Chapter 1: Leading in a Digital World

by Keith E. Whitfield, Ph.D.

Posted on September 04, 2023

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The term “digital native” is growing in use and becoming a commonly used term to describe traditional-aged college students (18-24-years-old). Digital natives are considered to be persons born or brought up during the age of digital technology and are far more familiar with computers, apps, the internet, and electronic technology. Many of these individuals are also “gamers” who became familiar with technology by playing video games. Thirty-six percent of adolescents play video games. On average, gamers play for an hour on weekdays and an hour and a half on weekends. Compared with non-gamers, adolescent gamers spend 30% less time reading and 34% less time doing homework. According a 2022 survey, 36% of gamers come from the 18-to-34 age demographic, and 6 % are 65 years and older. But while the traditional college-aged student may be digitally savvy, I worry that their level of sophistication may be constrained by socioeconomic factors, such as the school they attend or their family’s circumstances.

While students may be digital natives, a long-standing challenge has been to get information in front of students. We have to know where they get information from and in what form. While many have complained about students using or relying on platforms like TikTok as a source of information, it makes sense to try to use those modalities to connect and inform students on those platforms since that is where they spend a good amount of their time. We need to seek out students in their spaces, not try to force them into ours.

The Innovative University 

I find it hard not to be impressed with institutions that have made part of their mission to embrace and engage in innovation. Higher education institutions are meant to be places where out-of-the-box thinking and grappling with the big issues are supposed to be part of their foundation. Perhaps the quintessential example of an innovative university is Arizona State University. Michael Crowe, Ph.D., has transformed ASU’s reputation from a party school to a university that is ranked as one of the most innovative R1 institutions in the country. As an admirer of Dr. Crowe’s leadership at Arizona State, it is clear that he has a bold vision. He has encouraged, pushed, and incentivized faculty to be fearless and changed the business model for how a university operates, even discarding past practices. This may be somewhat easier when you lead a research university, but changing culture is difficult regardless. Faculty are often concerned about trying and failing. Scholarship tends to reward those that show success. But innovation is advanced from both successes and failures. To move innovative thinking forward, we have to teach and reward our faculty—and perhaps even more importantly, our students—that failure is part of the journey and that failure does not define them unless they give up. To teach individuals how to strive through failure is not something that can just be read in a book. You have to experience it. Experiential learning is a goal for many of our university curricula, and infusing it in a way that links experiential learning with foundational concepts to advance knowledge is key. But those universities really advancing innovation are typically doing it through co-curricular activities.

This format challenges students to focus on problem solving rather than just amassing information from a traditional lecture.  

For example, here at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), we hold a president’s innovation challenge. That challenge pairs students into interdisciplinary teams of undergrad and graduate students to address an issue of social import—for example, this year’s topic is sustainability. I have launched this sort of effort at two other institutions, and it has been quite successful at each. We have varied the topics students address, such as “how to make our city more competitive” and “bringing technology to the world.” These topics challenge students to think deeply about problems and how one might solve them. This format challenges students to focus on problem solving rather than just amassing information from a traditional lecture. We judge these events in a shark tank sort of environment that students find nerve-racking and fun. In its current evolution, we ask people from industry, local government, the community, and even other local universities to serve as judges. This adds a real-world component to the students’ work, and businesses, local government, and industry representatives like seeing how students perform in a real-world environment. Over my years of doing these types of innovation challenges, some students pursued a path to commercialize their idea or product. That is an additional and important outcome that seems to align with another emerging trend we see in our students—they are very entrepreneurial in their thinking, including how they are navigating the higher education landscape. Many students get their “hustle on” to generate enough money to go to college, meaning they may carry an extra job or might have their own small business. This reflects the growing gig economy that many who pursue college are engaged in before, during, and after they get that sheepskin. Also, for the challenges that our students will face, this kind of experience helps to prepare them for the world and job market they will be competing in when they graduate. 

