Grand Canyon CIO talks for-profits, traditional campuses and MOOCs

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This CIO profile is part of the "Mobility in Higher Education" survey underwritten by Sprint Higher Education Solutions and conducted by the Education Dive editorial staff.

As the chief information officer of for-profit Grand Canyon University, Joe Mildenhall is in a decidedly unique position compared to other CIOs we've interviewed, such as Northeastern Illinois University's Kim Tracy or Hendrix College's David Hinson. Sure, GCU isn't like most other for-profits—it's a Christian university with a traditional campus in Phoenix, Ariz., and a Division I athletics program—but Mildenhall has worked for the other guys, too. For 10 years, he worked for Apollo Group Inc. in roles that included Director of Online Technology and CIO/VP of Information Systems. Between those two roles, he was also Senior Director of Online Technology for Apollo's University of Phoenix.

At GCU, Mildenhall serves a campus used by over 8,000 students—up 2,000 over fall 2012. Some 5,000 of those students are residents, and more than 47,000 take classes online, mostly in graduate programs and health sciences. We caught up with him following our 2013 "Mobility in Higher Education" survey to talk about the differences between online for-profits and GCU, how much his campus has in common with those of non-profits and what MOOCs mean to the online for-profit space.


EDUCATION DIVE: How did you arrive at your current role? 

Joe Mildenhall GCU CIOJOE MILDENHALL: Several members of the leadership team I’d worked with for almost 10 years at Apollo Group/University of Phoenix left for roles at Grand Canyon University. After talking with them about the unique mission of Grand Canyon, I decided to join them late in 2009. It’s been a great experience to continue to develop technology in a traditional university setting.

Can you tell me about the campus you serve? What was it like going from Apollo Group to GCU?

MILDENHALL: There were two big changes coming from Apollo Group. The first was size. Everything from the student population to the size of our IT staff is about one-tenth of where we had grown to at Apollo Group. The smaller size has allowed me to get much more engaged with the details of the projects and initiatives we are working on. The second change is the traditional university setting.  It’s wonderful to come to work every day on a vibrant campus with the direct interaction with students and all of the activities, from fine arts to Division I athletics. I enjoy them all. 

Another big change is working more with third-party products and platforms at Grand Canyon. At Apollo Group, most of our systems had been developed in house and were exactly tailored to our business. At Grand Canyon, we have third-party products for all of our primary systems. It has required a shift in perspective to deal with the product shortcomings and develop strategies to overcome them. Sometimes, we work with the provider to get enhancements added. Other times, we build the solution and the required integration ourselves.

What’s the best technology investment you’ve seen GCU make while you’ve been there? 

MILDENHALL: Grand Canyon partnered with LoudCloud Systems on our new learning management platform.  It’s allowed us to provide a fresh and great experience to our students and give us access to a level of analytical data we dreamt about in the past.

What kinds of challenges and accomplishments have you experienced at GCU? 

MILDENHALL: The initial challenge was to address some serious performance and reliability problems both with our internal and student-facing systems. We were able to get to a stable state fairly quickly to give the team the breathing room to make the fundamental changes needed. We worked with LoudCloud Systems to enhance their learning management platform with features we needed and have completed the transition of all of our students to this new platform. We replaced our student information system with one that better supports online education delivery. It’s been both an accomplishment and challenge making that transition since there were no perfect solutions available, and we continue to overcome many limitations in different ways.

One of the major challenges is keeping up with student demands for Internet connectivity on campus. In the last four years, we’ve switched the residence halls from a primarily hardwired environment to primarily wireless. We’ve increased and enhanced our wireless footprint across the campus and continue to add bandwidth to support the number of devices a typical student has today.

Having worked for both Apollo and GCU, do you feel that GCU's traditional university setting gives it an advantage over primarily online players in the for-profit space? Do these factors help as far as student retention and unwanted regulatory attention/public perception are concerned?
MILDENHALL: Grand Canyon has a tremendous advantage because of its traditional setting.  Primarily online players are facing more and more competition from traditional, recognized institutions that now offer fully online programs.  The traditional campus activities including theatre, athletics, etc. increase the affiliation that all students feel with the university and enhances all aspects of their experience.  The for-profit nature of the business still garners increased scrutiny, but it's easier for regulators and others to understand the university if they visit the campus and see the vibrant atmosphere that exists here.

How have smartphones and tablets impacted your daily work? 

MILDENHALL: There has been an impact both in the business and student use of these devices.  In business we have opened support for mobile devices primarily for email and Internet access. Our backend student information and CRM systems continue to need a large screen for productive work.  We are in the process of rolling out iOS and Andriod apps for our LoudCloud learning management platform.

In terms of mobile devices on campus, how would you characterize the way things have changed in recent years?

MILDENHALL: Just a couple years ago, students were concerned about how many wired connections were available in their dorm rooms. Our new dorms are completely wireless. Students are constantly connected to our wireless network with at least two devices, their laptop and phone. I haven’t seen the level of tablets on campus I was expecting for the new semester. It seems standard equipment for a student is still a phone and laptop.

If you could change one thing overnight to make your life easier on campus, what would it be? 

MILDENHALL: With the semester just starting, it would be nice if I could instantly give great wireless access across our entire campus. We’ve done a good job covering all of our buildings and dorms, but the cost to extend to all of our open spaces is still prohibitive.

Do MOOCs have you concerned about anything from an IT perspective?

​MILDENHALL: MOOCs have created remarkable disruption in the online learning space and have provided some legitimacy to the approach pursued by the big online players for over 10 years. One of the primary challenges already emerging is how to prove the learning from a MOOC or other types of [online] learning has actually occurred. More and more focus is going to be given to competency based learning, which will require assessments to validate learning has occurred. In the future, I see the need to support a national proctored assessment capability so students can go into a center, take the appropriate assessment and have the results fed into their course or program for evaluation. We’re currently designing how a very flexible service might look.

What do you think GCU's biggest technical challenge will be over the next decade? 

MILDENHALL: The biggest challenge will be moving more and more of our IT needs to the public cloud. We are getting higher and higher expectations for quality every day. To provide that, we need to focus our infrastructure efforts on the solutions we have to host locally. We’re aggressively identifying applications and services that are primarily outward facing and building strategies to get them to the cloud. Our operations people don’t interact directly with hardware in data centers anymore, so it makes sense to move some of our infrastructure to providers that can provide higher quality and resiliency than we’re able to and simplify our hosted environment.


Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more CIO profiles from Education Dive as part of our 2013 "Mobility in Higher Education" survey underwritten by Sprint Higher Education Solutions. Download the full survey results here.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Technology Policy & Regulation Online Learning
Top image credit: Grand Canyon University