Sree Sreenivasan, Tech Guru and Skeptic, Is Columbia's First Chief Digital Officer

Joseph Lin

Sree Sreenivasan
July 30, 2012

Columbia University's new chief digital officer, Sreenath (Sree) Sreenivasan, brings his perspectives as both tech evangelist and skeptic to his task of developing the university's online-learning program.

Mr. Sreenivasan, 41, has been a key part of Columbia's journalism school since he received his master's degree from the program, in 1993; most recently, he was the school's dean of student affairs. A former business reporter who began championing digital journalism in the early 90s, he is today—thanks in part to his high-profile presence in social media—one of the university's most recognizable professors.

Mr. Sreenivasan, described by Nicholas Lemann, dean of the journalism school, as the "heart and soul of Columbia journalism," has gone from teaching classes on how to surf the Internet to teaching his own online-only course on social media, and from being skeptical about Twitter (one of his students had to push him to sign up) to being named a "person to follow" on the microblogging site by organizations including Poynter, Advertising Age, and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Despite his reputation for being at the forefront of digital development, Mr. Sreenivasan shares the university's caution about the online-education rush. Right now, Columbia offers online classes in several schools but has no formalized online-only degree program and has not entered any partnerships.

"I have the philosophy to be an early tester/late adopter of technology," he says. "Whenever these things come around, you create, you play around. But until you find a way to fit it into your lifeflow as well as your workflow, I don't think it makes a lot of sense to go down these technology rabbit holes."

So though online courses are becoming more prevalent—Mr. Sree-nivasan mentioned new collaborations like edX from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—he stresses that his job is to put in place a "very slow, steady process to get this right" and create a program that is "strategic, replicable, sustainable." It's an exciting time to be in charge of such a project, he says. He will make his recommendations to the provost.

The idea for the new chief-digital-officer position grew from suggestions made by a group assigned to evaluate the effectiveness of the provost's office. Group members, who included Mr. Sreenivasan, focused on the online-education trend and met with technology leaders like Daphne Koller, a Stanford University professor and co-founder of Coursera, the for-profit company working with universities to offer free online classes.

"We didn't decide not to partner with Coursera, but we didn't decide to partner either," John Coatsworth, the provost, says. "We wanted to explore all this further. We were looking for someone with a record of commitment and previous employment, knowledge of how Columbia works, and that was Sree. Unlike others who focus just on education, he's very interdisciplinary."

Though such a position is still rare at universities, Mr. Coatsworth believes it will become more common. The Fathom project, Columbia's first venture into the world of online education, 12 years ago, was short-lived; the university shut it down after losing millions. Now, says Mr. Coats­worth, the timing seems right.

Mr. Lemann adds that the move is the "logical next step" for Mr. Sreenivasan, who had hit a glass ceiling after 20 years in the journalism school.

In the few weeks since he began his new job, Mr. Sreenivasan has already been inundated with pitches and suggestions. He hesitates to talk specifics about his plans, aware that Columbia's path will be highly scrutinized: "Anything I say will come as a pronouncement." For now, he says, he is truly just listening and learning.

"The question is: At this moment, at this university, is there a way to think about online learning that takes advantage of all the energy and opportunities but does it in a way that enhances what we already know works within traditional learning?" he asks. "That's the key to what I will be thinking about."

Clarification (8/1/2012, 1:24 p.m.): The original article said that Columbia University does not have any formalized online degree program. It has been revised to say that the university does not have any formalized "online-only" degree program. Its School of Continuing Education offers a few programs that are mostly online but also require some class attendance on campus.