Cloud + Higher Education
An Executive Interview with Carmen V. Lidz, CIO of Los Angeles Community College District
I’ve been chatting with some of the execs I admire—from across a range of industries—to get insights on how they’re using cloud technologies and what it means for their business success—now and in the future.
Carmen Lidz is the Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer at Los Angeles Community College District, where she shapes the technology vision and implements strategies, infrastructure, and enterprise systems and services to support the entire population of administrators, faculty, and students in the district.
Carmen and I discussed a wide range of ideas in cloud and technology, including the specific challenges and opportunities of bringing innovation to the higher education space.
Q: What do you think the impact of the cloud will be on business over the next five years?
A: I think that some businesses have been more receptive to the cloud approach than the public sector, which is trailing in that space. So I would say that it's going to vary. Five years might seem like a long time, but in terms of technology, it's actually not long. In some spaces the on-premise functions will remain, and in some spaces you will have an increase of cloud use. What I think happens in the public sector, specifically, is that people tend to be a little bit more conservative because you have larger regulatory constraints.
As we are progressing on that path at the Los Angeles Community College District, we’re finding ways to ensure that the regulatory requirements and compliance are being met. I think you’ll see a considerable move in that space going forward.
Q: What are the particular regulations or laws that most affect your industry?
A: The main consideration, really, is the perception that if you are putting data in the cloud, it’s less secure. When your data’s in the cloud, you don’t really know where exactly it resides. And you do not want to have certain data sets outside of the US.
What’s great is that all those issues are actually things that you can have negotiated in the contractual language with your cloud vendor to ensure that you have control of your data and that data sets reside within the US perimeter. You can ensure that you have the proper security controls in place, the right compliance checks, the right access—all of that can be outlined in your engagement with a particular cloud provider. So it’s much less of a concern than some people think, but in some communities, that education needs to happen.
There are conversations in my organization about moving to the cloud in terms of software as a service for applications, as well as data backup, storage, and disaster recovery. I don't necessarily think all of our footprint will be in the cloud in the next five years; that timeline is not a reasonable expectation. But I do think that we are moving toward having more services provided in the cloud. My approach has been to look at the commodity-type services out there—the things that are established, proven, and better provided as Software as a Service (SaaS) versus me building or hosting something. In some cases, those SaaS commodity services that are provided out of the box are more optimal than having the infrastructure here, because they’re in an environment that is regularly being patched and supported and is focused on that particular type of function. The environment of the SaaS may go beyond what I would be able to do in an on-prem environment. So every single time, I ask myself whether a cloud solution is in a better environment than I could provide here.
Q: Are there any cloud technologies that you've heard about that you find particularly interesting?
A: I try to be vendor agnostic when I'm considering particular solutions. Hosting services, for example—you know you’ll be looking at AWS or Azure; they’re pretty comparable in terms of the functions they provide for average hosting services. Now, if you’re looking for some specialized capabilities, then one area worth watching very carefully for us is the student information system. We’ve found that there isn't actually a mature Student Information System (SIS) platform in the cloud. We were looking very closely at the Oracle Cloud Platform, but it's really not mature. We also looked at Workday’s SIS capability, and that's not mature either. We’re watching growth in this area very carefully and are very excited that there’s development being done in this space. But as of now, I don't think that there is a mature SIS solution out there.
Q: Are you guys Oracle-based in terms of your current SIS?
A: We have a PeopleSoft on-premise solution currently, which is a robust solution for our SIS, but it’s hosted in our data center here on premise. I would love to have a cloud offering, and I’m hoping that the development will accelerate in the next two to five years.
Q: How about the learning management system space—is that any different?
A: Currently we’re using Canvas for our Learning Management System (LMS), which is a cloud service. It does have the capabilities we need, and overall the LMS space has been developing—I think there’s been further development there than the in the SIS space. I’m not sure why that is; maybe because LMS is more encapsulated and contained as a service, whereas the SIS is so entangled with financial aid and other processes that make it more complicated.
Q: The interesting thing about the LMS is that the concept of an on-prem LMS has never really existed. It opened up once we had the connectivity.
