Case Studies

Phil Ventimiglia – Georgia State University

Georgia State University CIO using technology to reshape student learning in class and beyond

College students today can meet someone at a party or a bar and, out of the thousands or even tens of thousands of young people in the area, find them the next day on Facebook or Twitter with a few swipes of the finger. Yet they often struggle to do digital academic research.

Phil Ventimiglia, chief innovation officer at Georgia State University, wants to help students use the technology they master in their personal lives to be successful in school and at work too. He plans on doing this through adaptive courseware, real-world digital literacy, and tools to support experimentation at Georgia State, one of the nation’s largest and most diverse universities.

Phil Ventimiglia - Georgia State University

Georgia State has more than 50,000 students. Over half of these students are eligible for Federal Pell Grants, which are given specifically to low-income students. For a university as large and diverse as Georgia State, using technology to advance student learning outcomes is important.

Georgia State is off to a strong start. In recent years, the university has earned funding supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, attracted attention from the U.S. Department of Education and been a founding member of the national University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of 11 public research universities working to increase economic opportunity and mobility for first-generation and low-income students.

Choose-your-own adventure course materials

For decades, Ventimiglia worked in the tech industry, leading product development strategy and hiring college talent for companies like Dell and NCR Corporation. Much of his work was international—building product development teams in places like Singapore and running an innovation center in India.

While on a two-year assignment in India, Ventimiglia wanted to provide his own children with the best education possible. He and coworkers who were in a similar situation launched a charter school in order to assure their children didn’t fall behind while abroad.

As Ventimiglia watched his son finish high school algebra in just half a year—much faster than expected—his perspective changed and he found himself at a career tipping point. The experience showed him how students can learn in different styles and at different speeds, and when Ventimiglia returned from India, he sought out a job in higher education.

When Ventimiglia got to Georgia State in 2014, he became excited about adaptive coursework that, like the charter school in India, allows students to learn at their own pace, in the way that’s best suited to their unique learning styles.

Georgia State has begun to use adaptive learning software to assess how students are doing throughout a course by automatically tracking performance on assignments, quizzes and tests. If a student is having trouble with a concept, adaptive learning software recommends additional reviews and activities to help the student better understand the material.

Data is automatically relayed to the professor. If half of a macroeconomics class, for instance, is struggling with the supply and demand curve, the professor might decide to spend additional time teaching that topic.

“You can think of the software like a digital textbook, but once you put it in this platform, it becomes like a choose-your-own-adventure, changing the information presented as a result of a student’s actions” Ventimiglia says.

Georgia State is currently piloting adaptive learning software. After a trial period, Georgia State plans to expand use of the technology.

True digital literacy

Ventimiglia is working to reshape not just how the university teaches but what it teaches. Rather than simply having a single “digital-literacy” course on software like PowerPoint and Excel, Georgia State’s digital literacy initiative is aimed at helping students learn how to assess a wide range of tech tools and use them as part of meaningful solutions.

“What we found when we introduced technology into what we teach was, surprisingly, our students don’t actually have all the skills that we expected them to,” he says. “Even though they were born with a smartphone in their hand, they were brought up using technology from a consumer perspective and need practice to really understand how to use it in the classroom and how to use it professionally.”

Starting with 250 honors-program freshmen, Georgia State began incorporating into core course curriculum lessons on how to solve problems using available technologies in each field. For example, learning how to write a blog post, create a web page and read basic web scripting in freshman English. In freshman history courses, students use graphs and geospatial mapping technology to visualize events like the spread of AIDS in Atlanta in the ‘80s and to layer in the impact of demographics and socioeconomics.

Ultimately Ventimiglia wants to teach self-sufficiency. He wants students to determine how they can understand and solve problems digitally, to learn to teach themselves and to be more self-directed.

“Memorization of facts doesn’t really matter as much anymore when you have access to a world of information through the device in your hand,” he says. “It’s much more important to know how you find information, how to teach yourself how to access it and how to constantly stay up to date.”

“We don’t expect all students to create something like Facebook, but more and more what’s happening is students are taking all of these different tools and putting them together and integrating that into a solution,” he says.

Tools for extending learning beyond the classroom

Ventimiglia is also extending real-world problem solving outside of the classroom by actively engaging students in digital development opportunities, and by building learning and lab spaces that are increasingly collaboration and experimentation spaces, rather than traditional rows of desks or computers.

“Memorization of facts doesn’t really matter as much anymore when you have access to a world of information through the device in your hand,” he says. “It’s much more important to know how you find information, how to teach yourself how to access it and how to constantly stay up to date.”

Ventimiglia’s team helps support both a student organization that encourages members from all disciplines to expand their problem-solving capabilities at events like hackathons, and formal student hiring programs that place students on research and development teams at the university.

“Our organization takes an active role in creating opportunities for students to grow their design, development, collaboration and entrepreneurial skills through doing,” Ventimiglia’s says.

At Georgia State, classrooms and labs are increasingly being configured to encourage students to work together and build out their ideas. A number of active learning classrooms on campus are designed to allow for interactive discussion and activities, with modular furniture and technology that encourages students to present their own work digitally. Maker spaces, with technologies for creating 3-D prototypes and testing ideas, are replacing traditional labs.

Georgia State has a regular flow of peer institutions asking about its initiatives and consistently provides speakers at conferences.

“That’s one of the nice things about university and academic environments, versus the private sector,” Ventimiglia says. “There’s a willingness and desire to share. Folks are always willing to share and we learn from other intuitions too.”

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