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Columbia Gets a Chief Digital Officer

On Wednesday, Sree Sreenivasan, formerly the J-school’s Dean of Student Affairs, became Columbia’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer. The tech blog AllThingsD (run by two of Sree’s former students J-school alums) reported the news shortly after it was announced in emails from Prezbo and Provost Coatsworth. But just what does a Chief Digital Officer do? Sree tried to answer that question in an interview with Bwog’s chief J-school correspondent, Peter Sterne.

First off, it doesn’t mean he’ll be running CUIT. “It’s important that my job is in the academic office of the Provost,” he explained. “My job is very specifically to advise and work with him on trying to think through what we do academically.” To emphasize the point, he adds that “all the other operations [like] CUIT still go on. I’m focused on the academic side.” He’s less concerned with day-to-day operations than figuring out how Columbia can bring its world-class education into the online age. This can mean increasing the use of social media, platforms such as Courseworks, and even fully online classes. The key is to make sure that both Columbia’s academics and its brand reach the widest possible audience.

“We have such great content at the University,” he said. However, he continued, “part of what we have to all learn is, you can’t just have great content. You have to have ways of getting it in front of people to see it, whether they’re on campus or across the world.” By content, he means courses, curricula, research—the stuff of academia. Professors probably won’t appreciate their life’s work being reduced to mere “content,” but Sree isn’t trying to offend.

Just as important, he isn’t trying to radically transform Columbia into a fully online university like, say, Khan Academy. Some aspects of teaching can be improved by using online tools—think Courseworks (though it’s arguable whether that’s an improvement)—but in-person education will continue to be “the primary way in which education is delivered.” He’ll only look into ways to “enhance” and “improve” Columbia’s digital outreach while keeping intact “what Columbia has built over 250 years.” He doesn’t have any preconceived notions about what the university should do, he insisted, and most of his job will be spent listening to people in the university (including students like you!) who have ideas about how Columbia should make use of its digital resources.

Sree will remain on the J-school faculty, but as part of the promotion, Sree will be moving from the J-School—where he’s been for 20 years—to Low Library. It seems a natural evolution for Sree, who joined the J-school faculty right after graduating from J-school. For many years, he said, “I was the main digital media faculty person here at the school.” Now, though, the J-school is full of online-inclined professors and administrators, has its own institute center devoted to digital journalism, and is partnering with Stanford to create a center institute for media innovation.

For his part, Sree is excited to broaden his horizons beyond the J-school. “What was exciting for me, having spent 20 years at the Journalism school and thinking about just the J-school,” he explained, was “now to think more about the larger campus and have access to all these great minds across the university.”

If you have any suggestions about what Sree can do to help usher Columbia into the digital age, he wants to hear them. Drop him a line at or tweet @Sree.

Headshot via J-school

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  • you know says:

    @you know it would help a SHITLOAD for those of us working in our own start ups, taking time off Columbia due to location issues if you allowed undergraduate students (instead of just graduate guys) to get class credit for completing courses in Columbia’s online Engineering CVN and possibly even give us a masters degree in the process. A bunch of friends and I who dropped out a year ago would be able to graduate on time with both a BS and MS without having to take time off our start up (or vice versa)

    i’d totally pay for it in full if it became available tomorrow.

  • Sree Sreenivasan says:

    @Sree Sreenivasan Thanks for the post, Peter. Just to be clear, there’s already lots of EXISTING online ed taking place at Columbia. As Provost Coatsworth wrote in his announcement: “This effort will focus on supporting the innovative and exciting distance learning programs run by the School of Continuing Education, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and other academic units, as well as facilitating efforts by other schools at Columbia that want to develop an online curricular presence.”

    And while the founders of AllThingsD are J-school alumni, Walt Mossberg (@WaltMossberg) and Kara Swisher (@KaraSwisher) were students here before my time (and, in fact, they’ve taught me much about technology reporting). One of their reporters, Arik Hesseldahl (@ahess247), is a more recent grad and a student of mine. And, BTW, the first person I followed on Twitter.

    1. Peter says:

      @Peter Thanks for the clarifications, Sree! I’ve updated the post to reflect that you didn’t teach Walt and Kara.

  • RR says:

    @RR he got the twitter handle “sree”? JEALOUS.

