How technology creates an ecosystem of learning at Walden University

Walden CIO Karthik Venkatesh discusses how the university is leveraging SaaS, RPA, AI, and more to maximize student success.

Karthik Venkatesh, CIO, Walden University
Karthik Venkatesh, CIO, Walden University

Founded in 1970, Walden University is an accredited university that offers online certificates and bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in business, IT, criminal justice, nursing, education, and other professions.

I recently spoke at length with CIO Karthik Venkatesh to learn about how Walden is deploying the latest digital tools to enable a personalized student experience. What follows is an edited version of our interview.

Martha Heller: How do you define digital at Walden University?

Karthik Venkatesh: Walden is celebrating 50 years of being a leader in online learning and distance education, so, for us, digital is not new. Digital is about where we go from here to meet the needs of our students and faculty, and the strategy is made up of three categories.

The first is personalization at scale. One of our priorities is to enable our students’ success by helping them stay focused on learning. We do this by offering self-service tools, context, and choice, as well as creating a sense of community with the university. Our goal is to provide our students with the technological tools needed to help them keep learning, graduate, and be a part of the Walden community after graduation.

The second big bucket in our digital strategy is data, which we call data as a service—understanding our students and their needs deeply, so we can provide them the right help at the right time, is critical. We have developed a series of experiences, and we use data from our systems to identify what our students are looking for and focus on developing capabilities to enable them.

One example is Charlotte, Walden’s self-service digital assistant. Based on a review of our data, we realized that our students wanted the ability to get assistance on demand when they needed it. With Charlotte, our students can self-service and get support for various things automatically without needing to call and speak with a specialist.

The third area is around a cloud and digital workforce. As part of our continual evolution to embrace new technologies to enhance the power and effectiveness of education, we moved our infrastructure to the cloud over the last few years. This enabled us to pivot rapidly to being 100% remote when COVID-19 hit. The foundation of being in the cloud and working to ensure that our architecture becomes fully cloud native helps us to meet student and faculty needs in real-time.

What is an example of personalization at scale?

A high-level example of personalization at scale would be how Walden's students can choose their type of learning experience from the standard course-based experience, Walden's Tempo Competency-Based Learning™, and microlearning.

Another example of personalization at scale would be the experience our students get when they log into their student portal. There are various personalized experiences, such as their interactions with Charlotte. Another student experience is with Walden’s Doctoral Degree Coach™, a technological tool that supports doctoral students.

The Doctoral Degree Coach tool tracks a student's journey from coursework to completion of their doctoral research. It provides easy-to-understand checklists to see what's ahead and a timeline of progression to help the student know where they are in their journey and what's next. It also provides goals to track milestones as they progress in their doctoral program. For faculty, the tool allows them to follow their students' progress, so they know when and where to provide them with direction and assistance in a collaborative environment.

We are also collaborating with some large technology companies to build a more personalized learning experience. Walden University’s social work program piloted a virtual reality (VR) experience with Google's Daydream and Cardboard to simulate the unpredictable environments of on-site visits. Walden students can experience simulations of real-life work scenarios without having to travel somewhere, which is especially helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic. The tool also allows students to explore and learn various methods for handling difficult social work scenarios without putting them or those they are trying to help in harm’s way. Based on the pilot’s success, Walden is developing more VR training across its diverse curriculum.  

How are you using artificial intelligence at Walden University?

AI is a key part of our overall strategy. One way we are using AI is by leveraging typical capabilities like natural language processing (NLP) or Computer Vision to streamline our ability to support our students more effectively. Charlotte is a tool that uses NLP extensively, and Computer Vision is used in various robotic processes.

Another area of focus is the use of AI to improve student engagement. We are using data like classroom participation to understand where our students are and if there are areas we can assist them with. Then we use this data to trigger actions; for staff, it’s to perform outreach, and, for students, it’s to help them understand the resources they have access to. We also ensure that our advisors, specialists, and faculty understand which students need help so they can reach out in real-time.  

Where are you taking your cloud strategy now?

We started our transformation and migration to the cloud a few years ago, and we are currently fully public cloud and SaaS centric.  Now, we are focusing on optimizing the cloud environment to ensure continuous delivery. With serverless and SaaS technologies, there is no need for us to install applications anymore, which reduces overhead and allows us to invest in higher value technologies. We are also automating the way we deploy software to drive velocity.

Where are you leveraging robotic process automation?

We have created a plan around how we can leverage automation on driving additional efficiencies in how we operate. We are using robotic process automation (RPA) to help us do this. For example, someone on our staff currently has to read and evaluate every new contract or invoice. We are working to leverage RPA for that kind of task. Areas like invoice processing, document management, and login self-service are some areas where RPA is driving significant value to the organization.

What are the technology underpinnings of your digital strategy?  

Our digital strategy is focused on creating what we call an ecosystem of learning and support, which has multiple tiers. Our goal is to centralize all student-facing technology so that we can be adaptive and deliver a rich experience. The connective tissue, or the middleware layer, is API (application programming interface) centric. We are building APIs using a product mentality. This allows us to treat APIs as products generating value and creating reusability.

In the back office, we are moving to SaaS and serverless as much as possible. We want those systems to be data-rich and data accessible, so that we can connect to the right systems and pull out the right data. This approach has provided us with tremendous flexibility to pivot, scale, and adjust to the changing needs of the university.

What is the delivery model you are using to get new products into the hands of students?

When we look at solving a problem, we always start the discussion with students being at the center. This helps the university collaborate across departments and plan for the work ahead so we can meet their technology and IT needs.

From a cultural perspective, we work in a product mindset. Three years ago, we would have said, “Let’s build this new feature” because we were organized around systems and teams. We would do the work based on the system they supported, but we quickly realized this created a series of system silos and was not aligned with best practices.

Since then, we pivoted to structuring our model around value streams. We have value streams for recruiting, the student experience, academics, and back office functions. For example, on the student experience value stream, we have people from the SaaS, digital, and CRM teams.

A key focal point for this strategy has been setting up a digital product management group that acts as a conduit for our different departments and works with the technology leaders at Walden. The digital product group determines the ROI for new investments, which means that IT always knows what to work on for the next 10 weeks. This allows us to be 20 weeks ahead, or two cycles, to get the pieces in place to deliver the next set of digital products.

When we deliver a new capability, the entire organization understands the value created by the investment into that technology. It allows us all to celebrate successes and learn from challenges together. This ensures that our students are always at the center of our work.

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