Driving Change at Davenport University

Brian Miller brings tech to the classroom—­­­and uses tech to bring the classroom to distance learners

Brian Miller is driven by change. Specifically, he finds inspiration in the twenty-first century technology changes to the foundation of education. As CIO and interim dean of online education for Davenport University, Miller leads students at eleven campuses—throughout Michigan and online—with a big hand from today’s leading learning apps.

At Davenport, where online education represents approximately 46 percent of all credits offered, with nearly 3,000 students taking online classes exclusively and roughly 80 percent of all students taking at least some of their coursework online. Online capabilities are more of a critical component than a convenience. Still, the challenge of balancing both in-class students with those online remains.

School Stats
Davenport is a private university specializing in business, technology, and health professions, with eleven locations in Michigan and online.

30

Countries represented in the student body

12:1

Student-to-faculty ratio

Notable alumni
Several current and former Michigan state lawmakers, including State Representative Roger Victory, former state senator and one-time acting governor Harry A. DeMaso, and former state representative Mike Huckleberry

“We work hard to make sure we are offering the right products and right services, and everything is aligned strategically so nobody is shortchanged,” Miller says. “Our strategy relies heavily on our project management office, and also our alignment with the strategic plan of the university. Everything we do is focused on the University’s vision and strategic plan.”

Miller is working to improve mobility for students by creating live virtual classrooms and utilizing Blackboard Collaborate for real-time meetings, classes, and student-teacher videoconferences. He and his six-person online-education team work with the University’s internal customers to lower costs, increase productivity, and improve online coursework by applying technology solutions.

Technology 101

Miller’s interest in computers started as a hobby. Like many of his generation, he had some exposure to Commodore computers back in elementary school. Programming was just something he did for fun.

“In college, I was studying physics and math and took computer-programming classes as electives, and I ended up liking it more than the material I was supposed to be studying,” he says. “A story I tell students at Davenport is that one day I was setting up my computer programming for fun, realized I was skipping a class in my major, and had an epiphany; it was the first time I ever thought about computer science as a career path.”

Miller’s early jobs included leading technology at a thirty-person advertising agency where he was responsible for strategic e-marketing solutions and managing the agency’s IT department. His clients included Fortune 1000 pharmaceutical corporations, community colleges in Michigan, professional sports franchises, and global wholesale/manufacturing clients.

“We were doing websites and mobile apps, which at the time meant PalmPilots,” he says. “Most of our main clients were leaving Kalamazoo and heading to New York, and the company was following, but I had no desire to leave West Michigan.”

He found a job posting at Davenport and came on board initially running its web- and media-services team. “There was no mobile strategy at the time. We had an outsourced website that someone had built, and that was about it,” Miller says. “I came in with the charge to modernize the web presence and figure out what they needed to do about the ever-more-connected student body.”

That was in 2004, and although there were no smartphones yet, the student body was starting to abandon the old PC model and fade into the “get ahold of any information from any computer at any time of day” model. “We started to look at everything we did from the standpoint of connectivity to the university, and eventually mobility,” Miller says.

Leaving His Imprint

In 2007, Miller was promoted to the role of CIO. Now he is tasked with overseeing all aspects of IT: web and media, data warehousing, infrastructure, support, desktop, laptop, help desk. His first priority was to create a project-management office that handled large IT projects, and eventually enterprise projects as well.

He created the project-management office to change how the IT department at the school was perceived. “We needed to do a better job of letting technical resources work on the technical facets of the project and let communications people work on communications,” he says. “At the time, we were asking our technical people in IT to also manage the projects themselves. When you look outside higher education to private industry, the way to achieve better and more successful projects was to have professional, structured project management.”

As interim dean of online education, Miller is tasked with establishing Davenport as a leader in online education, increasing enrollment, enforcing quality standards in every course, differentiating through superior online delivery, and providing exceptional student services under the Davenport University Global Campus brand.

“I am working very diligently on giving an online student who resides away from Davenport the same experience that an in-seat student can get,” Miller says. “From coursework and instructional engagement to relationships with faculty members and an affinity with the school, we aim to bring online courses to a new level for our students. When they graduate, we want them to be employed in the field, to have finished their degree on time, and become an advocate for DU.”

Miller’s team has redesigned some online courses to focus on Blackboard Collaborate, so there’s now more instructor engagement and multimedia deployed. For advising, the University has set up virtual conferencing, created fixed hours for advisors to meet with online students, and worked to ensure that advisors are available—regardless of what time zone a student is in.

“We use this same software for staff meetings, offering online traditional course office hours or extra sessions, and holding real-time meetings,” Miller says. “Consistency of experience with tools makes technology less frustrating for people.”

Another new program involves partnerships with local community colleges that let students take classes at Davenport to help them receive degrees they can’t get otherwise. They can take classes physically on campus or by interacting with remote instructors through a video camera. “It allows personal interaction for students and instructors who might not be in the same time zone or city,” Miller says. “The idea is to make sure every student knows their instructor and builds the same attachment they would in-seat.”

Making the experience universal for all students—regardless of how they attend classes—is of utmost importance to Miller, and he’s betting that investments in IT improvement will translate to broader educational improvement for all of Davenport’s community.