  • Gh says:

    @Gh If only I was the provost, I would appoint myself as the CSO aka Chief Screwing Officer. We do not need more bureaucracy Mr. Provost.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous If you want to fix Columbia bureaucracy, you need to make a Bureaucracy Board that everyone has to get approval from before they can make you fill out a form for the wrong thing, ignore your desperate emails, calls, and voicemails, or send you to someone else who also doesn’t have the authority to do anything, insists that the person you just talked to has to do something first, and absolutely refuses to direct you to the person who will eventually solve your problem fifteen seconds after you walk in.

    Let me tell tell you a short story:

    An advisor walks into the Bureaucracy Board and says, “Hi, I have a student who’s registration is on hold. I’d like to ignore her.”

    “How long?”

    “Preferably forever, but she’s a Junior and there’s this seminar taught by a professor who only teaches a class every other year that she’s been wanting to take a class with since high school. So if you could let me ignore at least until that’s all full and there’s nothing that I can do about it so she never has a chance to take it, that would be great.”

    “Why is there a hold on her registration? Has she not paid her tuition?”

    “Well, she’s on financial aid.”

    “Does is it cover the amount she owes?”

    “Well yeah, but —”

    “Y0u’re going to have to take this up with the Bureau of Bureaucracy.”

    (Columbia would obviously need several overlapping organizations for maximal inefficiency)

    The advisor gets there. He tells the person behind the counter here the same thing.

    “You’re in the wrong office. You need to talk to the Bureaucracy Board.”

    “But I just came from there and they said that —”

    “You need to talk to the Bureaucracy Board.”

    After several rounds of advisor ping-pong, the Bureaucracy Board eventually relents and directs him to the Bereau de la Bureacracion, who sends him back to the Bureau of Bureaucracy. Someone new is on shift now and tells him something completely different.

    “Irrational holds on registration is Dr. Marcus, but he’s gone home for the day.”

    The advisor breathes deeply. He sits in the lobby with his head in his hands. Through an open door he hears clearly the sound of a phone ringing. A man picks up.

    “Hello, this is Dr. Marcus. Sure, I can let you ignore voicemails until the registation deadline has passed. I don’t know why more people don’t call me about this, I always approve it.”

    The advisor leaps up, but the man behind the counter is already shutting the door to the office.

    “He’s. Gone. Home. For the day.”

    “But I —”

    “He’s. Gone. Home. For. Ever.”

    Defeated, the advisor goes home. Forbidden to put it off, he writes the student’s financial aid advisor telling her about the situation. Unable to muster the case that he actually thinks that a number owed minus the same amount paid results in a number greater than zero, the financial aid advisor contacts the registar minion who changes the hold column to false in the database.

    The student gets her seminar and lives happily ever after. The advisor drinks a bottle of scotch alone.

    -“Untitled”, a short story by CC’11 who never got her seminar or her diploma

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous 1. Brilliant story.
      2. Sorry that you never got to take that seminar. :(
      3. What happened to your diploma…?

    2. Yup. says:

      @Yup. This reminds me of the time I reported seeing something really scary happen at the gym and then seeing the really scary dude responsible for it on Barnard’s campus. I called Public Safety on the Barnard side and they transferred me to the Columbia side. This continued back and forth until I got the switchboard equivalent of looking in mirrors reflecting in mirrors and the phone exploded in my hand.

    3. yeah says:

      @yeah this reminds me of the time my friend tina died and i needed to take a few days off. none of the teachers knew what i was talking about, so i was sent to cps to get a note for them, then cps told me i had to go to my advisor for it, then when i was finally able to see my advisor about it, she started at me blankly and explained that was for cps to do, but cps wouldn’t do it, so nobody ever got a note and one of my seminar professors chewed me out until i cried and then i pass failed his class and tried to go one out of every 3 times remaining in the semester.

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous why is this being down-voted? it sounds really sad. i am sorry that happened to you!

  • anon says:

    @anon Columbia is THE digital school.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous nice position! it’d be cool to see something like Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy and quality lecture series posted online. Columbia has so many amazing professors and enough intellectual drive for this to easily happen.

  • online courses? says:

    @online courses? what is this place? university of phoenix? devry?? are we going to have commercials now too?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous jesus elitist much

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous jesus was not an elitist.

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