Columbia's New "Chief Digital Officer"

Just how should a prestigious university dip its toe into the online learning field—if at all? It's Sree Sreenivasan's job to find out.

Sree Sreenivasan, a longtime fixture of the Columbia Journalism School (where he was most recently Dean of Student Affairs), was recently appointed Columbia’s Chief Digital Officer. We caught up with Sreenivasan to find out how—and if—Columbia can get into the same game that is growing in popularity with efforts like Khan Academy and EdX.

FAST COMPANY: You’ve said that your new job will be to find out how much Columbia University should ramp up its digital education efforts, "if at all."

SREE SREENIVASAN: I call myself a technology evangelists and skeptic. I believe in early testing, and late adoption. Whatever we do, it should be thoughtful, strategic, sustainable, and keeping with the Columbia brand. It’s not a race. There’s a sense that we all have to move super-fast in order to stay relevant somehow, and I’m not convinced that’s true.

We live in an era of distance learning, and of the "global university," where even a university with "New York" in its name can have campuses across the world. Will protecting the Columbia brand always give some pride of place to the New York campus?

As someone who’s taught at the journalism school for 20 years, I’m a big believer in the power of place, the power of the campus, and the power of the classroom. At the same time, this past year I taught my first class of students in 12 countries at the same time, and it was fascinating to see how the new technology, which is only getting started, affects the learning outcomes of students—how they were talking to each other, and connecting with each other. I’m learning as well, and I don’t claim to have any of the answers.

What’s the operational definition for success in online learning? Grades? Surveys? A gut feeling on the part of the professor that it’s working?

I think all of the above. It’s much harder with online learning systems for students to hide. Even in a classroom of 20 people, it’s easy for a student to nod along as the professor talks, without having engaged with the material. Now you can see who read what, even how much time anybody spent on a document.

Why not just dive in head-first with online initiatives? Why the need for caution at all?

The reason for caution is that technology changes fast, and costs a lot of money, even at a time when the price of things has fallen so much.

Online learning could be potentially lucrative, too. Is Columbia’s bottom line something you concern yourself with?

It’s not an issue I concern myself with. But the university, even though it’s a non-profit, has to play in the global marketplace. I have a direct interest in all of this. The value of my Columbia degree is determined not by whether it was great when I was there, but is Columbia great today, tomorrow, and in the years ahead. Columbia has to compete for good students and great teachers, and one of the ways to do that is to make sure that the financial health of the university is paid attention to. Fortunately that’s not what I have to do now, but I know that’s a concern for every professor at every university: How do I make sure I have the resources to do the kind of work I want to do? One way to do that is to make sure the university is fiscally healthy.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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[Photo by Joseph Lin]

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1 Comments

  • Pshea

    Interesting piece - thanks for the update on Columbia in this space.  Some of the comments make it sound like the entry of the elite institutions marks the beginning of online educaiton.  But as we know, there are nearly 6 million college students already enrolled in a fully online course.  That's one out of three of every college student in the US.  The entry of the elites, and the "free" massive open online courses is just the most recent chapter in the long history of online and distance learning...