Campus Tech Goes Invisible

Kevin Pashuk is transforming the learning environment at Appleby College, finding new, seamless ways to deliver education to the modern student

Today the average Canadian leaves postsecondary with about $27,000 in student debt. Nationwide, accumulated debt has topped $15 billion. These factors often force graduates—who struggle to find work in a down economy—to delay life events like marriage, relocation, or home buying. Leaders in the education sector know that something has to change, and innovative schools such as Ontario’s Appleby College are using technology to change learning environments and outcomes.

The Appleby School had 29 boys when it opened in 1911. Now the Lake Ontario institution operates as a coed liberal-arts boarding school for grades 7–12. Appleby moved to a four-year program in 1987, dropping the grade-13 requirement four years before the province. Maclean’s magazine made it the first high school on its list of Canada’s Top 100 Employers, and Appleby started the first one-to-one computer program in the nation—more than 15 years ago.

“Some schools just want CIOs to keep the lights on at the lowest-possible cost, but Appleby wants IT as a true strategic partner”

Kevin Pashuk joined Appleby as its first chief information officer in 2009, after serving as CIO of Sheridan College and as the founding director of Northern Ontario School of Medicine, Canada’s first new medical school in more than 30 years. He came to Appleby to help the school continue its history of innovation and find new ways to change education through technology. “We can provide new skills and competencies for these kids, who are exiting into a new kind of world,” he says.

Throughout his career as founding director, consultant, and serial entrepreneur, Pashuk has developed a specialty in organizational development. He  runs toward any challenge, and he looks to partner with organizations that want to start something new from the ground up, create total transformations, or reverse from failure. At Appleby, the challenge was about finding new, effective ways to deliver education to a new kind of student. Appleby is a prestigious school, and parents, who pay significant admission, expect a good return on their investment. “We have to offer a truly exceptional experience, and we have to make a significant impact on our next generation,” Pashuk says. Gone are the days when one teacher stands in front of a room and talks to a captive group of stoic children. Instead, CIOs such as Pashuk are transforming the classroom and creating flexible spaces that leverage tech tools to bring a new look and function to education.

IT, Pashuk says, should be a catalyst for significant change. “Some schools just want CIOs to keep the lights on at the lowest-possible cost, but Appleby wants IT as a true strategic partner,” he explains. In his first year, he launched an infrastructure renewal project and moved to empower his IT pros with new skills. Then he brought academic leaders together to articulate an exceptional educational experience. Two weeks later, they reconvened and filled a room of whiteboards with goals, expectations, and measurements. “We want to track more than grades and involvement in sports clubs; we want to know we’ve made a real difference,” Pashuk says.

As part of the process, Pashuk and Appleby’s leaders created a new position and hired a certified teacher focused on technology. “This person is not a teacher that likes to play with gadgets—he’s an expert in the process of learning with the ability to apply technology,” Pashuk says. Then they embedded that teacher in the development team to solicit advice, give input, and integrate new solutions. The team took everything wireless and put devices armed with all-day batteries into the hands of teachers and students alike. Appleby’s technology is essentially invisible, seamlessly integrated into the learning process so that students ignore technical aspects and focus instead on their studies.

The varied activities yielded one groundbreaking solution. Teachers were using Microsoft OneNote but found the digital note-taking app to be limiting. If they shared it with more than one student, private information became too visible. Pashuk led his team to build a security layer on top of OneNote, creating private tabs for each teacher, student, and parent. After IT rolled out this nonprescriptive platform, they saw 80 percent of Appleby’s teachers adopt it in the first month. Teachers found that it not only solved many of their issues but also enabled collaboration between colleagues. Appleby later shared the solution with Microsoft, and the iconic company made a lite version available to other institutions.

The chance to innovate, learn, and collaborate keeps Pashuk going. He’s blogging regularly at TurningTechInvisible.com to get feedback, network with other CIOs, and find out what ideas resonate. He has no plans to slow down or retire, and he’s looking forward to the next big challenge. “Education is one of the sectors that’s been the least impacted by technology—it’s not like banking, retail, or air travel,” he says. “It’s time to change that.”

5 QUESTIONS WITH KEVIN PASHUK

Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
In education, we’re seeing kids with degrees and lots of debt, so we want to bring more value to education. In terms of technology, the big things are BYOD—bring your own device—and flexible teaching spaces. Schools are no longer a place that students enter and march straight to a desk to learn.

Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
At Appleby, we want to demonstrate the flexibility of learning, whether a student is on a service trip to Thailand or in the classroom here. Technology enables that, and in the next few years it’s going to help us break down the barriers even more as we continue to support Appleby’s learning objectives and use technology to enable rich experiences, both globally and locally.

How has the notion of innovation changed in the last decade?
The role of the CIO is changing from a command-and-control one to someone that’s an enabler. We used to be gatekeepers, and now we have to find ways for people to thrive. We have to learn new languages of business and finance.

How do you cultivate innovation within your workforce?
Innovation doesn’t come from just one department or one individual. Innovation is cultural, and the CIO can be very influential in building that culture by allowing risk taking and failure. People are going to bring their own devices and lose them or break things. You just have to accept that and move on.

How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
People can always find a way to pay for necessities, and I can always find time to do what’s important to me. If you start from “how much will this cost?” you’ll never get support in an organization. Be outcome driven. A CIO must be able to demonstrate value rather than cost.