapping research project, which is a university research project that my IT DBA staff are collaborating on in order to learn how to better support SAP HANA. This goes back to my original strategic decision to invest in SAP HANA to allow our researchers and students to align more closely with the desires of our corporate employers. See my blog post from last year. I elaborated on the concept of IT’s changing role as a facilitator of teaching and research in this article published in “CIO Review” last Fall. Observing our students understanding of the potential of SAP’s HANA for the Business Intelligence support for their projects is justification enough for the investment. But the excitement is now being generated by how HANA fits into our overall STEM teaching and research environment.

 The Autism project was a fortunate opportunity to learn and explore the potential of HANA. Feedback from my DBA’s about how HANA is different from their traditional relational database experience is encouraging as well. What I hear is that HANA is initially daunting in it’s complexity. However, it makes the initial database layout easier because it shows you so many more possible relationships. Of course this is the Hadoop foundation based on large in-memory utilization. The HP SAP HANA appliance just packages it all into a more effective tool chest. Combine HANA with an already rich set of BI and Visualization tools, then let talented students run with it and you see the potential is endless.

Back to the Autism Project, the study is fascinating, especially to me with my bioinformatics background. The research investigators include: Drs. Tayo Obafemi-Ajayi, Bih-Ru Lea and Donald C. WunschHere is a portion of their abstract:

Several studies conducted on autism gene expression analysis suggest that autism can be linked to specific genes though there are still no genetic markers that are undeniably diagnostic for idiopathic ASD. What is known is that the genetic landscape of autism is complex, with many genes possibly contributing to the broad autism phenotype. Genetic data analysis involves big data analytics. The ASD HANA in-memory database project will facilitate the goal of the ECE researchers to develop novel computational learning models for analysis of ASD genetic data. The genotype data of these ASD patients is available through the Simons Simplex Collection (SSC).

So the research is progressing and we expect significant new funding thanks to the proof of concept work already done. Chalk up a win for stimulating research. But another win is how the students have applied a portion of the data to create BI class projects. Now they see the connection to the Health Science industry. Because we now understand the potential of HANA we have also validated a research connection for the petroleum industry. This was the hope for the HANA investment, a perfect storm matching STEM savvy Business students with corporate recruiters identifying research ideas is a Win for all. This is the type of IT support flexibility needed by the emerging higher education teaching and research model of the future.

SAP Community reference to our use of HANA to leverage research and teaching

TLT at S&T March 12-13, 2015

Fresh back from the ELI Conference I wanted to compare the agenda for our upcoming Teaching and Learning Technology Conference, TLT, scheduled for March 12-13 here at the Missouri University of Science and Technology campus in Rolla, MO. This conference has matured over the years to be a leading regional conference for Education Technology. Under the direction of Meg Brady, Director, and Angie Hammons, Manager, of Education Technology at Missouri S&T, this conference has an all star lineup with extremely relevant sessions. 

Plus: TLT will be hosting a CanvasCon by Instructure on the 12th.

The Keynote Speakers:

Robbie K. Melton, Ph.D. — Associate Vice Chancellor of Mobilization Emerging Technology; Tennessee Board of Regents,  “The Emergence of Mobile and Smart Devices: Is Your Device Smarter than You?”

Jeff Schramm, Ph.D. — Associate Professor of History & Political Science; Missouri S&T, “MOOC’s, LMS, ELI, PRR, CB&Q and EMD: What the history of technology can teach us about the future of higher education.”

I love the fact that this conference brings together many innovative professors in higher education along with their Instructional Designers, Developers and Technologists, plus many from K-12 who want to make sure their students are properly prepared for college. TLT does carry some Missouri S&T STEM influence but I believe that it only strengthens how EdTech is applied to the liberal arts community. An exciting area of development in the last year has been with the preparation of virtual labs for chemistry and biology.

OH yes, did I mention that our TLT is FREE….

Return to the One Room Schoolhouse

I have seen a trend with my STEM connected colleagues over the last 6 months wanting to discuss concepts of adaptive or competency based learning, CBL. These discussions evolved for many reasons such as; lack of classroom space, course scheduling problems or issues surrounding non-tenure track faculty. This discussion is right on target when it occurs with younger faculty, however, now older faculty are asking questions and seem to be contemplating how this could work. Generally there is agreement that it is inevitable that education will move in this direction, but then you start talking about the repercussions of what that might look like to the higher education business model and fear returns to the conversation. I guess what is different is that now there seems to be recognition of the value of the learning model and discussions are tending toward how we might implement it.