A: I think part of it is also because online learning has picked up tremendously in the last decade, and LMS solutions had to respond to the demand from students for an online platform. The capabilities for collaboration and the mobile responsiveness—I think that's been driven by the students and the importance of meeting their needs in the media they’re most comfortable with. Whereas the SIS—it does have a student interface, but at the core it’s an administrative system, so it’s likely had less of that demand. But I do think that students are pushing more and more in this space, particularly with us having a one-stop-shop portal for our students and faculty.
Q: It seems like a larger marketplace also makes a difference. There are a lot of corporations that aren’t managing students per se—they're just throwing people into a portal to learn something once and then they're done. It's much more transactional.
A: You're right, although I think that there’s growth there as well in terms of the collaboration components—like integration with a bookstore or content management package. So for example, if I'm taking a particular course, I want online access to all the relevant content—direct connection to the eBbook and other instructional materials. And students are becoming more and more demanding of interactive instructional materials. We live in the world of short YouTube videos. So I see including such components as part of the instructional material as becoming more integral to the way the LMS needs to respond—integrating some of those plugins or add-ons or ancillary apps.
Q: In terms of the actual degree management, is it the SIS or the LMS that acts as the master record?
A: The SIS is the system of record for all student-related Information, including the grades and the coursework and what have you. The SIS is where we manage all the administrative tasks—the applications, transfers, financial aid. However, the LMS plays an integral role in that. It’s where the faculty and the students spend the majority of their time, in terms of their syllabus, their learning materials, their collaboration, where they take their quizzes—that’s where the day-to-day learning takes place. The LMS handles all the pedagogical, scholarly functions.
Q: It's interesting—my kids’ school district is pretty forward-thinking, but they’ve gone through so many systems. It’s K-12, not the college level, but the churn they’ve been through trying to find the right system is fascinating.
A: In the community colleges, we are actually looking very closely at what the K-12s are doing, because those are the majority of our future students. We do serve adults returning to school for a degree or certification, but looking at the K-12s and seeing what the students are exposed to there informs us as to the expectations those students will have coming into our doors. We’re trying to ensure that we maintain as seamless a transition for them as possible, so a student coming from a K-12 universe doesn't automatically get intimidated by the college experience or disappointed that they don't have the same resources.
Q: I think that provides some really interesting opportunities in terms of the IT back and forth between K-12s and higher education.
A: Yes it does. We have great partnerships with the K-12s in the area. We have dual programs where students in the K-12s can actually start earning credits towards their college degree. So, there are actually real cases in which the K-12 students are our students. We try to stay on top of the media students are most accustomed to and identify the spaces where we can be prepared to respond to them.
Q: What criteria have you used in evaluating which cloud vendors you use?
A: It really depends on the need we’re looking at. So we consider things like the security of an offering—whether the solution is in the public cloud, a private cloud, or a hybrid where you have a multi-tenant setup. And of course, we evaluate the practicality of a solution in terms of the usage we’re going to have for the function it performs.
One of the other pieces we have to consider is the location—the geographical location and the backup for that particular space—because we want to make sure we have the right reliability and uptime, as well as continuous services and support.
Making sure we have support available during the hours we’re operating is also a really big consideration. I’ve encountered scenarios in my previous roles where the support was done offshore, so the support was technically 9:00-5:00—but in a different time zone. So I always ensure that we have support during the times that we’re actually running. And in some cases we might need support 24/7, particularly for areas like online learning, because we might have students using functions at all times of day and night. We’re expanding our online learning offerings, so we’re very mindful of that need. Email is another example of something we use 24/7, so we need support, availability, and full backup around the clock.
Additionally, I would say, you want to make sure the solution is scalable. Particularly for the size of our organization, we need to have a solution in a place that can scale and accommodate the volume of transactions we have. You want to make sure you're not going to have issues with processing time—lagging or what have you. For instance, we’ve looked at a cloud offering for real-time streaming for captioning on videos, which is a fantastic offering from an ADA perspective, because we want to make sure our students who are hearing impaired have the opportunity to see what the instructor is describing in the classroom in real time. However, if you have very slow streaming or the information is lagging, it’s not going to be the best experience for the student. That reliability is important.
