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Zheng Fan – University of Miami Herbert Business School

A roadmap to a digital future in higher ed

As with so many academic institutions, the transition to virtual learning at the University of Miami Herbert Business School came a few years earlier than expected, a result of the COVID-19 outbreak that upended operations.

But that wasn’t the only challenge, says Zheng Fan.

Zheng Fan |University of Miami Herbert Business School

Zheng Fan | Executive Director of IT | University of Miami Herbert Business School

Joining Miami Herbert as its executive director of IT in January 2020, he led the transition just months after getting to know the school. And what he’d intended to be a five year plan was, to a large degree, rolled out in just three months.

It’s a twist on what’s become an oft-told story during the pandemic, in which IT professionals have taken their place on the front lines.

“Our school prides itself on preparing individuals and organizations to excel in an increasingly complex, dynamic and interconnected business world,” Zheng says. “The measures our department has adopted reflect that continued commitment.”

Streamlining the inevitable

Founded in 1929, Miami Herbert is one of 12 schools and colleges at the University of Miami, located in Coral Gables, Florida. Today, Miami Herbert offers undergraduate, master’s, doctoral and executive education programs. According to Zheng, it’s recognized for both its diversity of faculty, students and staff, and its engagement with the business community.

Included in Zheng’s five-year plan were state-of-the-art accommodations, including a Zoom Neat system in every classroom and digital heat maps and dashboards to track graduate business program applications and classroom assignments. He also planned intensive training for faculty so they could incorporate new technologies and ways of teaching; and the use of Interfolio, software to streamline faculty activity reporting, promotion and tenure.

Zheng Fan | University of Miami Herbert Business School

Using data visualization, the heat maps track things like classroom assignments, allowing Zheng and his team to provide support more effectively. He also developed what’s known as the GBP application tracker heat map, which tracks and analyzes applications across cities, states and countries.

By March 2020, Zheng and his team were forced to accelerate their itinerary, so faculty, staff and students could switch to remote working and learning for the spring semester and beyond. As a result, the Zheng-led IT team was awarded with the 2020 Dean’s Appreciation Award.

“2020 has been a year of many unprecedented challenges that have required all of us, but especially our IT staff, to go above and beyond,” says Miami Herbert Dean Dr. John Quelch. “Our transition to remote learning and working required creative thinking and additional effort, as we assessed and implemented new technologies. None of this would have been possible without our IT team.”

Upgrades in changing landscape

Central to the department’s digital transformation plan is the creation of new hybrid learning models. By implementing a Zoom Neat system in every classroom, Zheng and his team were able to accommodate both in-person and remote students, “ensuring an optimal learning experience,” he says.

He has called the switch to virtual and hybrid classrooms a “digital twin,” referring to the school’s ability to hold lectures in a variety of modes, with their digital content ready for online delivery at any time, increasing accessibility to students and allowing room for different learning strategies.

Part of the plan also involves strengthening MHBS’ digital presence via the web and social media. According to Zheng, this “multi-channel” approach improves communication between students, parents and faculty, as well as expand alumni and student engagement.

Another of Zheng’s more pressing projects involves helping the school improve the faculty administration process—everything from faculty activity to promotions and tenure. In the past, each department used its own method of reporting. Now, thanks to Interfolio, the data is instantly available.

Zheng Fan | University of Miami Herbert Business School

“Interfolio is a very sleek UX/UI design and easy to navigate,” says Zheng. “It streamlines the process for faculty to input about their various academic-related activities. It serves as a central hub of faculty data.”

He continues: “Using these tools and emphasizing data analytics is imperative to the school’s success. It creates a comprehensive and accurate set of data for business school faculty to use, and help the school move up in the rankings, because decisions are made from accurate data sets.”

Teaching is unique

In overhauling the school’s IT infrastructure, Zheng says he wanted to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. When speaking with his service team, he emphasized that everyone needed a voice.

“There are different teaching modalities for each subject, and in order to support them, we must be flexible,” he says. “A one-size-fits-all approach in academia would not produce the best experience for the faculty or the student.”

It’s a philosophy that informs how he runs his 30-plus team of IT staff and student technicians, with customer service and flexibility always at the fore.

“I am super proud of what we have been able to accomplish in a short period of time,” says Zheng. “Faculty has been very patient with us, especially when trying to adapt the technology to their teaching style. We wanted to make sure we weren’t hampering their productivity or causing them to alter their teaching style.”

Published on: May 28, 2021

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