Category Archives: Higher Education

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

The Great Potential of SAP HANA


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

Educause Learning Initiative 10th Anniversary

I just returned from the Educause Learning Initiative, ELI, Conference in beautiful and warn Anaheim, CA. Another solid conference bringing together higher education teaching and learning innovators. ELI also celebrated their 10th anniversary and said goodbye to their successful president, Diana Oblinger, who will retire at the end of May. I have always been impressed with Diana’s leadership, she has been a master of motivation for ELI programs and she has also been a beacon light on future concerns for higher education. In her conference keynote she touched on all that is new and exciting and again reminded us of the growing influence of Competency Based Education. She also brought up some good questions about the state and purpose of the college diploma. An interesting question posed was, should we consider the ability to update a diploma?

ELI has served higher education well and Diana deserves a lot of the credit. The next decade in higher education signals a far more disruptive era, will ELI be a guiding light?

Disseminators of information must adapt to the culture of the consumer

I came across a blog article I would never have found on my own thanks to a reference from a colleague I was following. The post, “The world is going digital; Where is Extension going?”, by Greg Hutchins, Associate Vice Chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Extension. I was stimulated to open the link since I know what Extension means in the context of Cooperative Extension Service because my father was an Extension Agronomist at Purdue. The actual definition expands greatly but here is Wikipedia’s stab at it: the mission is to “advance agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and communities” by supporting research, education, and extension programs at land-grant universities and other organizations it partners with. This is a very important service that focuses on farming, food and nutrition with a foundation based out of our land-grant universities. I have always explained it in reference to my father’s occupation as he taught farmers how to farm.

The blog post title immediately interested me to compare how this higher education connected service was struggling with their digital future. What I found was an excellent article presenting the reality that change was inevitable and you can look to many similar industries for validation. This post used the decline of the newspaper industry. The connecting thread was the challenges facing those entities whose mission it is to disseminate information for the purpose of creating knowledge. The obvious connection for me would be the struggles facing higher education in general, but this sector touches home. The extension agent’s work is based on providing information through personal communication. My father was successful serving the farmers of southern Indiana because they let him into their culture. No academic from Purdue was going to tell these German heritage farmers how to farm. But they did need to be reached so you adapted to their culture of eat, drink and then talk farming.

How does the Extension service reach their constituency today? For the most part same way they always have. And all can agree that their effectiveness is in decline. So do you open your eyes and anticipate the future or do you rationalize the present. The comments to Greg’s post were so typical of our industry. Many applauded his vision but many also cautioned against how change could underserve the less fortunate. But the arguments about protecting the less fortunate were really about protecting a way of life that they love. A professor can mount an effective argument about why their lectures are the most effective way to teach students. But all that really matters is the motivation of the student. How does the new farmer of today learn about farming? They go online and look for resources. How about the NFL football player, Jason Brown, who said he learned to farm by watching YouTube. Something tells me that if the Extension Services of the Land Grant Universities coordinated and invested in their YouTube video efforts they would bring great visibility to their mission. And the Extension agent would find a way for the underserved less fortunate customer to benefit from this effort.

I think the most important thing for all of us involved with the dissemination of information for the sake of learning is to to realize that you have to adapt to the culture of the consumer. You must stay relevant with the current generation or your mission will fade away with your generation. My father was never going to understand how to use forms of digital communication, but I think he wanted to. So have an open mind and try to be supportive of change.

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.

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.

Higher Education will be OK

The change that is taking place in higher education right now is fascinating to watch. There aren’t many century old institutions that you get to watch go through dramatic transitions. The newspaper industry is well into a transition and it could offer great insight for us in higher education.  The recent commentary in the Chronicle by Byron P. White, “Take it from an Ex-Journalist: Adapt or Die ”, put it into better perspective for me.  Today many in higher education do admit that change is coming, however, the time line is seen as distant and the actual change is minimized. Is higher education an industry that fits W. Edwards Deming’s advice given to the auto industry as competition was on the horizon, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” The world is embracing new digitally driven options that challenge our existing higher education process. This change is not dependent upon higher education’s permission nor it’s demise.

