HK CIO Awards: From AI researcher to CityU CIO

During the first half of his 30-year tech career, CityU CIO Andy Chun -- winner of the Hong Kong CIO Awards 2012 in the medium enterprise category -- was in the US focusing on artificial intelligence (AI) R&D. Fascinated by Hong Kong’s lifestyle and opportunities for AI pros, Chun decided to return in 1994 to the city where he was born.

“Back then, only a handful of IT pros had experiences in designing and developing sophisticated, real-time, and fault-tolerant mission critical apps while the number of AI pros was even smaller,” said Chun who helped the MTR, the Immigration Department, the Hospital Authority and the equestrian-event portion of the Beijing Olympics build different systems with AI technologies.

After his rich industry experience, Chun made a move to become a CityU professor more than a decade ago. “I’m always interested in teaching,” he said. “Nothing’s more rewarding than seeing the gleam in students’ eyes when they learn something new or create things that work.”

From teaching to CIO
Chun decided to take on the new role of CIO at CityU in 2009. “The bits and pieces of my varied experience helped prepare me for the CIO role that requires one to understand trends, create visions, define strategies, transform business, enable changes, and empower people,” said Chun who was also awarded the Computerworld Honors Laureate medal in Washington DC this year.

Now he heads a team of 150 people. Besides the university datacenter, student services, and enterprise systems, Chun is also responsible for building standards for IT teams managed by CityU’s various colleges and departments to follow.

“CityU is different from a lot of universities in Asia,” said Chun. “While other universities might see IT as a unit that keeps the computers running, CityU sees IT as strategic to its operations and education. It’s the only university in greater China that has hired a CIO.”

Tech transforms learning experiences
Because of IT’s strategic importance, Chun and his team are involved in a huge number of projects. Hong Kong’s 3-3-4 education reform has made their lives particularly busy, but Chun finds projects related to education the most exciting.

Now more than 30% of CityU students use mobile phones or tablets to access the university’s learning management system to download learning materials, submit assignment, and communicate with classmates, according to Chun, adding that more than half of the students are expected to do the same by year-end.

Social learning, said Chun, helps engage students who’d otherwise find lectures boring. “Now they can update their status and post learning-related materials such as articles and images using an in-class social network similar to Facebook,” he noted. “The network helps them share things related to learning, and they use it because it’s similar to what they use in their daily life.”

According to Chun, technology should help transform education and learning experiences. “These days you can learn many things on the Internet, and educational institutes must ask what value they can bring to students,” he said.

“Look at the Khan Academy -- started by Salman Khan who initially created and put videos on YouTube for his cousins to learn algebra,” said Chun. “Now [the academy] has more than 3,000 videos and become popular.”

He added that more free contents are available from renowned universities like Stanford whose free online AI course has attracted about 250,000 people to sign up. “This isn’t a standalone case but a potential major paradigm shift,” he said. “MIT also announced earlier this year an online project dubbed MITx. About 120,000 people enrolled for its first course circuits and electronics. There are many more similar cases in the US that potentially flatten the education landscape.”

As a result, universities must allow students to collaborate and do real problem-solving during class time -- this is what Chun calls a ‘flip class’. “Professors must become mentors and facilitators helping students solve problems in-class rather than giving lectures,” he said. “To prepare for problem solving in classes, students go online to study course materials.”

At CityU, teaching staffers can choose to pre-record lecture videos for students to view before coming to classes, according to Chun. “We started this last semester,” he said. “Some staffers have already tried to pre-record lecture videos to allow more interaction and discussion during classes.”

Communications and project management
Asked if staffers resist the heavy use of technology in teaching, Chun said: “CityU is a young university where most members of the teaching team are young and love to engage students with tech. Our teaching staff knows that young people aren’t likely to learn anything if forced to listen to someone passively in a lecture hall.”

Though most teaching staffers welcome the use of technology, Chun said effective communications with users remain important and is one of the key lessons during his stint as a CIO. “New technologies change an organization’s culture and people’s ways of doing things,” he said. “My team and I have to let users know how they can make great use of technologies and the benefits.”

This is made easier with the help of enthusiastic users, said Chun. “We seek enthusiastic users to try new systems and promote those new tools to other users --it’s much more effective than getting an IT pro to do the job,” he said.

The value of professional project management is another important lesson. According to Chun,CityU’s award-winning Web site -- which automatically reconfigures and resizes pages to fit various mobile devices and is accessible to the visually impaired -- best illustrates project management’s importance.

The project involved modifying more than 500,000 Web pages from more than 100 Web sites owned by different departments in about six months, he said. “It looked insurmountable, but I had an experienced project manager who devised a thoughtful plan with well-defined, manageable, and incremental milestones,” he said. “We also provide many workshops, aiming to engage and motivate all stakeholders. The result: all departments were able to share best practices, work in parallel, and finish the project together as scheduled.”

While the tech world changes speedily and the local tech talent shortage continues, Chun said CIOs need to let young people turn their ideas into new projects. “For instance, we work with students in their final year projects while opening our APIs and providing them with mentoring,” said Chun. “We don’t stop there -- we allow young people a growth opportunity by selecting the better projects for deployment in the university.

Busy with his CIO role, Chun still squeezes in time to teach at least one course every semester—except in 2011 to prepare for the arrival of the new 3-3-4 education scheme this year. “Talent cultivation outside the office still matters a lot to me,” he said. “I want to share my experiences of using technologies to solve real problems with students.”

“As an educator and a CIO in an educational institute, I want users to have a rewarding experience in using technologies and students to be able to use tech in solving real-world problems,” he concluded.           

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