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Leading IT Around the Globe: International Programs and Branch Campuses

A Q&A with CMU CIO Steve Huth

Carnegie Mellon University's Vice Provost for Computing Services and Chief Information Officer Steve Huth is possibly in the "best place on earth" (in our estimation) to get to know the challenges and opportunities of leading IT at an institution that has programs on foreign soil and campuses all around the world. His career path took him for five years to Doha, Qatar where he transitioned from work in cybersecurity to become chief information officer at CMU's campus in Education City — returning to the states in 2012 to serve as the CIO leading central IT at CMU's main campus in Pittsburgh. Besides having experience on both sides of the global campus equation, he now leads the central IT organization as it relates to some 20 international programs and distant campuses representing students, faculty, and researchers from nearly 115 different countries. Major campus locations include Doha in Qatar, Adelaide in Australia, Kigali in Rwanda, and CMU West in California. CT asked Huth for a CIO's perspective on global programs and branch campuses.

Mary Grush: What is it like to work as a CIO at a distant, international branch campus? What was one of your most striking observations when you first started working at CMU's Qatar campus?

Steve Huth: It's extraordinarily different living globalization than it is when you're just reading about it. Living in Qatar, I got to experience not only the culture of the Middle East and getting to know the people there, but also what it was like working as a member of the Qatar campus and collaborating with the staff back here on our home campus. I spent a fair amount of time interacting with the central computing group in Pittsburgh and I came to realize that, no matter how good the technology is, there is really nothing like sitting down with people and talking. So even though it was a long, 24-hour trip, I would periodically come back to the states just to work with my colleagues here and keep up those personal connections. I also found it striking, since the workweek in Doha was Sunday to Thursday, how many things were tied to "East Coast time" and that a planned outage at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday in Pittsburgh was right in the middle of classes in Doha. We had to reconsider a lot of work processes to make them more suitable for a global university.

Grush: When an institution opens up a distant branch campus or program, how does it generally relate to the main campus? How does this affect the IT organizations?

Huth: It's important to recognize that there is no one answer. Every institution has a different model — or maybe even several different models — of how central IT relates to global campuses or programs. At CMU, we are for the most part strongly decentralized. So in some locations a school or departmental IT group may take the lead, with us providing support; while in other locations the exact opposite may be true.

There are several things that are important to Carnegie Mellon when we look at the idea of a global campus — but the most important things almost never revolve around or are directly stated in terms of technology. There has to be a strong match between the needs and interests of the region and the strengths of Carnegie Mellon. Things like what the curriculum is, who the faculty are, admissions requirements, academic freedom, and core university policies — all the things that make us a university — form the core of the discussions.

As for IT, the interactions vary. Some of CMU's international programs handle the IT infrastructure very successfully on their own; while others — our largest foreign campus in Doha for example — actually have a very strong relationship to central IT. Doha staff regularly travel to Pittsburgh and vice versa to work on projects of joint interest, and different groups interact daily via VTC.

Grush: Could you give me examples of technology strategy related to globalization?

Huth: Sure. A common IT strategy is to take advantage of what central IT does well and allow departmental IT to focus on the specific needs of their school. We try to do the same globally but IT in these locations needs to be a blend of central and departmental IT — sometimes ensuring a consistent campus experience and other times meeting the needs of a particular faculty member who is looking at a new way of teaching. In Doha, for example, central IT did the core networking design, with Doha staff being responsible for the day-to-day operations. Central IT staff go back periodically to collaborate with them on network changes as the environment evolves. This gives Doha staff a trusted group of colleagues they can bounce ideas off of without having to do new designs from scratch. It also gives them a bit more flexibility to work with faculty on education and research activities that are important to their campus.

Another strategy is a consistent faculty and student experience across locations. So, for example, the Pittsburgh campus and the Doha campus run different instances of the same LMS so that faculty can easily move their courses between the two campuses as needed. But one of the things we've learned is that it's never as simple as all that: There are point releases that may have incompatibilities for faculty working between the two campuses, causing features like quizzes to be slightly out of synch. We must understand that and manage it between campuses — which takes some thought, as there are different considerations involved in upgrading in one location versus another.

Grush: So the Doha examples seem to speak to a high degree of involvement for central IT. Are there other campuses or programs that function more independently?

Huth: Yes. There are many programs that rely much less on the resources of central IT here in Pittsburgh. They generally do leverage the enterprise systems and in some cases the LMS. We work with them as colleagues, but we don't have that same exchange of staff or design work as we do in places like Doha.

So, it's really all over the map (sorry for that), from just very loosely connected to very tightly coupled.

Grush: Is central IT hoping to promote or at least support technologies that can help provide enhanced learning opportunities?

Huth: Some of our global programs are quite focused, for example, on computer science or business. But many times the person you'd like to hear from is located somewhere else in the world. We use technology to bring the best of Carnegie Mellon to these global programs so that the students can have much richer academic interactions within their discipline and, by virtue of CMU's strong cross-discipline orientation, with faculty and students in other disciplines. Not all of the technologies are as robust as we'd like, though, and so a fair amount of staff time goes into testing and real-time problem resolution.

Grush: In the context of central IT's offerings to these globalized programs, is there one objective you'd like to highlight that can be supported with technology?

Huth: If I had to pick just one objective from an IT point of view, I would say using technology to support pedagogy by making communication and sharing ideas easier. This is of course both a people and a technology issue. We have found that making high-quality, real-time video widely available can be tremendously beneficial. VTC can be used directly in courses to draw upon CMU's world-class faculty. Making use of cloud solutions to facilitate collaboration also takes advantage of the environment that students have grown up with.

Grush: How much of that is done online, or with streaming video, or with collaboration technology?

Huth: Our technology tends to be in support of bringing people together rather than offering a totally online experience. Of course, there are also great examples of completely virtualized courses. The Open Learning Initiative (http://oli.cmu.edu) has worked with faculty to produce some excellent online-only courses. With global programs, however, time zone differences can't be discounted. That's one reason that in addition to real-time, two-way VTC we've also used lecture capture — paired with student cohorts that can work with local TAs.

Along with that technology we've redesigned several locations to offer more of a collaborative space, allowing better interaction among students as well as between students and faculty. These spaces also have an improved ability to bring in people from the outside — whether that's down the street or around the world.

Grush: Does central IT meet with other groups at CMU who work on some of these pedagogical issues?

Huth: Yes, in particular, we rely on the expertise of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation (http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/) here at CMU. That's our go-to organization for discussing whether something makes sense pedagogically.

Grush: And given all the work being done between central IT at CMU and the globalized programs and campuses, is anyone studying that?

Huth: What a wonderful question! One of the reasons you work at a university is to consider interesting questions like that. We have a new president at CMU, Dr. Subra Suresh. One of his initial programs is the Simon Initiative (http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/simon/index.html) — named for Nobel Laureate and educator, Dr. Herbert A. Simon. Dr. Suresh has said, "The world is experiencing an educational revolution, but there has not been sufficient effort to date to address the fundamental question: Are students using these technology platforms really learning successfully?" The idea behind the Simon Initiative is to make data collected about technology-enhanced learning widely available, so that learning researchers/learning scientists, faculty, designers, software engineers, human-computer interaction specialists, and others can do serious research on this topic and apply the results to improve education. Also part of this initiative is the creation of the Global Learning Council to promote best practices gathered from around the world and develop metrics to demonstrate the impact technology is having. I would hope our experiences could add at least some small part to that larger discussion.

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