UW System CIO Sasi Pillay talks retention, transitioning from NASA
The world's top space agency and higher ed aren't so different after all
It's easy for recruitment and retention to get lost in the shuffle among sexier topics like flipped learning, MOOCs, and the ongoing debates over funding and the cost of education. But for most institutions, the two Rs of admissions are still top of mind.
At the University of Wisconsin System, CIO and Associate Vice President Dr. Sasi Pillay, who came to the university system from NASA, is looking at a number of CRM solutions from providers like Salesforce and Oracle on top of relying on familiar approaches like outreach via high school counselors and social media. Education Dive recently caught up with Pillay to find out more about the system's approach to recruiting students, as well as the transition from NASA to higher ed and what he sees as his institution's biggest tech challenges.
EDUCATION DIVE: Recruiting and retention are concerns for many institutions. What are some of the approaches and solutions you’re using on that front at UW?
DR. SASI PILLAY: One area we’re looking at — and again, every campus is at a different place — are various CRM types of solutions. On some campuses, we implemented Salesforce.com as a methodology. And also, there is a course-recruitment module in PeopleSoft Campus Solutions. Again, that’s a little bit older technology, so people are trying to augment that with various capabilities.
And Oracle has also come out with the ability to mine social media and be able to improve the targeting of potential students, and what’s nice about that particular tool is it broadens the idea of not just recruiting one student, but actually expanding the capability to recruit a cohort. So if you want the type of student in high school who is interested in track and field, and if your university is good at track and field and you want to attract the best in terms of athletics and also potential students capable of being able to handle the workload, we wanted to recruit not only that student, but the community of folks that student identifies with. It is really more like a mass recruitment, but sort of personalized to make sure you keep the individual prospects fully engaged.
We are just looking at that to see where would be a good place to pilot. I’m talking to a couple of campuses to see if that is something people are willing to put some effort into, because if we can show there’s a direct connection between the use of these — I would say “sophisticated” — tools, and show there’s a reasonable correlation between that and increased enrollment, that becomes actually a good incentive for campuses to try that. We’re trying to work with Oracle to see how we can make that work.
What was your transition from CIO of NASA to higher ed like? Are there experiences from your role at NASA that inform your vision for innovation at UW?
PILLAY: The last job I held at NASA was as chief technology officer, focused on information technology. I was responsible for creating the crowdsourcing program, and what we called it was “IT Labs,” which was basically an innovation fund. After moving to Wisconsin, I was just finishing up with my team here the call for proposals to initiate an innovation fund. I was able to set aside about $300,000 of the budget and then make awards of maximum $20,000 for — all the way from ideations to prototyping and piloting — various technologies and processes to improve cost-effective operations and advanced learning technologies.
Broadly speaking, those are the two areas we are focusing on, and so we’ll be sending out a call for proposals on this, and the idea is we want results back in 120 days. It is a methodology by which you prime the innovation pump to allow anybody in the organization systemwide to submit proposals for consideration. It’s not a lot of money, but I think it’s just something interesting for people to try. I had a similar program at NASA, so I’m bringing that over here.
The content in terms of information technology is very similar. Maybe the products and services we use are slightly different, but there’s also a common body of stuff that is similar. When I was at NASA, I was in the process of deploying Voice over IP and unified communications and collaboration, and that’s another project that I started here in terms of looking at what the opportunities are. Similarly, when I was at NASA, we were looking at how we can essentially move our external-facing website to Amazon. After coming here, I encouraged our folks to move the system administration websites to Amazon. Similarly, I’m looking at different strategic sourcing opportunities and how we can house more things in the cloud, as opposed to self-provisioning them. We already moved our email, for example, to Office365.
NASA also used quite a bit of shared governance just like we have in the university system, so I’m pretty familiar with working in a collaborative type of environment, as well. Overall, I do not look at this as a huge transition from my perspective, but I’m sure other people looking at me are saying, “Wait a minute. This person has spent most of their career in a non-higher-ed environment.” NASA has a tremendous amount of ties in terms of learning plans and so forth.
What do you see as the biggest tech innovation impacting higher ed or just UW over the next year?
PILLAY: One of the things we are looking at right now — and University of Wisconsin-Madison is taking the lead — [is] furthering this idea called Unizin, in which we want to decouple the learning management environment in terms of data storage and the analytics and the learning management system itself. Historically, they all have been tightly coupled. What we want to do is to be able to use standards and be able to separate them out so we have flexibility, both in terms of analytics, the data storage, and then the lesson planning component.
I think there are 10 other founding universities — Madison campus is one of them — and we help facilitate that partnership by providing seed money to be one of the founding members of this Unizin consortium, so we expect quite a bit of results from that. To see how things are moving forward, we have several pilots that are rolled out at various campuses, working closely with faculty members to see how we can use this environment. At this current moment, only the learning management system is fully developed, but some of the folks across the system are involved in creating some of the learning analytics and predictive capabilities, because ultimately what we want to do is to have every student to be successful. And for that to happen, we’ve got to be able to identify students at risk early on, and provide coaching and mitigating strategies, so students not only graduate, but graduate on time.
What do you think will be the biggest tech challenge to impact higher ed or UW over the next decade?
PILLAY: As you probably know, we have well over 180,000 students. And to be honest with you, the best way to learn and teach is to have, to some extent, quite a bit of one-on-one type of instruction, which I would call personalized instruction. Of course, it’s cost-prohibitive to do that. But at the same time, what we want to be able to do is come up with ideas for how we can at least start to personalize education.
People learn at different rates, they absorb things differently, and in order to provide that type of framework, we need to kind of understand how a student learns. The thinking that I’m trying to advance is the whole concept of [creating] personas of various student profiles. So from 180,000 students, if we can create maybe 25-50 personas and then kind of match our teaching to couple with that, and then further couple that with the early detection and mitigation strategies, I think we would be able to improve our student outcomes. We’ll improve retention and so on.
The other concept — that, again, I have just sort of in the concept stage — is to kind of create a student-centric ecosystem in which we identify students and thus try to instill upon the good habits of being a successful student, even through middle school. And kind of cultivate them through that so by the time they become our students, they’re well-equipped to become good learners and with management of time and problem solving and so on. Then, essentially, couple that with the learning analytics kind of things I already talked about and eventually help them graduate, find internships and co-op opportunities, place them in permanent positions, and then essentially graduate them to become successful alumni. In essence, otherwise, we want to design a system that has an engagement with someone for 80 years — long-term commitment all the way from middle school to successful alumni is the point.
We want to keep these students and graduates and alumni fully engaged because I think success comes when, as human beings, we want to be accounted for as individuals and somebody to engage with us about our needs and desires and then tailor that opportunity to make us successful. That’s what I think the challenge will be: How can we take the cost-effectiveness of providing mass education, but be able to do that in a cost-effective manner in a personalized environment so every student feels special?
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