Personalized Learning

I decided to write this post after a number of discussions yesterday, some stimulated by those who viewed CNN’s airing of the “Ivory Tower” documentary. As we talked about implementing adaptive learning to our STEM courses I was drawn to the vision of the old one room schoolhouse. STEM possibly more then any other academic discipline is based on building blocks or competencies. Math and the sciences dominate this with competency based requirements built into courses as well as with interdependencies between courses. So when I thought of the one room schoolhouse I saw it as similar to the students that we receive. In the one room schoolhouse students have to progress through levels of reading, writing and arithmetic, and they had a built in remediation process. The teacher was there to help at all levels.

How did we get to our current college degree attainment path based on taking a selected number of courses that may or may not actually give you all of the competencies that you or your employer desire? I think we used to have a much more standardized entry path to college. Students from high school, mostly Americans, had very similar competencies due to similar curriculums that could not be supplemented by additional information as is now available via the Internet. The over achievers could go to World Book, but for the most part if a student got accepted to college then they pretty much entered at the same level and the progression through a standard set of courses with a few electives worked fine. That world no longer exists. We have screwed up high school believing that standardized testing validates competencies. Combine that with the financial pressure universities are under to maintain enrollment and you end up with a freshman class that is much more in line with the one room schoolhouse.

Change is coming and it will be heavily influenced by competency based learning and I think STEM may be well positioned to adapt to this. We have been working on this concept in our general ed core curriculums of math and science. At first it was about trying to figure out online or hybrid learning but now we are starting to see how we may need to change the academic business model. The emerging CBL providers such as Western Governors are built upon a personalized learning foundation that allows the student to progress at their own pace. Tuition is based on a period of time not on credit hours, which creates the incentive of “the faster you progress, the more you save”. Maybe there is a hybrid version of this that can work for the traditional residential university.

I’m going to take a stab at what this might look like for STEM degrees. I’m looking at this as realist considering what might be acceptable for our entrenched higher education culture, today’s student and the political and financial forces that will inevitably force the change. The first 2 years of most STEM degrees are fairly similar based on the need to build a foundation of math through calculus, basic concepts for the sciences with English and physics typically being foundational as well. This is true for pre-meds through engineering and it is typically fairly challenging to ensure that we are not wasting our time on the students in the upper level of the degree program. So how about a one room schoolhouse for each STEM discipline complete with a set of competency based learning modules designed with assessments that provide adaptive options to complete each step. We have talented non-tenure track faculty always available and still teaching but not on a fixed lecture circuit. The environment would facilitate collaborative learning along with the necessary lab requirements. The student pays the same tuition, and heck we even keep the semester structure. The advanced students finish early or have more time for extra curricular activities such as undergraduate research or experiential learning options. As the student emerges from this general ed core they enter into the more traditional degree completion with the upper level courses and labs taught by tenure track faculty to complete their STEM program.

I’m going to stop here without digging into the obvious questions and details. But what do you think? I think it might be an improvement.

Providing Technology that Students Actually Use

While eating lunch at my desk I opened up the webcam view of our new Nonavitra 6K Visualization Wall we built for use in the library. Three students jumped on the system and proceeded to spend 15 minutes exploring chemical bonding options starting from some periodic table application. I wouldn’t say that it was utilizing hi-res graphics but what was important is that the students were having such a great time exploring. This brings me to what I feel is one of the most important reasons for giving our students access to this visualization resource. The opportunity to explore and gain experience in working with resolution that is typically reserved for corporate showcases or expensive research facilities.

nonavitralibrarySCR-SVRsm

Nonavitra Visualization Wall

The library had an open house a few weeks ago where they introduced Nonavitra and ever since we have seen the reservation schedule for the resource fill up with student groups especially in the evening. In fact one of the first uses for the wall was the rugby club using it to scout a future opponent. But what I love is that student study groups are reserving it.

In the beginning my Research Support team started bugging me to allow them to build some sort of a visualization facility. They wanted to build an immersion visualization experience reminiscent of CAVE2 at the UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL). And yes that would be fabulous but we need to walk before we run, which is why user adoption is the overriding requirement. Last year’s V4DiR focused on 3D data review and the Nonavitra Visualization Wall now allows us to put a powerful visualization resource in the hands of our faculty and students. The one condition that I set was that I would not build a visualization resource that would become relegated to providing campus visitor demos. We seem to be having success with these technology rollouts. The 3D Printer program in the library has been extremely successful. The secret to success is to put your effort into engineering the business process for making the resource available.

