Digital transformation involves cultural change, a challenge that has been magnified by COVID-19 particularly in the education sector, where CIOs have had to deploy technology to rebuild and reimagine the traditional university experience. As a result, technology executives have had to stake out a more central role in institutional leadership — a challenge in itself.
Over the past six years, the role of Yousif Asfour, the chief innovation and transformation officer at American University of Beirut (AUB), has evolved from that of a “passive service provider” to an “active equal transformation partner” with educators, helping to transform teaching, research, student life and patient care at the university.
The process has been a long and difficult, but necessary one, and started with focusing on consistently providing quality and value-added services to the community. This in turn built trust with the IT team that eventually led to a “seat at the table,” Asfour says.
AUB is undergoing a five-year digital transformation, aimed at significantly improving the IT functionality of the institution.
“We have moved most of our data and content management services to the cloud,” Asfour says. “For example, our email and end user data storage services are all cloud based. In addition, we equip every one of our faculty, staff and students with the tools and ability to [manage] their websites using cloud-based content management systems.”
AUB has a support team whose role is to engage with the faculty, staff and students to ensure that they not only know how to use the digital tools provided to them, but also use them as effectively as possible. “We gather feedback on our services on a continuous basis, and adjust our platforms and operations accordingly to increase engagement,” Asfour says.
Students at the heart of IT strategy
By seeking feedback on services and focusing on the student experience at the university, IT leaders can identify the pain points in student life, teaching, research, and administration, and use that to help make improvements in processes and systems that drive the transformation on campus.
“Building trust among faculty, staff and executives is another aspect that allows IT to gain a place at the table and have a bigger impact on campus,” Asfour says. “This is accomplished by focusing on building a strong and unified IT team that is focused on service excellence.”
US President Harry Truman once said “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”. According to Asfour, AUB’s IT team lives by that motto. “While we take ownership of everything we do, we make sure that the departments drive the projects ‘from the back’. Even though we run the projects, we make sure the departments are given ownership and leadership over the process improvements that we implement systems for,” adds.
COVID forces distance learning
Although AUB’s physical campus closed to students in March 2020, education at the university continued. The IT team was able to fully deploy online education tools and remote work capabilities 48 hours after the lockdown was declared.
The deployment included remote-access, videoconferencing, student assessment, virtual lab environment, remote support, and unified communications tools. “It also included the development and deployment of training material to help students access these tools, professors more effectively deliver their classes and assess their students, and staff to do their work more effectively from home,” Asfour says.
During the first week of technology-assisted teaching, the IT team handled more than quadruple the typcial number of support tickets by answering phone calls, and accessed end-user devices remotely.
AUB is using what it learned during the spring of 2020 to improve its ability to teach and operate remotely. “We have been improving our tools, and helping our faculty to use more effective methods of teaching and assessing our students online,” Asfour says.
“We are also expanding our infrastructure to allow the use of campus facilities while maintaining COVID-19 precautions. For example, we are reconfiguring our labs and creating outdoor study spaces that take social distancing into account,” he adds.
Assessing the pandemic and its consequences, Asfour says his motto is “never let a good crisis go to waste”. The coronavirus pandemic has provided AUB with an opportunity to accelerate several programmes that were very difficult to accomplish pre-pandemic. These include technology-based teaching, remote end-user support and work from home policies. These are now a permanent part of AUB.