Becoming a Digital University

Driven by an explosion of computer-enabled devices that capture vast amounts of data, by advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning that are reinventing industries from transportation to entertainment and by innovations like network-enabled robotics and 3D printing that are reshaping manufacturing processes, the world is changing at an unprecedented pace

Many refer to this transformation as a Fourth Industrial Revolution which is characterized by a synthesis of technology that blurs the distinctions between the physical and the digital. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a focus on this future had Georgia State University preparing to become a more digital university – both in terms of defining what students will need to learn in order to succeed and in determining how we can take advantage of these emerging capabilities to meet evolving student expectations. 

The rapid transition to distance learning

Over the last year as the pandemic quickly re-shaped working and learning environments across industries, this transformation has accelerated. Like every institution around the world, Georgia State has undergone tremendous shifts. Planning for what it means to be a Digital University of the future prioritized our efforts to implement many technologies and practices that have been important to responding to unexpected turns in the present. 

In the spring of 2020 when the arrival of the pandemic required a rapid transition online, more than 6,000 faculty and staff began coordinating from locations off campus. Within a matter of days, instructors from across the university brought thousands of courses online for more than 50,000 students. 

We quickly transformed traditional lab services into laptop and Internet device checkout and expanded access to a virtual lab so that students with limited means could stay connected. We turned our attention to rapidly integrating our learning management system with our student advising systems to extend use of known success indicators in new ways while transitioning essential services like student orientation online. 

In undertaking these rapid shifts and many more, we found the university had in place much of the technology infrastructure and many of the multi-modal education delivery and business continuity practices needed to transition classes and services to virtual environments and then to offer a changing blend of in-person and online options as circumstances evolved. 

Some of the most practical tools were put into use immediately. Having already integrated secure video conferencing with our learning management system and begun offering options such as softphones for business communication, we were able to transition to multi-location learning and work rapidly. Having our network and servers 95% virtualized and many of our resources available from the cloud helped provide elasticity as network and resource use shifted from in-person to online. We used our IT service management platform to track how we provide support, expand self-service options and automate service fulfillment. 

Moving to Hybrid Learning

Other tools have provided flexibility and responsiveness at scale as students returned to campus with social distancing measures in place and we moved to hybrid instruction. Before the pandemic, we were already focused on developing multi-modal education delivery options with courses and tools designed to support a combination of in-person and online elements for varied learning needs. 

We focused our classroom construction on increasingly interactive spaces with integrated technologies for active learning as well as creating environments such as our Simulcast classrooms, which allow faculty to teach simultaneously live in a classroom and remotely with interactive instruction that significantly expands class capacity across multiple classrooms and off-campus locations. We had implemented technologies such as adaptive learning courseware to personalize independent study in large classes using analytics and data-driven interventions. 

Across the student experience, agile processes, a philosophy of piloting proof of concepts to validate new ideas and a toolset of technologies for rapid integration make it possible to incorporate new digital components in a short timeframe. We have expanded tracking across dozens of systems to look at indicators of student engagement across digital and physical spaces and integrated use of artificial intelligence along with a relationship management system to help facilitate important conversations and ensure the university can appropriately communicate relevant information throughout the student lifecycle. 

Providing digital professional development

And, providing for continuity in delivering effective instruction across formats and circumstances has not been limited to a technical effort. Other areas ensure the university can take advantage of resources to provide consistent educational experiences

For instance, our faculty are working collaboratively to develop templated “master courses” that guide consensus about course goals, learning outcomes, assessments and content that can be used across multiple sections of two- and four-year degree programs to streamline consistent delivery and continuous improvement in online and physical environments

To help students gain digital skills needed for the future, efforts like the Digital Learners to Leaders program ask students to demonstrate technical skillsets by collaborating with professionals in creating solutions to student-identified problems using the latest technologies. Makerspaces and experiential learning labs provide resources to support students in curriculum designed to help support digital literacy. 

The road ahead

While without a doubt, Georgia State and all of higher education will need to continue to adapt to meet student needs in these fast-changing circumstances, we find that looking to the horizon at technology’s potential to transform across industries is providing a path forward as we face another year certain to be full of yet more change and the need to set a steady, yet responsive course through the challenges. 

Watch the Higher Education Advisory Council session with Phil here.

Cisco’s Higher Education Advisory Council is a roundtable of CxOs from 36 universities in the United States. 


Phil Ventimiglia

Chief Innovation Officer

Georgia State University