RTD 2014 Conference – Further Faster

A benefit that I thoroughly enjoy from being the CIO at Missouri University of Science and Technology is the opportunity to promote, support and participate in research activities. The capstone event that represents IT’s involvement with research is our “Research and Technology Development Conference”, RTD2014, that takes place next week, September 15-16. Putting together a conference such as this is an incredible amount of work which tells you that last year’s event must have been successful or we would never have committed to another year. Actually that is true, at this point in the life span of RTD, 4th annual, a negative outcome would cause us to abandon the effort for the following year. But no, this year’s RTD will be more amazing and we will probably be motivated to continue the tradition.

September 15 - 16, 2014

Here is a quick overview of what the RTD attendees can expect.

Keynote speakers this year include:

(Monday) Wesley Chun, from Google and author of the “Core Python” Series of books

(Tuesday) Mark Suskin, PhD, from the NSF Division of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure 

The conference content is focused around three major pillars:

Computational Science, led by University of Oklahoma and University of Nebraska

Additive Manufacturing, led by University of Louisville and Missouri S&T

Large Scale Visualization, led by Indiana University and University of Texas

Monday morning kicks off with various workshops focused around our Pillars and a very popular Python workshop provided by Wesley Chun. The sessions scheduled for Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning will be showcasing the latest developments in the 3 Pillar areas driven by the lead institutions.

In addition, the RTD Monday Night Social is a networking event not to be missed. In keeping with S&T interests, there will be catered BBQ (from various vendors across Missouri), music, and an incredible fireworks show by the S&T explosives experts.

So why do we do this? The original driver for such a conference is the need to create an opportunity for your university research community to collaborate. Typically this is called Cyberinfrastructure Days at many research institutions and it is required if you receive government research funding. Last year we decided to expand this to more of a regional event thinking that it would promote more intercampus collaboration. It has definitely stimulated more regional research collaboration with respect to sharing resources such as HPC. The potential for RTD justifies the investment especially with help from our vendor community, but it is our amazing staff and students who make it successful. We plan on launching a number of new projects after introducing them at RTD. I’ll follow up with a recap post.

Considering Hire Education

I try to discuss innovation and disruption in higher education on my blog. However, it is difficult at best to dig too deep into these areas since I am digging from the inside. That sounds a bit like digging your own grave and I’ll just leave that comment hanging. But I have been accused of being the most innovative and too innovative and because of that I must carefully manage that perception as it relates to disruption. Higher education as it is primarily established today cannot handle the disruption which tends to evolve from innovation. Very sad really, it means that any innovation in higher education must fit into the existing structure which tends to predict its doom. But it is that structure that is predicting higher education’s doom.

My motivation to open up this topic comes from my increased interactions with our corporate partners looking to hire our students. This is a good thing that we have corporate partners who want to build a relationship with us because the trend is not necessarily moving in that direction. Two recent Gallup Polls revealed that although 96 percent of chief academic officers believe that they are doing a good job of preparing students for employment, only 11 percent of business leaders agree that graduates have the requisite skills for success in the workforce. I hear the same concerns but thankfully we do produce graduates that are acceptable to employers but we cannot rest on our reputation. The skill sets needed by employers is changing much faster then our curriculums.

It is commonly accepted that higher education is approaching a bubble of dramatic disruption. Theories on what that might look like range across the spectrum typically dependent upon what role one plays in that industry. But when you step back from personal feelings it is hard to understand how this system designed centuries ago can continue much longer without some serious overhaul. Of course change or innovation rarely occurs from within, it will be outside forces that create the bubble. Those forces evolve from our customers and the options that they explore. I think the most significant force will come from the employers of our graduates. The Christensen Institute has helped alert us to disruptive signals over the years and I think they have produced an excellent review of how our employers are shifting their tactics in their latest publication “Hire Education”.

The publication as mentioned in the video shifts focus to an examination of online competency-based education. Unfortunately for our traditional institutions of higher education online competency-based education would probably have the most disruptive affect imaginable on our current business model. I do sympathize with the overall value proposition that higher education offers and we should not lose what is working in HE, but I think we know that change is coming, so shouldn’t we we planning for it. Read the “Hire Education” report with an open mind and consider how we might adapt our credit hour, semester based approach to conveying a degree. I am fascinated by how we might adapt our ERP systems. I could see year round college campuses where you protect all that is great about a residential and experiential learning college experience. Maybe some of the students are working in a competency based track and given support from subject matter experts and academic staff. It may not be the tenure track dream job but it could still be an extremely rewarding alternative.

