The Silliman Experience: Designing and Implementing Innovative Digital Solutions

The Silliman Experience: Designing and Implementing Innovative Digital Solutions

By: Betty Cernol McCann, PhD
| President

Keynote message of Silliman University President Betty Cernol McCann, PhD during the EDUtech Philippines 2022 virtual education festival, February 17, 2022

The Silliman Experience: Designing and Implementing Innovative Digital Solutions

Changes in our context, in our educational environment, necessitate change in the way we deal with the situation in order to adapt and thrive. In this period of transformation brought about by the massive 4th industrial revolution worldwide, the question to answer is not anymore just ‘If’ or ‘When’ these changes come about, but more on ‘How’ we manage these changes.

Given the stage of development we are in, the reliance on digital technologies in this day and age, it is no wonder why we join the bandwagon that takes us to the electronic and technical world, why we fall in love with smart technology and sometimes blindly pour our attention and pin our hopes to the latest models of educational tools and state of the art laboratory or library technology tools.

However, now more than ever, we in the academe need to attain clarity, focus, and commitment to our avowed goals and purposes as a higher education institution.

As we face the new demands of 21st-century education fueled by an expectation towards reliance on digital transformation, and given the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 health pandemic and aggravated by natural disasters and threats associated with climate change, how can an institution like Silliman University adopt innovation and still remain true and steadfast in her clarity, focus and commitment to its mission of teaching and service to people, country, and God?

The Whole Person Education that the University embraces is clothed in the fabric of unwavering faith, quality instruction, commitment to research, and extending teaching and learning beyond the classroom. The University affirms that classroom learning is enriched by experiences related to the church and our spirituality, our physical engagement in athletic courts, our appreciation of the culture and the arts, our community exposure, and various dimensions of teaching and learning. The University believes that service to others in need enriches learning, and where learning informs the nature and quality of service provided. All these solid angles in higher education processes contribute towards the attainment of whole person education. As educators and administrators assess the efficacy and efficiency in meeting avowed goals, they look into desired attributes of university graduates and how they contribute to societal development as they enter the world of realities and opportunities. Mindful of these desired attributes, higher education institutions examine how program curricula—their content and methodology—can bring about the best in their students, and how specific courses or subjects could elicit the values and aspirations of the learners. These desired institutional graduate outcomes, program graduate attributes, course-based learning outcomes remain relevant and aspired for, imperatives in the consideration of educational tools and technologies in the face of digital transformation in higher education.

So, I say again, it’s not anymore a question of ‘If or What’ and ‘When or Why’ but ‘How’ do we design and implement innovative digital solutions in this 21st-century education? Based on the experience of Silliman University, I share 7 initiatives:

  1. SU Apps Incubation and Development Laboratory
  2. Innovation, Creation and Invention Laboratory
  3. Business Incubation Center
  4. Silliman Online University Learning (SOUL)
  5. Retooling and Upskilling for Digital Teaching and Learning
  6. Transformative Learning Space at the SU Library
  7. Digital Solutions for Administrative Processes

Each of the initiatives requires a serious look at our existing programs and determine how these programs respond to the need of the times, an assessment of the readiness of our human resource complement (not just in terms of skills building but also as to their level of motivation in being our key players in meeting our strategic development goals), and building on the power of partnerships across academic units (multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary), among agencies and institutions (networking), as well as among stakeholders (students, alumni, faculty/staff and administration).

In 2015, the University embarked on a technology resource center for all which served as a learning venue for IT students and a training facility for IT Education teachers. This Silliman University Apps Incubation and Development Laboratory served as an incubation facility for Apple iOS startup developers and an outsourcing center for Apple iOS development.

In 2017, the Innovation, Creation, and Invention (ICI) Laboratory was established which served as a training room, a service-learning facility for teachers, learners, and special interest groups, a recreation room, and a mini-incubation facility.

Starter programs include creativity camps to stimulate innovative ideas from highly competitive and driven students in the area, who at the end of the camp present their project proposals. Research and capstone grants up to ₱100,000 for a period of 2 years are awarded to secondary or tertiary level students who demonstrate innovative ideas with entrepreneurial value, with promising business incubation cycle. Regular forum activities allow for exchange of new ideas towards technopreneurship. Competitions and contests in such areas as computer programming, poster designing, website development, and advocacy support promote critical thinking among students in collaborative as well as competitive learning environments. These initiatives have been made possible by a strong partnership with a living example of a highly successful entrepreneur who did very well in the global business arena. His constant support is an indication of his commitment to providing the innovative youth an opportunity to make it in the technology-aided national and international business arena.

The ICI laboratory reaches out to all, even beyond the campus environment. Senior citizens engage in lifelong learning via this program and carry with them after the training a deep appreciation for digital technology that adds value to their day-to-day life.

