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City Colleges of Chicago: Students' Perspective on Technology and Its Impact on Learning, Education, and the Campus Experience

Carmen V. Lidz, Vice Chancellor & CIO, City Colleges of Chicago
Carmen V. Lidz, Vice Chancellor & CIO, City Colleges of Chicago

Carmen V. Lidz, Vice Chancellor & CIO, City Colleges of Chicago

We are in one of the coldest weeks in Chicago with the polar vortex looming over us and temperatures deep in the negatives. I’m driving to Olive-Harvey College (one of the City Colleges of Chicago), situated on the far South Side, thinking that not a lot of students will decide to make the trek to our meeting to provide feedback on technology.

Surprisingly, there are quite a few students on campus—chatting, laughing, reading and listening to podcasts.

Breaking the ice is hard, so we go around the table and make introductions. We have quite a variety of pursuits: criminal justice, engineering, pre-law, biology, and computer science among them. I can see the dreams in their eyes as they talk about the careers they will pursue.

When I ask them to share their perspectives on the technology on campus and the impact it has on their learning and education, they become more tentative, perhaps even a little shy, but soon we have a lively discussion.

City Colleges of Chicago is made up of seven colleges and five satellite facilities and serves over 80,000 students. My next trip is to the opposite side of the city, to Wright College, which is located in the northwest part of Chicago. Our students are as diverse as the city itself. One thing is common, though: students from all the colleges are eager to share their feedback and are generous with their ideas.

  Students are very receptive to online courses. While they often include less attention from the instructors, online courses require a lot more discipline and work from the students 

A few days later, the weather has improved slightly to a breezy six degrees. I join a couple of Harold Washington College (HWC) students in an effort to learn more about their perspectives, including their thoughts on our online programs. A large population of HWC Students take courses simultaneously at local four-year institutions and City Colleges. They provide a direct feedback loop into how we compare with other schools, sharing things they prefer and what they receive in one environment but not in another.

Here are some of the highlights from my conversations:

Our laptop loaner program is very popular. It allows students to do their homework online. However, we had not anticipated the demand for Chromebooks. Chromebooks are preponderant at Chicago Public Schools, where a large group of our students attend high school.

Not growing up with smart phones, I assumed that devices with small screen space would be difficult to use for homework. But our students know differently, and they are anxious to show me how they can not only read and watch videos on their mobile devices, but also take quizzes, prepare math assignments, and even code.

Our student portal has been very well received. The students feel it is very user friendly, asit shows all their to-do lists and is helpful in terms of keeping priorities in one view.

They also weren’t widely adopting the Outlook application, as many didn’t realized that there was an app version of Outlook because it wasn’t advertised on campus.

A mobile application programming group at Wright College is building an Android app for student use. As the CIO, I embrace this creativity and ambition – “apps for the students, built by the students” is a wonderful thing. All my team does is support their enthusiasm and provide some mentoring by way of helping the students understand the practicalities necessary for an enterprise-level application, such as security and interoperability with other systems.

The students set a high bar for use of technology. Some faculty don’t use all the technology available to them. In some cases, the instructor’s teaching style and approach don’t fit well with the technology.

Understanding these habits and teaching styles is critical so that we can provide technology that support the variety of approaches used by our approximately 1,600 faculty. Also, it is critical to make sure that when new technology is rolled out, the campuses offer appropriate training for the faculty, provide concrete examples on how it can be used, and are available for questions. The students take their cues from the instructors when it comes to using these technologies.

Students are very receptive to online courses. While they often include less attention from the instructors, online courses require a lot more discipline and work from the students. They are very convenient and students are happy with the platform. Everything is clearly outlined—the expectations, the syllabus, the tests—and there is a clear discussion group and a direct question line to the instructor.


My journey to talk to students at our colleges was much like the journey that any CIO would take to talk to key stakeholders. While students may not seem like the typical group that a CIO talks to, there is a lot to learn from them. Thankfully, our students are very engaged and forthcoming with ideas, suggestions, and criticisms.

I’m lucky to work in an environment with such a large variety of backgrounds and perspectives to drive my strategic planning and investment roadmap. All these people typify the stakeholders that many organizations will have in the future.

Finally, I’d like to highlight some critical learnings:

• understand your audience and how they want to interact with technology
• don’t assume that you know what their needs are; ask instead
• technology should be adaptable to the different styles of the users
• change isn’t easy—even for a population of people focused on learning—so don’t skimp on training for stakeholders when you deploy new things
• technology can be an equalizer for communities of all types, providing people with access to information and tools they may otherwise not be able to access

For City Colleges of Chicago, these conversations, which start with students, allow us to have a better technology ecosystem for everyone – students, faculty, and staff. They directly allow us to further our academic mission and improve the campus experience for all.

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