Looking to the future with Lev Gonick, Part 5 - Going digital with trust, wallets and transformation

Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final installment of a five-part series from ASU CIO Lev Gonick, featuring three key trends: digital trust, digital wallets and digital transformation. Read the previous installments now for more from Lev on the ten trends leading higher education in 2021.

Trend #8: Digital trust

The German sociologist Jurgen Habermas’ concept of “legitimation crisis” refers to periods when “the ‘organizational principle’ of a society does not permit the resolution of problems that are critical for its continued existence.” One of the central challenges of the digital age is the power of the state, as well as powerful private interests to use digital technologies to surveil individuals, groups and whole societies. The fantasy of total information awareness justifying invasions of every artifact of our digital beings in the name of protecting us against “fill in the blank.” It is now one of the permanent vectors of intersection of Silicon Valley interests and those of a surveillance state.

Equally problematic is the extent to which those same artifacts — in the form of cached data, searches, social media, texts and email — have been effectively monetized to sell back to private interests, who in turn generate predictive algorithms to prompt consumer or political behaviors. The insatiable capacity of so-called value-neutral technical machinations, on a massive scale, to induce predictable behaviors is the second major permanent vector of the digital age. Together, surveillance and this manipulation are now understood to be creating a legitimation crisis placing democracy and civil society at a growing risk.

Universities are subjected to both of these seemingly insurmountable logics, as well as producing and contributing to the legitimation crisis. In the name of discovery, collaboration and experimentation, universities have long sought to balance the ethos of open knowledge creation with the real vulnerabilities and significant plane of attack reflected in the traditional information security environment on our campuses. 

There is no shortage of bad actors out there. Some are state actors, some spies engaged in industrial and intellectual property espionage and others are trouble and mischief making simply because they can. Concepts like zero trust are quickly invading the architectures of information security because the only way to assume that you can secure the enterprise is to assume that you can trust no one and no machine.

At the same time, the digital surveillance economy finds some of its origins in universities. Twenty years ago, when the idea of monetizing massive amounts of small data was just an idea, we university technology leaders fell over each other to give away our email systems to startups. After all, we could and did shed a growing insatiable demand on fiscal and technical resources by “partnering” with them. The price was consenting to forms of algorithmic development on the substantial collection of data flowing into and out of the client systems in our domains. 

Our engagement not only enabled a relatively inexpensive petrie dish for algorithmic development, it also signaled to the rest of the market that if flag-bearer universities were engaged in outsourcing their email, adding our impremateur advanced the credibility of giving away our right to a more secure and private exchange of information in the name of short-term economic expediency.

The two decades of growing sophistication in developing a planful, manipulative digital economy in which we give away all manner of digital information only to have it sold back to us is not the result of any intentional plan on the part of university CIOs. Rather, both surveillance and manipulation are now deepy encrusted logics that are as pervasive as they are pernicious in the devolution of the underpinning of a now largely figmented and nostalgic memory of a century of civility, tolerance and a fair share of naivete. The legitimation crisis is manifest in the growing challenge of anything resembling the capacity to re-architect and reconstruct a social compact.

This is where the concept of digital trust needs to start. Digital trust is about an approach to rethinking and redesigning trust in the digital age. This is a daring and likely audacious project that has both philosophical underpinnings and a critically important set of programmatic  and pragmatic activities that follow. The only way out of a legitimation crisis is to begin with an understanding that the existing crisis, as deep and pervasive as it is, was socially constructed. While others call for corrective regulatory and policy remediations to the surveillance state, there is also a role for university technology leaders.

Principles like privacy by design are beginning to find root across the software ecosystem. Universities should be quick to both adopt and lead the further exploration of the challenge. We now incorporate security into our development and operations of continuous integration deployment workflows. The time is ripe, and well overdue, for universities to also architect and deploy automatic engineered workflows to insert privacy, anonymity and confidentiality by design rubrics into our code development. As we advance the maturation of our data governance work on campus, it is important to develop new rubrics that build on protecting student and personal information to also address frameworks for the ethical use of data. 

The experience of managing COVID-19 on campus has helped to shed light on the body of data being collected in our data warehouses that need to be thoughtfully updated to assure ethical use, articulated in a way to reframe a new social compact in the digital age. At the same time, the technology leadership at universities and colleges across the country have a responsibility for socializing the contradictions of the surveillance state and the value of digital trust leadership, not only for our institutions, but as models for the rest of society.

The ASU Example - Bringing in digital trust experts

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Dr. Donna Kidwell, ASU's Chief Information Security and Digital Trust Officer


A call for a new executive role for information security and digital trust was fulfilled in 2020. With the naming of Dr. Donna Kidwell as ASU’s Chief Information and Digital Trust Officer, UTO and ASU is ahead of the curve in considering a crucial part of our digital age in a formal way.

