Q&A with EdPlus Chief Technology Officer, Donna Kidwell

Donna Kidwell is EdPlus’ Chief Technology Officer charged with ambitious and achievable goals by CEO and Dean Phil Regier. She has embraced the responsibility of helping to create the technology infrastructure to support 100,000 online students while commercializing new technology produced by EdPlus. She is contributing to the universal learner initiative at ASU, which will allow students to engage with technologies throughout their lives. Kidwell (DK) sat down with EdPlus True Stories (EPTS) to share what it’s been like in the 120 days since she arrived at EdPlus and what’s ahead. 

EPTS: As the Chief Technology Officer for EdPlus, you manage the technical infrastructure necessary to deliver EdPlus technologies at scale. What does that really mean?

DK: ASU has extraordinary ambitions. We are a tier one research institution on track to hit $815 million in annual research expenditures by 2025. At that point, we will match “elite” institutions., Alongside that research, we intend to make that knowledge available to 100,000 qualified online students anywhere in the world by 2025 through programs such as Earned Admission. While others are scaling for the sake of scale, ASU through research and innovation is creating new models for sustainability. We are continuously pushing the envelope to make the body of knowledge greater and greater while also making it available to greater numbers of learners. As CTO at EdPlus I have to think about what we need– to provide a technology infrastructure at scale supporting teaching programs and tools for learners throughout their lives. We're doing this not for a traditional student body, but for anyone in the world who wants access to ASU's knowledge base, regardless of the credential they are seeking. 

EPTS: What was EdPlus CEO and Dean Phil Regier’s mandate to you when you arrived?

DK: He gave me two charges: (1) Get our technology prepared to handle 100,000+ degree-seeking enrollments while ensuring we can serve unique partners such as Starbucks and Uber; and (2) Determine how EdPlus can be more entrepreneurial in the development of educational technology products and how we capture more value through commercialization. 

EPTS: You’ve been at EdPlus for just over four months. What is an example of a new initiative you are working on?

DK: One of our first initiatives is a collaboration with the University Technology Office to create a universal learner data model based on blockchain technology. It will identify the data structure necessary to support the universal learner. Essentially, it will put meat on the bones for what a universal learner means and what kinds of products and services we can offer. That's the first step. Meanwhile, we are building on the great work the team has done over the past years as we harness Salesforce to create the technology backbone of a Learning Relationship Management platform. This tool will help our learners find the right program at the right point in their lives so they can easily discover and engage with the most valuable EdPlus products to suit their needs. 
 
EPTS: Tell us about your past experience transforming technology on campus relative to your current position as CTO.

DK: I came to higher education because I had an opportunity to work for the chairman of Keller Williams Realty and build its corporate university. I led the digital transformation from seminars in-office to a truly online university. It was the first place I got to see how powerful a just-in-time learning experience could impact somebody’s career. I thought if we could do that in real estate, could we do it for a university? I wanted to find out so I went to the University of Texas and earned a master's and a doctorate with that agenda. I wanted to understand both how the university functions administratively and what faculty and academics really care about. The first university product I produced was an online boot camp for entrepreneurs. We launched in India and within one year it was in 13 countries and translated into Spanish and Russian. The system is still used today by thousands.  That was my prototype. I wanted to scale it for a university so I  co-founded WebStudent where we created models for universities in Norway and the UK. I have my priorities from Phil and as we accomplish those priorities, I’m on a long-term mission to create a technology infrastructure at EdPLus to support the online universal learner at ASU. 

EPTS: What have you learned broadly about EdPlus in your first 120 days and what changes have you participated in?

DK: I have a deep appreciation for the teams here and the incredible work they do. I’ve spent the first quarter participating in the growth of our strategic partnerships like Uber and ensuring we have the technology in place necessary to support that growth. At the same time, with Phil’s guidance, Leah Lommel and I have created the marketing collaborative to more efficiently blend marketing and technology as we execute on future partnerships. To that end, we have restructured the teams to be even more prepared for the future. 

EPTS: Where is EdPlus on the IT innovation spectrum, and where do you think we should be?

DK: Lev Gonick, ASU's Chief Information Officer, describes EdPlus as the gold standard in ASU innovative teams. Based on my experience in the U.S. and internationally, I know of no other organization that is as focused and committed as is this group. Our opportunity is to take existing excellence and transform these models for the future of education and work.

EPTS: How does EdPlus support professional development for the team so that our products and data analytics continue to be on the leading edge?

DK: An ambitious technology roadmap must include professional development, and it will. If we are going to build systems around universal learners, our teams need to be universal learners themselves.