Cisco’s Toronto innovation centre shines light on digital campus

Wayne Cuervo, head of Cisco's Toronto innovation centre

Wayne Cuervo, head of Cisco’s Toronto innovation centre

In the nearly two years since it was introduced, the Innovation Centre co-located with Cisco’s Canadian headquarters in Toronto has played host to a number of different of types of solutions, but recently, it’s gone back to school..

Digital education in general, and the digital campus in particular, are a major focus for the networking giant’s innovation centre in Canada. At its new Education Room in the Innovation Centre, Cisco shows off new scenarios based on its infrastructure and partners’ software offerings that cover areas from improving and personalizing student and faculty security, to identifying the seeds of future academic problems based on students’ activities.

“We’re building out a series of partnerships with startups for the software and systems here, and we’re in the infancy of some of those conversations,” said Wayne Cuervo, director of the Toronto Innovation Centre. “A big part of what we do is take their business challenges and incubate proof-of-concept solutions.”

Those proofs of concept on display in Toronto currently range from the fairly obvious — using the network, video, and facial recognition to make sure that the people who are in a given part of the campus are the people supposed to be there — to the much more esoteric, using WiFi signatures from students’ devices to show developing patterns that might show that student’s performance is at risk. For example, a student whose phone hasn’t been seen in classroom during scheduled classes for a few days might warrant a bit of follow-up to see if that student is going to unlikely step of leaving a mobile device at home, or if there are problems or challenges with which that student might need help.

“”We can use it to help determine mental health and wellness, to see if students aren’t engaging in their usual social activities, and find mental health patterns that are a concern,” Cuervo suggested, acknowledging that the Centre is all about “the art of the possible” and in many cases the abilities of the technology may need to be tempered by school policy and legislation around privacy.

“It may be a little Big Brother because of the data that can be gathered,” he added.

And many of these discussions are a fair way out from seeing in-field results, but facilities like the Innovation Centre help develop both the technology and the business policy that shapes it. 

“Connected smart campuses drive better outcomes, graduate more students, and provide a safer experience,” Cuervo said.

Toronto-area schools who had been through Cisco’s new education focus suggested the technology it was showing off aligned with their own aspirations fo digital learning and building new and increasingly digital campuses.

Rick Huijbregts, VP, strategy and innovation, George Brown College

Rick Huijbregts, VP, strategy and innovation, George Brown College

Rick Huijbregts, vice president of strategy and innovation at George Brown College, and formerly innovation chief at Cisco who helped shape the company’s smart and connected strategy, said that in education, the focus on digital is about being “more relevant for shaping the jobs, career, and work of tomorrow.”

“We can churn out students like we have for the last 50 years, or we can get ahead of this, figure out a new and ultimately more relevant role for shaping the future of work,” Huijbregts said. “We too have to go through our own transformation.”

That transformation involves identifying the right technologies to teach to students in the near future, but do to so without “getting sucked into, or stuck with” any given technology. 

“We have to marry it up with the soft, human skills to make students more agile for the jobs of the future,” he said.

And that means working more closely with industry — including technology — to help identify skills that will be key in the future.

“If we just through technology out there, we’re doing ourselves a disservice,” he said. “It’s about changing how we teach.”

Humber College is another Toronto-area college that finds itself redefining its role in the face of industry’s digital transformation. Over the last four years, the college has used a digital learning plan that has meant more students have access to more education in more formats and more locations than ever before, accessing many of the education resources from any location  on any device, rather than shoehorning everything into the traditional in-class experience.

“There’s a lot of amazing things happening in the world of digitization and education,” said Eileen DeCourcy, associate vice president of teaching and learning at Humber. “We wanted to make sure we had institutional readiness for transformation.”

Darren Lawless, dean of applied research and innovation at Humber, echoed Huijbregts’ words, calling on schools to create “a new mode of partnerships, and finding new ways of partnering” with industry.

“It’s important for us that there are pathways for our students to flourish and launch their careers,” he said, noting the college’s new centre for technology and innovation on campus.

But while the idea of re-defining the classroom and the campus using technology is very important to both schools, both noted it was early days for the specific technologies being displayed. For example, the digital monitoring and tracking capabilities may hold some compelling benefits, but what about the Big Brother aspect Cuervo points out?

For his part, Huijbregts said filming and analyzing everyone on campus was an “uncomfortable” topic, and that the school had yet to have discussions on what it means.

Humber’s DeCourcy adds that is a discussion that needs to not only happen in individual institutions, but throughout society as a whole.

“These are big conversations that we haven’t figured out yet, either locally or globally,” she said.

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Robert Dutt

Robert Dutt is the founder and head blogger at ChannelBuzz.ca. He has been covering the Canadian solution provider channel community for a variety of publications and Web sites since 1997. 

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