Technology Plays Many Roles University wide

Chief Information Officer Cohen shapes CUNY

Seven years ago, Brian Cohen joined CUNY as its chief information officer. Recently, CUNY Matters sat down with Cohen, who is also associate vice chancellor, to talk about how technology is changing CUNY. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Q: What role has technology played in shaping education at CUNY?

A: Over the last five years the University has invested between $350 million and $400 million in technology infrastructure improvements. You can see the results of this investment when you visit our colleges and see the latest technology in the labs, libraries and classrooms. The technology investment has also been used to introduce new systems and computer facilities over the last five years: upgrading our Blackboard online course management system; developing the Degreeworks On-line Academic Advisement system, expanding our resources for our scientists through the High Performance Computing Center, as well as our CUNY computer grid.

Over the next five years we’re going to see technology playing three major roles: It will be an “enabler” helping the University to become a more efficient organization. It will be an “enhancer” that will enrich the experiences of students and faculty. And, finally, technology will be a “supporter” of everything we are trying to do, providing better services on both the administrative and the academic side.

Q: One of our biggest current technology projects is CUNYfirst. Tell us how it fits into the University’s long-term strategy.

A: When CUNYfirst started over seven years ago, it was a conceptual project addressing the need to replace our antiquated computer systems. The student systems, the personnel systems, our financial systems — all were based on 1970s technology. CUNYfirst will replace all those systems with one single integrated system. (“First” stands for Fully Integrated Resource and Services Tool.) And we believe  the University will thus be far more efficient in delivering critical services, operating and supporting the needs of our students. For example, in the future, if a student finishes a two-year CUNY community college and moves on to a four-year college, or goes on to do graduate work at CUNY, the student will no longer need to create a new record for each institution.

Q: What about some of the other technological tools that students and faculty are using?

A: Now we run Blackboard in one location supporting the entire University. It has allowed us to reduce the cost of providing Blackboard services across the board. Over the next several months we will be upgrading from Blackboard 6.3 to 8.0, which provides enhanced features and greater opportunities for collaboration. CUNY will be the first institution of this size to deploy Blackboard 8.0. In fact, it is already being used by the Online Baccalaureate program.

Other systems we’re working on include DegreeWorks, an online academic advisement system, which students can use to determine whether or not the courses they are taking meet their curriculum requirements before they meet with a faculty member for advice. It also gives them the capability to think through “what if” scenarios: What would happen if I change my major at this point?

Q: One of the critical things today is how a university communicates with its students. What kinds of systems is CUNY using?

A:  There are two types of communication initiatives that we have been working on. The first, Live@Edu, came out of many discussions among the University’s IT directors. We found that, in some cases, students were getting e-mail addresses from their campuses; in many other cases, they weren’t. We also found that, because of the high costs of running an e-mail system, it was very difficult for us to have a standard service across the University. Now, via a partnership with Microsoft, the University is able to offer all of its students e-mail services at no cost. Access to student e-mail is simplified via the Internet and accessible from virtually everywhere. And, as our students graduate, their e-mail accounts remain available to them as alumni accounts. Since we started this effort last year, Live@Edu has already established 175,000 e-mail accounts.

Q: What about the second initiative?

A: The second communication initiative is CUNY Alert, which evolved out of the tragic shooting incident at Virginia Tech. That tragedy heightened our own awareness that we needed a better tool to communicate with students, faculty and staff about any kind of emergency situation. CUNY Alert is a partnership with New York State’s Emergency Management Office. Students, faculty and staff register for the system at their campus of choice, and if there is an emergency at that campus, we alert them through the system, either by e-mail or phone; by landline, cell or text message — or all three. Since we activated the system nine months ago, we have had almost 90,000 registrations and we have already used the system several times. Most recently, the College of Staten Island alerted its campus community of a fire and advised everyone to avoid the area.

Q: Along with the many benefits of the Internet age, there is a growing concern over security issues. What sort of measures is the University taking to assure security and privacy for users?

A: One initiative involves our shift away from using Social Security numbers as IDs, not only for students, but also employees. We’ve been looking to use the CUNY portal as a means of logging into our systems. We’ve also been investing substantially in security, providing better software to protect the environment and minimizing the amount of spam that comes into the University that potentially brings viruses. And we have licensed anti-virus software for the entire University.