Digital President 

Innovation should not and cannot be limited to the classroom, the curriculum, or the faculty and students. I arrived at UNLV in August 2020, toward the front end of the pandemic. When I signed on for this job, I accepted the responsibility for more than 30,000 students. I eagerly arrived on the first day of school, ready to lead a bustling campus. But a funny thing happened when I walked out onto the academic mall. I never saw more than 20 to 30 students in any one setting, common for all of us at that time in history. But the students I met were so inspiring. They were filled with grit and a glimmer in their eye that they were learning things they could use in their careers. I grew impatient to meet more of them. Then, during one of my trips to our research park, I met two alumni who were creating an artificial intelligence service. They had worked with a couple of famous people—Deepak Chopra and President Obama, as a matter of fact. Then it came to me. That is how I could be more accessible to students in the days of COVID—by using a digital avatar. So, I worked with AI Media Lab and created a Digital President Whitfield. We used AI to allow the Digital President to converse with students and help them identify resources, address challenges, and understand more about the university. It can answer over 1,000 questions, and the more it interacts with students, the more it grows in ability. On the back-end, I was able to see what students were searching for and the kinds of questions they asked the most. I have been amazed at not only how many students and faculty have used it, but also how people from the community have engaged with the Digital President. It gives us the look and feel of a 21st century university. It is also an example that we are changing our mindset and venturing into “what might be” rather than remaining in the world of “this is the way we have always done it.”

Digital Services to Guide Students to Information 

As I am writing this piece, the issue of how AI is disrupting the higher education landscape is on the minds of many. It is making national headlines. It has generated deep concerns and numerous questions about the appropriate use and misuse, ethical applications, and the accuracy of GPT. Chatbots are not new and have been used at universities in recent history to try to address student needs in real time rather than leaving a message on an answering service or waiting in line for hours. Chatbots can be used to significantly increase and improve student services, as well as guide online visitors to navigate our websites. While these services continue to gain momentum in an effort to scale up the ability of universities to reach students where they are, the use of AI to answer questions and even write documents has sent a shockwave through higher education. The AI program GPT has become the focus of an incredible amount of consternation. Many who have tried it are shocked and amazed at what this program can do. I have spoken to a number of faculty who are afraid of the potential misuse of this tool. They express grave concerns that students may use this tool to cheat on assignments. I share their concern but think we must have thoughtful discussions and not simply discard or attempt to ban its use. We need to think about how to tailor our teaching to use this tool and apply this technology to tap into and assess student abilities, such as problem solving or group collaborative work. This discussion is only beginning but is part of the future of education which we must engage in if we are to harness the risks and rewards of such tools. To simply dismiss the potential of this resource is to be blind to the evolution of technology in our day-to-day lives.

Digital Services to Help Mental Health 

One of the challenging issues facing college campuses is mental health and wellness. The pandemic clearly impacted our students as well as our future students. Both higher ed and K-through-12 are seeing significant increases of cases of stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation and loneliness. This has led to increases in suicidal ideation, suicide, acting out, violence, bullying, and other dysfunctional behaviors like eating disorders. It is imperative that university administrations and support staff attempt to increase the number of touch points that occur in the lives of our students. Using technology seems like one of the most cost-effective strategies to reach students with messages about their well-being and connect them to support services. For my university, we used our Digital President as one means for guiding students to mental health support services. We created a module that was more interactive than our standard scripts. The script also attempts to insert empathy into the questions and responses and provides/shares personal insights to help students not feel like they are alone or know that others might be experiencing struggles as well.

Final Thoughts 

The future course that higher education takes is fraught with challenges: state funding levels for public institutions, demographic cliffs, board governance, and identifying greater opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion for our students and faculty are but a few examples. The aftermath of the pandemic has also rekindled questions about the value of a higher education degree. Higher ed shouldn’t be shy in our response. But to answer that call, we have to continue to innovate. What is needed is not fully constrained by funding. Our missions have to be driven and informed by what society needs to advance knowledge of our world and to provide opportunities to enhance the skills and abilities of students. It is clear we have work to do and difficult questions to answer, but because of who we are as institutions of higher education, we have the “stuff” needed to meet that challenge: brilliant faculty, engaged staff, and creative students. All the technology in the world will only advance mankind as far as our imaginations push us to dream and innovate.