Research Support and Student Experiential Learning

The pursuit of a STEM degree has gained significant attention in recent years as we evaluate the ROI for a college degree. A recent article in NerdScholar by Yesenia Rascon, “Top 5 Reasons to Apply to a Research University” highlights the importance of experiential learning, access to research facilities and hands on career development quantifies many of the reasons we allow our IT student workers the opportunity to participate in exploratory projects. This all relates back to a culture that we promote for our very successful IT Research Support Services, RSS, group here at Missouri S&T. I have been fortunate to be in a position to carve out some IT budget to dedicate to research support. However, because some of my funding comes from student tech fees I make sure that the students benefit from our efforts. This translates via the hiring of student workers, but extends beyond tradition tech support jobs. We hire students in RSS who seek out that opportunity and we benefit from important support services that they are able to provide to our university. However, we also reward them with the opportunity to own their own research projects. Our staff does offer advice and support but we also let the students fail.

Our students also earn the right to attend national research conferences such as the annual SuperComputing and Great Plains Network. These opportunities provide them excellent presentation experience which we utilized this summer by having our students conduct a workshop for the CyberMiner camp for high school students. We asked them to present their current projects to about 50 high school juniors and seniors. We designed the workshop to encourage the campers to engage with our students and it was truly an inspiration Geekfest showcasing our future technology leaders.

Here is a quick glimpse of the projects they presented and a sense of the workshop.

MinerBytes or Digital Signage Project

MinerBytes or Digital Signage Project

MinerBytes which is a digital signage project based on using the Raspberry PI computer connected to any monitor with access control given to designated administrators. This was a project conceived by a biology student last summer and this summer we are preparing it for version 1 production deployment on campus and in our community. Somewhat of a surprise to us was that this project generated the most interest by the high school students as they were intrigued by the coding behind MinerBytes.

Drone Project in Initial Phase

Drone Project in Initial Phase

The Helicopter Drone Project is in its infancy which was good to be able to show the campers how a project gets birthed. We don’t know where this project will go but we believe we should be on top of the explosion in use of drones. We have ideas for using it in creating virtual tours.

First Segway Prototype

First Segway Prototype

The Segway project started out last summer and has proven to be the perfect multi-discipline opportunity for our students. With a heavy electrical, mechanical and software development component we have had many students involved with this one. Our students presenting the Segway gave the campers some excellent advice based on their experience in designing the controller boards which they fried more then once. They told the campers what they appreciate most about their opportunity to work on these projects is that they are allowed to fail, and that has been their greatest learning experience.

Video Wall built by Students

Video Wall built by Students

The Segway prototype moved to a production design this summer which offered an excellent opportunity to display how they used SolidWorks design software on the new Video Wall that RSS built this summer. The Video Wall currently named MinerView is built on solid computer video display principles but was built from scratch with special attention given to the structure to mount the 9 55 inch high resolution monitors. The students had just a few hours to assemble the video wall in the classroom used for the workshop.

Using Video Wall for Engineering Design

Using Video Wall for Engineering Design

The Video Wall will be used in the upcoming Research and Technology Development Conference, #RTDatSandT on September 15-16 where representatives from Indiana University and the University of Texas will show off the latest in visualization techniques. RTD2014 is another great opportunity for students at S&T.

Video Wall to look at Mt Everest

Video Wall to look at Mt Everest

Of course the Video Wall has many uses and will be an important addition to our Library where it will be made available to the entire campus for visualization. We already know that it will be instrumental as a foundation for our Business and Information Technology department’s ERP Center.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of what is possible if your Information Technology department combines the needs of the university with an opportunity for experiential learning.

This New RSS website presents the students projects very well.

Well Rounded Education

In my many years as an IT leader in Higher Education there has always been a relationship with corporate partners who are looking to gain a recruiting advantage for our graduates. When I was at the Christian George Fox University the recruiters would come through me looking for any tech savvy grads I was aware of because they desired their solid work ethics and integrity. Here at Missouri S&T the recruiters are looking for an advantage in connecting with our best students. Problem here is that we do not produce enough graduates so the recruiters are looking for any opportunity possible to lure the student to consider their company.

