Kevin Pashuk, AVP of Digital Transformation & Technology at Sheridan College, explains why education is a disrupted industry and how it must radically transform to remain viable and valuable.
Avenue Code: You’ve worked in multiple industries, from startups to manufacturing and telecom to education. What has been the guiding light in your career?
Kevin Pashuk: My guiding light is bringing positive change to organizations. I thrive in startups and organizations that need to reorient their offerings and reframe their methods. Some people run away from organizations that are in trouble, but I tend to run toward them: if you know you have a problem, you can effect change.
I also have an insatiable curiosity and a strong altruistic bent. When I’m entrusted with a career, I want to leave the organization better than I found it. And I want to do work that matters. I always ask myself, would I be proud to tell my grandchildren what I do for a living?
AC: As someone who has won notable leadership awards, what do you believe are the qualities that define a successful digital transformation leader?
KP: First and foremost, a leader needs to have an ideology worth following. Warren Bennis asserted that followers need leaders to provide three things: hope, direction, and trust. To bring hope, a digital transformation leader needs to practice active listening and storytelling, framing the transformation in terms of the positive outcomes for individuals.
Next, the leader needs to provide a clearly defined pathway for how to arrive at this destination, including specific resources required and the roles each individual will play. Digital transformation is not an IT initiative; it’s a whole organization initiative. This means that everyone needs to understand and support it, from the CEO and the BOD to the individual developers.
Third, a digital transformation leader needs to be competent in leading the initiative to completion. This means staying current on tools and technologies, and it also means driving transformation for the good of the organization rather than for personal gain. Digital transformation leaders will inevitably encounter resistance, and it should be met with respect rather than fear or confrontation.
Finally, a successful leader can envision what could be rather than what is. The goal of a digital transformation leader is not to suck the wind out of the sails, but to show that the destination is so worth arriving at that everyone is eager to invest what is needed.
AC: Why is higher education behind the curve when it comes to digital evolution?
KP: It’s worth noting that education in its current form has been around since medieval times: a sage on the stage tells people how to become smart, after which they are tested to ensure they were listening. The delivery mode hasn’t changed.
Aside from this, we are a sector that thrives on free thought, so the idea of being told what to do doesn’t land well with the types of people who choose academia as a career. We are fiercely independent about our rights to do what we think is best, so “solutions” are freely implemented without considering institutional overlap or interoperability of data, workflows, and systems. Because of this, many systems and processes are implemented for the singular benefit of a particular department rather than for the entire organization.
To effect digital transformation, you need to look at holistic system design. Autonomy with accountability is the goal: I’m not proposing a dictatorship, but a federated model.
AC: What needs to happen before a given higher ed institution is ready for digital transformation, and how can education transform to be better prepared for disruptions akin to COVID-19?
KP: Borrowing from the twelve step program, the first step is to admit you have a problem. If you think that the way you’ve always operated still works, you’ll find only marginal improvement. This brings up an important point: we need to remember that higher education was already being disrupted prior to COVID-19.
Secondly, the institution needs to have the foundational pieces in place, which entails addressing underlying systems and processes like cataloguing operational systems and frameworks, implementing strong data governance and cybersecurity practices, defining an institutional strategic plan, etc. Addressing the basics is the first step to future agility.
Most schools call themselves institutions, but they do not act like it: they do not plan like institutions, budget like institutions, or execute projects like institutions. Instead, departments operate in silos, which means that any trends or change agents I introduce without addressing the way we operate will be met with limited adoption.
The steps I’m taking to remedy this are often elementary in other sectors. Having said that, those institutions that have figured out how to act like an institution should take a cue from other sectors and place the priority on user experience. In our case, the user is the student, and the student’s needs must be at the heart of all change.
AC: What are the challenges no one thinks about when it comes to remote learning?
KP: There’s a lot to say about equity of access. You can’t assume everyone has computers and internet access.
But looking at the big picture, I’d highlight the need for rigorous planning around the experience of learning. Ed tech is not distributing computers in classrooms or handing out AI goggles, and it’s also not simply automating current processes. That’s not transformation, because it’s not bringing anything new.
Remote education is not a panacea. If we’re just trying to build an online version of what we currently offer face to face, we’ll be disappointed. Instead, we need to carefully consider the best tool/modality to accomplish our goals. There will be certain goals which are better accomplished in person and others that are better achieved online. In short, we need to understand what we’re transforming to.
I like to say that technology is like celery. As a food item, celery has limited nutritional value and taste. But it is an ideal vehicle to move the dip from the bowl to your mouth. The same goes for technology. It is merely the means to deliver something -- in this case an academic experience. If you don’t know what the desired outcomes are that you are trying to achieve, then you are likely wasting a tremendous amount of money on technology.
AC: You mentioned earlier that education was already a disrupted industry prior to COVID-19. Can you elaborate on that?
KP: Education as it stands must be transformed because it isn’t working for students. Students are graduating with degrees, a lot of debt, and limited job opportunities. In fact, companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Walmart are saying they would rather hire based on competence than formal education. So if the product of education is a diploma, education is decidedly a disrupted market.
The question then becomes: how does an educational institution help students unlock skills that open opportunities? Education must become part of a learning journey where the student is the focus.
This is the new world we’re entering: it isn't just that COVID-19 hit and suddenly we can’t physically be in the same room. It’s that the average four-year degree is becoming less and less valuable. The reason higher education needs to transform is clearly apparent, and every school has to pay attention to what’s coming down the pipeline.
AC: How can digital transformation aid educational institutions in equipping students with real-life skills that translate to careers?
KP: The world we’re sending our graduates into is evolving. The demand for specific technologies and skills changes faster than our ability to train for them.
What we have to do is go back to the underlying systems that were created to support a four-year linear relationship with students. Digital transformation is not about automating what you already have; it’s about creating the ecosystem for an enhanced interaction with your institution in the delivery of its core mission: removing barriers and obstacles, enhancing communication, and increasing secure access to relevant support, all while focusing on imparting readily transferable skills.
Helping students become marketable in the job sector assumes the ability to responsively focus on the skills, knowledge, and competities they need. Being agile in this manner means that institutions should focus on a smooth user experience so that students can focus more on gaining skills and less on overcoming laborious processes and technical challenges.
AC: You describe yourself as not only a technologist but also a prairie philosopher and writer. What are you personally passionate about in your career, and how has your interest in philosophy guided your projects?
KP: Prairie folk were known to live in a challenging environment requiring a great understanding of their world, a strong sense of community and humor, and a talent for simplifying complex things down to their essence. They also knew the power of a simple story to get their point across.
My career is not about technology; it’s about equipping people to do things they need to do or things they didn’t know they could do. One of the tools since time immemorial has been the story: its power lies in communicating ideas, truths, and information in ways that are remembered, then internalized.
I have always been fascinated with the essence of how a small group of wonderfully misfit people can get together to work magic. What inspires them to do the impossible and see things others can't? What hinders them? How do I leverage the power of storytelling to get the team to see the potential, and see their contribution? My craft is not technology, or digital transformation, but being able to blend philosophy, anthropology, unwavering curiosity, and the bonds that are formed from accomplishing challenging things into a leadership style that has allowed ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
AC: Thank you for your time and insights today, Kevin. It’s been fascinating to listen to your stories and the ideas they convey.
Alfredo Moro is a Customer Success Manager at Avenue Code who is passionate about sales and loves to connect with clients all over the world! In his spare time, he enjoys watching the soccer games of his favorite team and cooking Brazilian BBQ in his backyard.