Obviously, price is another consideration. We are beholden to our stakeholders and our taxpayers for every dollar we spend. We want to make sure that we’re fiscally responsible, so cost is definitely something we take into account.
Q: Have you seen that any of the large cloud vendors are more engaged with education, like Google or Microsoft or AWS?
A: Actually, I think we have partnerships with all three of those! I think a lot of technology partners are very civic-minded, and I find that very interesting—unlike under other industries, I find that technology companies tend to have extra engagement for the community. It might be directly with the community college, but it might also be on the outskirts of the community college itself—involvement at the city level or the local government level. At the state level, we do have a couple of partnerships on the programmatic side to provide boot camps and opportunities for our students to get some training. I think all the cloud vendors are equally engaged in serving education, which is great. I will partner with every vendor and every member of the community that wants to serve our students.
Q: What advice would you give to CEOs—or Vice Chancellors!—everywhere regarding emerging technology?
A: I would say it’s so important to engage the technology teams early in the strategic planning process. Sometimes technology is seen as an afterthought; plans are drafted first, and technology is just seen as an enabler of those plans. But engaging technology at the forefront and making sure that those perspectives are included in that planning is going to help—technology can be a driver as well as an enabler. And there are levers that emerging technologies could bring to drive efficiencies and effectiveness, as well as innovation. As a technologist, you’re always trying to think ahead of what's coming up, rather than just trying to solve with what you currently have. You try to do a little bit of chess playing and think a couple of moves ahead. It’s about preparing for what's to come in terms of technology and making sure your staff is up to those tasks and ready to absorb the new technology—and to make sure that your organization is ready to serve whatever demand might be coming. What I was saying earlier about the K-12s and what their expectations are when they're coming into college is a great example of that. At the same time we’re anticipating the future, we’re making sure we don't lose any of the services and support that we currently provide on a day-to-day basis. I’m not willing to chase innovation at the cost of providing services we need now—it’s about the balance.
Q: For people working in technology, what advice would you give to them?
A: It’s all about staying engaged and maintaining a curious mind. A lot of people that join the IT profession are drawn to it because they’re extremely bright and have a natural curiosity about things and want to be continually challenged in their careers. A technology professional may have to learn ten or twelve different platforms in their career and change up their day-to-day tasks drastically from one space to another—that's just part of the agility and the natural way we work. I think that's a remarkable thing to do, and that sense of curiosity and being open to change is a very important aspect of working in this industry
Q: One of the most common themes that comes up when I talk to IT professionals is the advice to stay curious and engaged.
A: Some people have even said that because of where we are with cloud, people in the IT space are starting to find that their whole lives are being disrupted—it’s too fast for some people, despite their inherent curiosity and desire to learn. It’s very difficult, even in a profession dedicated to creating change, for people to reorient themselves and go from mastery of one area to being a student again in a new innovation.
Change management is kind of a science, in a way—ensuring that that you engage people throughout that change process, keep them informed, and make sure everybody knows that they have a role in this shift. Reassuring them that the change isn’t going to leave them behind really helps to ease that transition and allow them to play an active role throughout the change process.
One thing I’ve found valuable in my career as a technologist is staying engaged with my peers and trying to learn as much as possible about what others are doing, the challenges they’re facing, and how they're solving problems. Bouncing things off of each other—I’ve found that extremely valuable. So consortiums and things of that nature are extremely important. In the higher education environment, we’re not bound by the kind of proprietary issues that a lot of other industries are tied to. That gives us freedom to have a very open and collaborative environment with other higher education institutions. Of course, there’s a competitive element in terms of matriculating and graduating students. But at the same time, we’re all in it together when it comes to supporting students and providing the best quality for their educations. We have that common ground, and I think we're very fortunate to be in that in that type of community.
I respect every single person in my team and all my peers—they're all very, very bright. And yet nobody in technology knows everything. If you have a technologist tell you that they know everything, they are really fooling themselves, because it’s really not humanly possible for anyone to know everything that's going on in technology at any given point in time. So I would say just keep that curiosity and learn as much as you can about everything that that surrounds you in technology, because that's what really supports long-term success.