We know that employers of our tech graduates in the US desire that our grads possess stronger communication and collaboration skills. And I think it is understood that more technology awareness is desired for all graduates. But it has been interesting to confirm feedback from recruiters of our S&T grads that defines how highly they prize our none STEM graduates. Yes, we do produce some graduates with degrees in the humanities, and they are sought after because they are forced to have a strong technology based foundation. This is partly because of the general curriculum requirement of at least 10 natural science or mathematic credits. But the employers say it is also because of the technology culture of the campus which forces those grads to become extremely comfortable working with their fellow STEM students. Due to the many cross discipline group projects our humanities students learn valuable skills in how to work with these sometimes socially challenged STEM students.

Not sure if this justifies anything but it sure can’t hurt to consider greater exposure to STEM curriculum and culture for all college graduates. We do need these humanities grads to help those scientists and engineers have more productive careers.

This recent Bloomberg article “Silicon Valley’s Talent Grab Spawns High School Interns” should be a wake up call for Higher Ed’s inability to produce enough product. Reality is, why wouldn’t tech firms get their recruits on the front end. Of course that is what we should be doing more of.

Why Invest in SAP HANA for Academic Pursuit?

“Big Data” has definitely become an overused term eclipsing the barrage of vendor connections to sell new solutions. It seems like any group that is dealing with data is now referring to it as “Big Data” and in some situations like large research data sets the term is technically correct. The actual definition “data sets that are too large and complex to manipulate or interrogate with standard methods or tools” does create a broad category. I think of “Big Data” from the manipulate or interrogate standpoint that requires techniques to manage (hadoop) and process the data (MapReduce) using computers with large amounts of RAM. And it gets very confusing as we apply our traditional relational DB and BI concepts. But I’m not the one worrying about how it works, I’m trying to figure out the most effective way to make it work, and that relates to skills, budgets and data centers.

A major stimulus for “Big Data” visibility at Missouri S&T is our commitment to offer new Graduate Certificate Programs through Distance and Continuing Education. This has created a flurry of activity in the Computer Science, Computer Engineering and Business Information Technology programs with respect to the creation of new courses and the associated support of “Big Data” teaching resources. We also have significant growth in the need for high performance and throughput computing so I ask why can’t all of the computing hardware be more effectively utilized across these disciplines. Maybe it can, but today we approach the challenge with our traditional operational methodology and the solutions don’t play well together. I was recently encouraged to find out that others in higher ed are exploring this terrain of HPC and hadoop operations. One of our collaborators, Kansas State Beocat, is running into resource scheduling challenges, but they hold out hope that there must be solutions.

So what can we do with a meager budget and limited infrastructure to become a player in “Big Data”. We start with enhancing our skill sets by adapting our traditional DBA talent to hadoop concepts and we steer our analytics specialists to experiment with these new BI tools. Luckily it is affordable to venture into hadoop based data management and there are plenty of open sources BI add ons to get your feet wet. This is building a strong foundation that may produce valuable breakthroughs for more effective teaching and research. But we are going to take this one step further. 

Working with hadoop may establish some “Big Data” concepts that relate to the commercial space, similar to how working with mysql may simulate Oracle DB principles. But is that enough? Does higher education need to be offering teaching and research for what our employers use. I recognized a disconnect a few years back when I took over teaching an “Information Services” class for our business school. They had been teaching basic concepts of spreadsheet, programming and database to students that were being groomed as bean counters. I instead taught them basic concepts of ERP, CRM, BI, DW and had them actively participate in the web by way of blogging and understand SEO. The motivated students thrived and the others survived. I did get some validation from this approach when one of those students now pursuing her MBA commented how far ahead she was because of her understanding these real world solutions.

I mention this correlation between what we teach and research vs what the commercial world relies upon to explain why I am purchasing an SAP HANA platform to support teaching and research at S&T. Today I would equate HANA as the leader for the utilization of “Big Data” in the commercial sector. Sure it is based on hadoop but it is a fine tuned appliance specifically designed to produce results for the “Big Data” market place. I am finally ready to make the purchase but it has not been an easy process. I first got the idea when corporate partners who are always trying hire our SAP ERP trained business students mentioned their need for HANA experience. I then equated that to “Big Data” research partnerships especially with our engineering projects producing large amounts of diverse data. We uncovered some of this with our visualization efforts. But I could not find anyone at SAP that knew how to sell me a HANA solution that was not based on a commercial vertical market. Thankfully Hewlett-Packard who has a strong relationship to the HANA hardware appliance saw the opportunity. They had customers all around us who were cautious about committing to HANA because of the lack of qualified talent to drive it. HP saw the potential of S&T graduating students with actual HANA experience so they helped connect us to the right people in SAP to make this happen. 