Trend #9: Distributed ledger technologies & digital wallet

Through a set of complicated twists and turns, the notion that institutions should ensure that learners are encouraged to take an active role in creating the learning process, and that the assessment of students reflects this approach, is no longer a radical idea. From constructivist educators to libertarian thinkers, from regulatory authorities to philanthropic investors, the idea of what might be called learner agency is not particularly controversial anymore. The only deep resistance to this consensus is within the workings of the university itself.

Clark Kerr, former Chancellor of the University of California system and the architect of the California master plan for higher education, made a strong point more than 60 years ago. He said that from the year 1520, some 85 Western institutions “still exist[ed] in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories.” Seventy of those enduring entities were universities, usually in the same locations with “governance carried on in much the same ways,” with “professors and students doing much the same things…subject to little major technological change,” and animated by “the eternal themes of teaching, scholarship and service, in one combination or another.” 

The university was second for endurance only to the Roman Catholic Church, the parliaments of the Isle of Man, Iceland and Great Britain, and a few Swiss cantons. However, if we wanted to classify the institutions with whom we have enjoyed a 500-year history of hierarchical continuity, they would not be learner-centered. 

Among the few major technical changes in the past 20 years is the cryptographic revolution securing chains on a block, starting with Haber and Stornetta. Thirteen years ago, developers working under the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto released a whitepaper of a massively distributed ledger system capable of recording and setting up a verification protocol that is all the rage in the world of cryptocurrencies. 

Most cryptocurrencies use an app in the form of a digital wallet to store and retrieve their verified digital assets. The idea of disintermediating traditional financial institutions and the power they have long held continues to be one of the most interesting battles of possibly tectonic proportion in the global political economy in more than 300 years.

Over the past several years, pioneers and visionaries in education have posited that in order to realize the century-old vision of education informed by learner agency, we need to launch our own project of tectonic-shifting possibility. The working hypothesis is that scalable distributed ledger technologies and an education digital wallet can be established to greatly advance learner agency. A higher education digital wallet can allow learners to both store and retrieve artifacts of learning that have been verified to be shared along the blockchain. This form of a trust network could well be an important part of an approach to advance digital trust in a broader political environment.

As we have documented elsewhere, there are key technical and learner agency principles that can, and have been, encoded in early work on blockchains and digital wallets for education. As the technical work progresses, the challenges and institutional resistors are as predictable as they are difficult to defeat. Within the institution there are no shortage of those representing university structures who assert that they are facing existential threats to their raison d’etre. Between institutions, there are classic debates underway as to whether data assertions from one set of credit-generating institutions can withstand rigorous scrutiny of being equivalent for another institution’s use. Of course, these and other conversations have little if anything to do with being leading exemplars of advancing learner agency and student-centered learning.

There is a high probability that most of these legacy forms of institutional resistance will either be resolved by enlightened self-interest of the institutions or by external disruptors validated by the market. Employers have traditionally found value in the assertion of the colleges and universities that we are a reliable arbiter and evaluator of learning, competencies and skills associated with degrees and courses of study. 

In the digital age, that set of assertions will be tested and challenged. For those who truly believe in learner agency, the breadth of evidence of learning artifacts extends well beyond grades, courses and majors. We owe it to our learners to let them take greater responsibility and agency for their education journeys while they have their primary and hopefully lifelong relationships with institutions. 

There is a rich and diverse set of learning artifacts that learners bring to their college experience. During their time with us, we invite learners to a journey of discovery and knowledge creation that we hope will be of subsequent value to them as they weave between work experiences and continuous learning experiences. All of these artifacts of learning can be represented in a digital wallet and written to the chain of those interested in sharing. 

Among the artifacts in the wallet will be the official transcript of the institution, pristine, controlled and verified only by the university itself. The prospect of the wallet being able to also capture evidence of competencies, skills and a learner’s digital portfolio of learning is a highly desirable way to empower learners. At the same time, this assures that our institutions remain relevant into the next 500 years.

The ASU Example - Crafting a blockchain network

In 2020, the Trusted Learner Network (TLN) received funding as part of $12 million of grants for expansion of access for learners. Products and network collaborations for the TLN are launching in 2021.

Trend #10: Digital transformation and alignment

Looking back at the past year, most university CIOs will likely reflect that the global pandemic brought themselves and IT to the attention of executives at the university in a way unlike anything else before.