With Silliman University in partnership with another business executive and patron, a Center for Business Incubation is in the offing. Groundbreaking done in 2019, this facility will host and assist innovators, scientists, new entrepreneurs to test and vet their ideas, and develop a prototype that could lead to business conversations with venture capital investors. The Center can be a production and development laboratory. It can also be a business expansion training facility for capacity building, strategic planning, and exploring funding and investment sources among angel and venture capital investors.

The Technology and Business Incubation unit has already engaged in a number of starter projects that helped nurture interests among incubatees, push for continuing education and skills building, and strengthen linkages with the community in general and the local business sector in particular.

Silliman Online University Learning (SOUL) is a flagship program for our online distance learning and remote learning. A driver to our educational journey in this 21st-century education, this unit has been revitalized in terms of staffing and programming. It caters to the digital instructional needs of our faculty and staff across all colleges and academic units. In line with the vision and mission of the university, SOUL aims to:

  1. Initiate development of online programs, both curricular and co-curricular
  2. Implement eLearning strategies to enhance teaching and learning, research and development, and extension and community engagement
  3. Serve as a training facility for technology-based processes in the various avenues for learning
  4. Assess its software and hardware capacities for improvement and upgrading

Without a doubt, SOUL and its leadership role in the integration of ICT in Silliman’s teaching-learning environment is aligned with the institutional Vision-Mission-Goals to achieve student-centered, outcomes-based, whole-person education.

As a way to highlight the “People” dimension in transformative higher education, of paramount significance in our design and implementation of digital transformation programs, is a continuing skills enhancement plan for our faculty and staff. We subscribe to the power of partnerships within and beyond the university to assemble programs, degree or non-degree, most responsive to the demands of a global industry and interactive society. Coupled with these new programmatic initiatives is the automation of some relevant processes and operations in teaching and training, research development and utilization, as well as community application and outreach services.

In line with our modernization plan of the Silliman University Library, transformative learning spaces will be created to provide current and functional technology with reliable connectivity to stimulate knowledge creation and innovation among library users. The design of physical and virtual spaces takes into consideration the provision of a learning ambiance suited for exploration, creation, and collaboration among library customers. State-of-the-art mini labs in science, technology, engineering, medicine, health, social disciplines, and other fields of study will be key features of the library services and access to digital resources. This facility intends to serve not just the immediate Silliman learning community but also the broader population of alumni, friends, partners, collaborators, and network members.

Over a period of time, digital solutions for administrative processes have been pursued. Online Admissions and Enrolment System, Online Payment Portal for Tuition and Fees, Online Submission of Grades, Online Leave System, Budget Preparation and Monitoring System, Institutionalized Email and Collaboration System are some of the applications in place. One major goal in this regard is to have major divisions of the University, like the Business and Finance, establish direct connectivity with data in the Admissions and Registration as well as with the various details of university operation. Some aspects of this digital solution have been done but we certainly can do with more to ensure efficacy and efficiency in the way we conduct business. Our revised organizational chart will now have a dedicated unit to attend to the Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) needs of the entire university. This office will play a significant role in administering and overseeing all aspects of ICT activities of the university along with increased operational accountability, leadership, and strategic expertise, and providing technology services to key offices and units of the institution.

Flowing from these seven initiatives, some key lessons can be shared.

  1. Digital transformation in higher education is upon us. As colleges and universities, already soaked in the bathwaters of the 4th Industrial Revolution, we cannot anymore run away from the situation and turn a blind eye on this mandate. We have to take action in ways appropriate to our own context.
  2. Digital transformation requires transformational leadership where a “leader works with teams or followers beyond their immediate self-interests to identify needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through influence, inspiration, and executing the change in tandem with committed members of a group.” In effect, strategic partnerships are cultivated where key actors share a common vision but are delegated with specific tasks that foster meaningful collaborations towards a clearly outlined set of goals.
  3. Contextualization is a key element in educational transformation. In the face of the revolutionary changes brought about by technological advancements, how would institutions view the outcomes and attributes of their graduates? Based on our mission as an institution, how do we envision the graduates to perform intellectually, spiritually, and ethically?
  4. At the level of the institution, how does a college or a university deal with an entrepreneurial outlook or training among its students, an orientation that brings in the business and practice beyond the solely profound and ideational approach to liberal arts education?
  5. A transformative education necessarily breaks down the disciplinal walls and calls for a meeting of minds, a working together, a shared responsibility in the pursuit of education. People and programs need a common ground, and partnerships need to be favored over individualistic, isolationist approaches.
  6. The coming of age of disruptive innovation requires sudden shifts in the way educators think and do. To survive in the face of these disruptions, education being not the same “business as usual,” threats and opportunities need to be managed, and educational players convinced of the viability and sustainability of these efforts.

In summary, this topic on designing and implementing innovative digital solutions enjoins us all to hear out and act upon these statements from various authors. And I quote:

“Innovation and accepting change are now pre-requisite for survival.”

“Disruptive innovation awareness must be the guiding principle behind education to ensure adaptability to change.”

“Disruptive innovation awareness must be given emphasis by any educational sector.”