Is this investment in HANA strategic? That is my hope, but at a minimum I do believe that there will be tremendous value from the exploration. Any exposure for the students will be a win at least as long as HANA remains a commercial leader. And I believe having our own HANA system will open doors for corporate research collaboration by helping us to overcome licensing and intellectual property challenges. The side benefits may be the help for us in understanding how to position “Big Data” processing into our HPC mentality. Or applying this experience to challenges we have in managing our own cyber security, learning analytics, retention and recruiting. Maybe the greatest value is to help our academic culture explore a different path.

Update – 6/27/14 – Support for the HANA purchase is strong so we have moved forward with the purchase.

US News Article “Taking the Tech Track” validates why, March 26, 2015.

Disruptive IT for Higher Ed

The blog post by Ian Cox about his new book “Disrupt IT” motivated me to offer some reflection on the type of IT Disruption that I have needed to employ for my slice of Higher Education. I have not read his book but I can tell that I would agree with his premise that IT has become the change agent. It is easy to connect technology to why change has accelerated in recent years. But change is not accelerating in Higher Education. Be clear, we do not need to change because of technology, but it is technology that has highlighted the need for change. And that is where IT may be the perfect change agent for Higher Education.

Higher Education is still avoiding the real technology elephant in the room, the “Internet”. We deal with a whirlwind of questions about how students learn and why does college cost so much and why isn’t it about students getting jobs. Maybe we should use more technology in the classroom or software to manage our student success. But it does just come back to the fact that Higher Education no longer controls the data which is converted into information which can become knowledge for anyone motivated enough to absorb it.

OK, back to disruption. I came to Missouri S&T because I wanted to make a difference in Higher Education for the STEM segment that I feel is critical for our future. I do believe IT needs to be the change agent and doing so at such a technology dominant university is the perfect challenge. Yes, I inherited an IT service model that was catering to our traditional decades old higher education culture. And Missouri S&T is facing the same challenges stressing many public research universities in the US. Challenges of serving increased enrollment with an aging infrastructure using an outdated business model. How can IT help?

First you have to change the culture of your IT staff while also laying the groundwork to change the university’s relationship to IT. This is all done by building trust. IT staff that are working in the traditional control service model may be reluctant to breakout of that comfort zone. IT staff love to be needed and that old model offered that, but what about innovation? IT staff should be the innovation leaders or at least they should want to be. I believe that path to a successful IT culture change has to build from IT being innovative and gaining pride from how that innovation can impact the university. And the key to unlocking that innovative spirit in your IT staff is to show them that you mean it. Invest in their ideas or at least let them own your ideas. And above all, assure them that it is OK to fail.

Gaining trust from your university is more tricky since some of your customers are very content with the old IT support model which may still support their outdated business model. However, the important customers are the faculty. The reality for them is that their job has only gotten more difficult to perform. Teaching loads have not decreased and research funding is more and more scarce. IT offering support for teaching load tends to point toward the utilization of technology and exploring online delivery. But IT does not need to push any of that, IT just needs to offer assistance in utilizing it. IT does not need to push online learning to secure their value in EdTech support. They just need to offer support, faculty need the help, leave the politics of course delivery to the Provost. And IT support for research needs to come again as the assistance model. A researcher used to get a grant that outfitted their lab with technology that was managed by a grad student and had enough fluff to allow some breathing room. Today it seems like more time is spent submitting grant proposals then actually fulfilling the research of the successful grants. IT has to find a way to be a trusted partner so that researchers can sell that support to win their grants. This is a budget dance, but IT has to find a way to free up researchers to actually do research.

When IT appears to be achieving positive repositioning, some strategic disruption can put it all together. IT departmental reorganization will inevitably be needed, but turn it into an opportunity. Gain some visibility for IT on campus by offering support to a much needed service. That might be a service to students it might be supporting another service provider like the library. Don’t lead with a software service disruption, that will come later and will probably be IT’s greatest contribution, but total trust is needed for that.

