Saint Leo University
At Saint Leo University, technology is the great unifier.
Founded in 1889, Saint Leo University is the oldest Catholic university in Florida, and, with more than 14,000 students, one of the largest in the United States. Although the physical campus is located just north of Tampa, the university has more than 40 education centers across seven states, as well as an online education program used around the world.
“We have people taking courses from submarines and military bases and so many other locations, so we have to have a blended learning environment to support these students’ needs,” says the university’s CIO Vijay Sonty.
This challenge is one of the reasons Saint Leo University is usually two to four years ahead of most universities when it comes to technology, he adds.
In 2010, for instance, the university became one of the first to take advantage of synchronous collaborative and virtual classrooms. Today, Saint Leo University continues that reputation by investing $13 million to upgrade the university’s infrastructure, network security, data analytics and online learning environments.
“Higher education is changing, and we have a lot of competition in the education space,” says Sonty. “To attract future students, we are building systems for the youngsters who are right now in kindergarten. That way, when the time comes, we will have a learning environment that is more in line with what future students will want.”
The university approved $9.6 million in upgrades in April 2017, and the plan is to invest additional funds over the next two to three years. Saint Leo University hired Sonty in August 2016 to guide the IT department, known as University Technology Services, for the long haul.
“I have been in IT for 30-plus years, and have worked in a lot of industries, from healthcare, advertising and media to higher education, really every industry you can think of,” Sonty says. “All that background was very valuable in this role.”
For instance, Sonty knew that before Saint Leo University could do anything else, the university first had to improve its core infrastructure. That meant upgrading all the data centers, servers, storage capabilities as well as the university’s wired and wireless networks. It also required improvements to video conferencing software, which would allow students to participate remotely from any device.
The improved infrastructure would also support the university’s new state-of-the-art firewall as well as security incident and event management software.
“These systems can identify everything that’s happening in cyberspace, so when there’s a phishing exercise or we’re hit by malware or a virus attack we can quickly zero in and monitor what servers are being impacted, quarantine the problem and respond,” Sonty says.
Even with all these changes, Saint Leo University continues to use CenturyLink, a telecommunications company, for all of the university’s local and long-distance multiprotocol label switching (MPLS), ethernet, internet and session initiation protocol (SIP) needs. Sonty calls CenturyLink, along with the university’s implementation partner, Extensys Inc., “the backbone of our voice and data services.”
Extensys Inc. is an enterprise IT solution integrator and managed-service provider that supports the university with security, wireless, WAN/LAN, IoT integration and many other design and implementation services.
“What sets Extensys apart is our ability to leverage our broad technology expertise across various industries, coupled with a streamlined and flat organizational structure,” says Extensys’ Vice President of Technology Greg Renner. “This allows us to be agile and flexible with our solutions and to have rapid response times to customer needs and challenges.”
One platform for all students’ needs
While the upgraded infrastructure and security measures were exciting, Sonty says nothing compares to Saint Leo University’s next-generation learning environment, Lions SHARE.
“Predictive analytics is a really big area for us, and we’re digging deeper, leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to really understand how students are collaborating and interacting.”
Launched in January 2017, the Lions SHARE environment enables students to access their grades, courses, tutoring, library and Whiteboard from a single location. The environment leverages data science, cognitive computing and is enhanced by social connectivity features, which allow students and faculty to interact through online conversation and discussion groups.
Named after the university’s lion mascot, Lions SHARE, is also integrated with Office 365. It has the capabilities to capture real-time audio and video, which teachers use to record lessons and communicate with students from any device at any time.
Sonty says Lions SHARE is Saint Leo University’s latest effort to bring Internet of Things (IoT) technology into education.
The new learning environment allows the university to monitor the programs students are involved in and how they are interacting with one another and their instructors. It can analyze how often students are checking their online syllabus, visiting the library or shopping in the university bookstore. Teachers can also see whether students are engaging in online discussion groups.
“Our goal is to take all this data and create an academic data warehouse, capturing all these interactions and then using artificial intelligence and analytics to look for synergistic relationships,” he says.
For instance, Saint Leo University uses analytics to measure recruitment and retention by studying student demographics. Then, once a student is enrolled, Lions SHARE can act as a machine-guided advisor by analyzing their grades and interests.
During the next two years, the IT department plans to work in conjunction with the university’s Learning Design and Innovation offices to add new work streams such as chatbots, a computer program similar to Microsoft’s Cortana or Apple’s Siri that could converse with students through language comprehension technology. Sonty says the innovative minds at Saint Leo University also envision using SMART Groups, software that could identify which students would be good study partners or possible mentors, based on their social networking and shared interests. There is even an application that could grade essays using text decomposition and synthesis algorithms.
“Predictive analytics is a really big area for us, and we’re digging deeper, leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to really understand how students are collaborating and interacting,” Sonty says.
For Sonty, his work at Saint Leo University is also an opportunity to have a hand in the future of education. “I’ve always been a lifelong learner, so this is a chance to share what I’ve learned from other industries and help the next generation of students.”
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