So do we deal with this impending change by dabbling around the edges of the debate? The few institutions that are rolling the dice of transition to a new model are generally motivated by desperation. Most of us are just talking about what this change might look like. And that talk focuses heavily on the high visibility topics such as course delivery, student success or the rising costs. Look at the conversation generated around the MOOC phenomenon which is just the evolution of the online course delivery debate. Most have missed the point, MOOCs are not a threat to higher education but MOOCs are creating the disruption that in turn is exposing our weaknesses. We need to deal with our weaknesses but by no means is there an inevitable doom. I would rather assume that we could come through this time of change stronger then ever.

What are our weaknesses? This is where we get into trouble. Higher Education governs themselves by non authoritative committees. Decisions are made to insure the good for the most, least amount of change and with minimum risk for those deemed responsible.  What I am saying here is that even if we know what our weaknesses are it would be rare to announce them with detail that could lead to a solution. We tend to just try harder but there are exceptions. At every university it is easy to identify those who are capable of making a difference. They happen to be the most respected faculty or staff at the institution. But wait, most respected who possibly have solutions should be in leadership. No, it doesn’t always work that way.  Remember, avoiding change carries the ultimate trump card. So those who could lead have generally tried only to retreat out of frustration. This cycle has continued over time validated by the guiding principle of Academic Freedom.

Again, what are our weaknesses? I think the major weakness is our lack of understanding or acceptance that the  higher education business model has changed. The model we know and love has provided a valuable product desired and required for success. There was no competition because we controlled the primary ingredient, “information”. But the Internet has changed that, thus providing an alternative path to success. This does not mean that our path is diminished, it just means we have competition. I think this relates more to the competition the auto industry faced rather then the newspaper industry. The US adapted and built competitive automobiles by taking advantage of technology. Unfortunately the newspaper industry is competing against technology. But the critical step is to acknowledge the threat.

I do believe higher education will be stronger then ever. Yes competition will probably eliminate the weak, but that will mostly be the result of poor business practices. Those of us moving on will have new opportunities to improve our rankings. Higher education must continue to offer the foundation that fits the community it serves. We focus on the development of the mind, body and soul but we also fine tune our academic product to meet customer and market demand. And we neutralize the threat from technology by embracing it. The threat to higher education is the avoidance of change.

Invest in Your Differentiator

I started writing a post about why universities are trying to be all things to all students. How universities are expending so much energy trying to defend their product rather than being content with their product. But as I got deeper into the post I realized the problem is all about financial aid. Our universities could all be content to fit into the model that they carve out for themselves. But the common denominator that forces them all to be accountable to a common model is the all-powerful dollar provided by financial aid. Darn, I don’t think I have an answer for how to manage financial aid. Wealthy private institutions don’t have to worry but most every other institution does.

My original motivation for the post had to do with how much effort is expended for the purpose of justifying that all students are given an equal opportunity to succeed. Many institutions of higher education are dealing with validation of learning outcomes. So we have remediation, retention, and assessment programs all to prove that we are fulfilling these nebulous requirements for producing a successful graduate. What got me thinking was that it may be OK for students to fail. I am at a significantly STEM based university that has nothing to apologize for. It is not easy to obtain an engineering degree, nor should it be. Yes it is justified for us to expend a fair amount of energy to make sure that we are offering a fair opportunity for an engineering student to succeed but that is our differentiator.

The overwhelming landscape of higher education is strewn with institutions expending enormous amounts of resources trying to validate who they are and why investment in their product is justified. This has caused great confusion for many of these institutions about who they should become. There is great overlap now for obtaining an undergraduate college degree with lively debate about the value of those degrees. But I think it is time for many institutions to retreat and choose a path that they can focus their full attention on. If you can only survive by competing in the commodity game of increasing your enrollment or raising your price, then understand the commodity game. Understand that a degree based on information has become free to the world and it is no longer the differentiator. The price for that degree will only go down. So what is your differentiator?

Now is the time to invest in your differentiator. State institutions should eliminate overlap and quit competing with themselves. States should not be afraid to cap enrollment and allow competition to dictate a student’s options. All students have options even if they do not want to compete. Online learning will only be a financial strategy for the large efficient online programs. All institutions still need to invest in blended learning because it is a requirement for today’s learner. But most of all, invest in your differentiator. That may be the residential experience, student life, research opportunities, athletics, honor’s programs, unique degrees, and even highly effective teachers. But quit trying to compete for that elusive target of academic excellence unless it promotes one of your differentiators.

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