Competing in HPC, “Big Data” and Visualization

One of my challenges in coming to Missouri S&T has been to leverage the most effective use of our meager High Performance Computing, HPC, capabilities to stimulate learning and non-funded research. This has been an ideal opportunity for myself to evaluate this rapidly evolving area of HPC with no predetermined assumptions. Some early observations were that we did not have adequate super computing resources, but it was also apparent that those with enough resources did not necessarily produce proportional results. What we did have was an understanding of what we would do if we had more resources. If I just focused on HPC I would find myself in a resource battle trying to gain recognition in the research community based on cores and compute capability. But we were also interested in visualization and then along came interest in “Big Data”. What I saw was an opportunity.

The one thing I did have was the foundation of an effective research support team which included skill in adapting HPC technique to fit differences in data and workflow requirements. I also had talented student employees who totally thought outside the box and exposed many new options for us. So we started to see that we could compete in processing by adapting our HPC resources to the jobs being requested. And it became increasingly apparent that we were dealing with data that benefited from some sort of visualization to help identify what we should be looking for. For example: we have gotten good at presenting large data sets graphically over time with flexible data attribute selection where we are just looking for anomalies. Now that we are also exploring “Big Data” I could not help but ask why the concept of large in-memory processing for hadoop based data could not be married with traditional HPC and supported by our flexible visualization.

It now appears that my first year of exploration is starting to take shape. I have strengthened my human resources and have discovered that the human element is the most scarce, or at least a flexible human resource team such as we have. So now I have some financial resources to invest and this understanding of the interrelationships of these research tools is helping to stretch what I hope to accomplish. Most of our HPC cluster is devoted to students so we need a base HPC investment devoted to non funded research. For us that goal is probably a 1000 cores. But our success is not going to come from those 1000 cores, but instead from the collaborations we have developed with neighboring university computing centers who realize that we have more to share then just HPC. We can help them optimize their 1000’s of cores specific to the computation desired. Good example here is in computational chemistry.

I mentioned exploring “Big Data”, which has become the darling of big iron computer sales. In simplest terms, “Big Data” is about managing large diverse data sets and processing it with large amounts of memory. The real driver of “Big Data” is the need to analyze the massive amounts of real-time data flowing in about customer buying habits. But of course we have been led to believe that all of our analytical investigations should be using “Big Data”. Not true for analyzing student data but can be true for analyzing some forms of scientific data. And guess what “Big Data” really means it is too big to visualize with traditional spreadsheet type tools. So I am thinking why can’t we blend HPC and “Big Data” with my new nimble visualization techniques? We have all the ingredients and the most important turns out to be the human factor. So now I am throwing some DBA’s into the equation along with scientific software engineers with plans to expand the visualization resources. We should be able to provide most of our processing needs locally or via sharing with regional partners. Add in efficient on-ramps to XSEDE and Open Science Grid and we can compete with anyone.

ELI, 3D Printing and IT Innovation

I’m getting ready to attend the Educause Learning Initiative, ELI, Conference next week in New Orleans. Some of our EdTech team will be presenting TED type Talk on the motivation, implementation and justification for providing 3D Printing to all students at Missouri S&T. The basic project of providing affordable 3D Printing to our tech savvy students was a guaranteed success.

We have plenty of students who have benefitted greatly from their academic uses for the 3D Printing. And we in IT Academic Services are pleased by this success. However, an unexpected benefit surfaced when one of our Chemistry Professors saw the potential.

S&T’s Professor, Richard Dawes, heard about our making 3D Printing available and asked about printing some of his Matlab 3D energy models. He was looking for a better way to explain Potential Energy Surfaces:

Richard Dawes, Phalgun Lolur, Anyang Li, Bin Jiang and Hua Guo, “An accurate global potential energy surface for the ground state of ozone”, J. Chem. Phys. 139, 201103 (2013).

So we helped to open the door to 3D Printing for some of his research models and he was off and running with this new way of presenting and teaching Chemistry. And beyond that Richard has presented his research and this use of 3D Printing at recent conferences where he is fielding questions by other chemists about how they may be able to utilize 3D printing.

All of this helps validate my belief that IT needs to be exploring the cutting edge of technology as a component of the normal tech support that they provide. Sure we have a number of research centers at S&T that were working with 3D Printing but they weren’t concerned about chemical energy surfaces and they are not concerned about promoting their standard toolsets. So IT has to carry the torch of exposing everyone within the university to all of the possibilities for how technology might be utilized. Plus that is what makes the job so enjoyable.

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