Looking forward, we must ask ourselves what lessons will inform our future as IT professionals and our contributions to our respective universities and colleges? One technology management impulse will be to fall back to old playbooks. For many universities, there has been an overall executive directive to manage the pandemic as best as can be accomplished and then begin a glidepath to returning back to “normal” in a post-COVID world. At ASU in general, and certainly in the university technology enterprise operation, we have taken a very different approach.

Our goal has been to co-design and introduce a rapidly reconfigurable model for the IT enterprise of the future. If there is an institutional imperative to return to the status quo ante, there is likely little to no motivation to rethink and redesign IT service delivery into the future. At ASU, the executive directive has been to be intentional in leveraging the many complexities of the pandemic to position the institution, post-2021 and beyond, to achieve our bold charter in ways unthinkable before 2020. ASU’s aspiration remains becoming the foundational model for a New American Public Enterprise University in service to the nation.

At the very moment that many universities are contracting their core lines of business, ASU continues to lead through often contrarian leadership. In addition to expanding traditional research and scholarship in robust ways, ASU has embarked on an ambitious new Learning Enterprise. Leveraging all of ASU’s assets, the goal of the Learning Enterprise is to foster and grow universal access to social and economic opportunity at every stage of a person’s life. Among its goals, the Learning Enterprise will engage one million learners over the next ten years. Some of those individuals will find pathways into the pursuit of degrees and others will find their lives enhanced, no matter their age or circumstance, by partaking in learning opportunities at the university.

Over the past year, and as we prepare to position ourselves for the next five years, IT alignment has never been a more propitious goal. Rather than looking in the rearview mirror, the university has embraced, at this very moment, the prospect of an acceleration of the digital transformation journey we are on. The principal architect is ASU’s President Michael Crow, who has enjoyed an uncharacteristically long tenure of many senior leaders that he has selected and led. An unrepentant optimist and risk taking visionary, President Crow is also a student of technology and its role in shaping and being shaped by social, economic and political forces. Under Crow, the contribution of the professional technology talent within the institution has been recognized as a major creative and generative asset to the future aspiration and evolution of the ASU public enterprise model.

The central organizational hypothesis leading the IT organizational transformation underway is that the traditional, hierarchical and function-based IT model must be re-designed in order to meet the aspirations of the ASU public enterprise model. Put slightly less generously, our old way of thinking and organizing was largely both unaligned and likely unalignable to the aspirational goals of the university going forward.

We aspired to be more agile, and yet being held captive to enterprise system organization charts and a 50-year-old mainframe way of thinking were clearly rate-limiting. Through an intentional and radically inclusive planning process, individuals and teams recommended new ways of articulating our core values, our leadership principles and ways of organizing. Our current new organizational model was not the brainchild of the CIO. My challenge to the team was to think creatively about new and untested models in higher education for organizing our talents to be both better aligned to the fast moving public enterprise university and, at the same time, rapidly reconfigurable to attend to changes in the technology world. This was to additionally engender the development of chapters of technology practices that could advance and continuously avail our team members with opportunities to learn and contribute. 

Central to our understanding and the prospects of an enduring sustainable model into the future is the role of culture and storytelling. Our culture-in-the-making stories and, more importantly, the stories reflecting our service and support of our students, faculty, researchers and the communities that we have committed to serving are hugely important.

Trusting the process and the team has resulted in a grand experiment in redesigning the University Technology Office into an enterprise technology office in the making. This is based on organizational cores of rapidly reconfigurable pools of talent advancing service delivery, products, projects, analytics, decision support and engineering. Rather than impenetrable and hardened new functional models, we are experimenting with porous and cross-matrixed teams. Beyond chapters, and the professional practices within those chapters involving architects, coaches, champions, principal domain specialists and product owners, we also have a generative set of guilds inviting individuals from across the university to explore areas of common technical, cultural and community interests.

Even before the pandemic, we knew that in order to chart the future of higher education, ASU had to constantly promote change within its own environment. With this focus on developing a culture of rapid innovation, there are likely lessons to be learned and shared with IT colleagues leading their own organizations and universities in 2021 and beyond.

The ASU Example - Setting UTO’s goals

UTO set 15 priorities and goals for fiscal year 2021, from Culture and Communication to Responsible Innovation, including many of the concepts and trends already described above.

Over the past few weeks, ASU’s Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick has explored the intersection of higher education and technology, sharing his aspirations and vision for the future. Check out previous installments to the series, Looking to the future with Lev Gonick, below:

Looking to the future with Lev Gonick, Part 1 - Experiential learning extends reality

Looking to the future with Lev Gonick, Part 2 - Smart tech + next-gen networks

Looking to the future with Lev Gonick, Part 3 - Engagement + collaboration platforms

Looking to the future with Lev Gonick, Part 4 - Video instruction + artificial intelligence for student success