The Platform Chronicles: 10 Questions with Phil Komarny, Chief Digital Officer at the Institute for Transformational Learning at UTx

On the first blockchain app on Salesforce and the pursuit of lifelong learning

Phil Komarny, Chief Digital Office at the Institute for Transformational Learning at the University of Texas System (UTx)

Welcome to the The Platform Chronicles, a new publication designed to introduce readers to some of the most innovative partners that have developed applications on the Salesforce platform.

This issue focuses on Phil Komarny and UTx’s plans to dramatically change Higher Ed.

10 Questions for Phil

Phil is the Chief Digital Officer from the University of Texas Systems’ Institute for Transformational Learning. Over his 25-year career he has held C-suite roles and has led innovation and transformational applications of technology at each level.

The following is a lightly-edited transcript of our ten questions for Phil.

Question #1

Phil, Can you tell us more about the University of Texas’ Institute for Transformational Learning and its relationship with Salesforce?

At the Institute for Transformational Learning we are charged with developing technologies that will power the delivery of educational experiences for our 215,000 students. Though this work we have created a platform that leverages a persistent profile of each of our learners. The platform, Totelic, also has the potential to integrate with each of our 14 campuses student information and learning management systems.

Thinking deeply about the learner’s lifelong journey, we also created a data model that places the learner at the center of the experience. Using Salesforce as our CRM we are afforded a 360-degree view of each learner. The data that resides in many siloed data stores on every campus today has now been wrapped around each learner to create a digital reflection of their abilities and goals.

Question #2

How did you go about creating the 360-degree view?

Great question. We ‘liberated’ the learner’s record to the Totelic platform by integrating with our campus SIS/LMS systems (student information system/learning management system) via APIs. These integrations move data to and from the Totelic platform in direct service of the learner. By taking this approach we forgo the need for large change management events that are costly and are prone to fail.

Instead of replacing the ERP systems, we enhance them with our integrations so that each of our campuses has an innovation engine at their disposal. Creating new experiences for learners like modular certificates that stack toward a larger credential over time is now a reality for our campus partners.

(Editor’s note: Totelic was created by the UTX Institute for Transformational Learning, and is a “Learner Relationship Management” (LRM) system — that is basically a learning environment-agnostic dashboard that monitors a learner’s progress through any connected learning experience, e.g., a 3-credit course taught in Blackboard or a Salesforce Trailhead module. It normalizes the data stream and feeds a few algorithms that provide motivational guidance and track pace, progress and overall performance. It also has an integrated service model that leverages Salesforce communities to provide connection for everything from mentoring to events.)

Question #3

When did the project start?

In October 2016, we began development of Totelic with our partners from Salesforce Experience Design. Their passion and effort has been imperative to the successful development of our platform and the implementation of emerging technologies like blockchain.

Question #4

What caught my attention was your use of blockchain in the creation of ChainScript. This is one of the first — or the very first — use cases of block chain on the Salesforce platform. Can you tell us about the blockchain decision?

Blockchains are being used for many things today. From crypto currency to tracking shipping containers and diamonds, the immutability, security and validity of this distributed data store create a new way to think through our current business process, policies and laws of any enterprise.

At a recent event at MIT, The Business of Blockchain, I was stunned to see each vertical represented with one omission — education.

After reading Phillip Schmidt’s Medium post about work they were doing at the MIT Media Lab that would effectively store any fellow’s digital credential to a blockchain, I envisioned how that approach might work for our platform.

While on a hike, I was pondering the application and the ChainScript was born. This application would be able to provide every learner in our system a way to own, manage and share a record of their academic accomplishments by storing their information on a blockchain.

To validate this approach we have created our proof of concept as private blockchain to allow us to focus on the different applications of the technology before we take the solutions to a different fabric.

Question #5

Any surprises as you began the development of ChainScript?

Seems like a simple solution, but we quickly realized that the complexity lies in how it is implemented. There are other apps that house certificates on a blockchain, like one from Learning Machines. These apps make the user manage their private and public keys. This is a divergence of how everyone thinks of security today. We are programmed to think of a user name and password to access secure data on connected systems.

My lone requirement was to make a solution that someone with the same technical ability of my Mom could use without any difficulty. To accomplish that we envisioned a secure key store system that removes the complexity of key generation and management, and flattened a very steep learning curve.

Question #6

How do you see ChainScript transforming Higher Ed?

Currently, if you want a copy of your university transcript, it’s more than likely that you will have to visit the university’s website or make a phone call to a Registrar’s office to make that request. Along with a small payment of $5-$10 dollars you receive a printed copy of ‘your’ academic record. This data is stored in student information systems on every campus. These systems are inherently cumbersome, stringent and expensive to maintain and secure. These systems have shaped our processes, procedures and policies. With the emergence of blockchain we are able to envision a new way to store this data in service of the learner.

This approach instantly adds value to the learner’s experience and begins to catalyze the transformation of current processes, policies and procedures for our Registrars.

At this year’s Salesforce Higher Ed Summit in Austin, Texas, I was honored to give a demo of our ChainScript mobile app PoC (proof of concept). It was very well received and pushed us harder to envision how to take this PoC to a sustainable enterprise architecture for the UT System campuses. I’m proud to say that at the end of August we will launch the Online Cyber Security program at UT San Antonio. Our learners will be the first to have access to their academic record on blockchain through ChainScript.

Question #7

I was at that event in Austin and saw your demo. Amazing. Can you give us some examples of the types of “accomplishments” that will become part of the 360 view of the student?

Playing the role of a student, I used my iPhone to show how I could post my accomplishments to my LinkedIn profile or forward them to a prospective employer so I could be considered for an internship or job upon graduation. ChainScript assures that I actually successfully completed the coursework.

The types of accomplishments include credits, competencies, micro-certificates, degrees, and other records of achievements.

It’s all about the bigger picture of ‘lifelong learning’ where all of your experiences are part of the bigger 360 view of you or me.

Question #8

Could you see ChainScript being used with Salesforce Trailhead, our set of trails and modules for continuous learning?

Sure. I could see how UTx students completing Trailhead coursework could have those badges appear along side their other accomplishments.

Question #9

What’s next?

That’s a great question. The answer lies in our partners’ heads. I am using ChainScript and its current implementation to write student outcomes to the blockchain as a new ‘frame’ to allow our partners to see their futures through. We have quickly found a few different ways that would be valuable … one is a digital rights management system that tracks the ownership of digital assets created by our subject matter experts, another is a way to track faculty publication and tenure.

We don’t want to define their futures, we want to provide them new ways to think about them.

Question #10

Last question: You’re a customer and developer, what would you like to see Salesforce do with the platform to make life better for UTx and you?

Since you’ve already enhanced each cloud offering with AI, I’d have to say that what Salesforce has done with Trailhead is really pretty special. By taking the ‘manual’ and making it into an ‘experience’, a learning experience, Trailhead has provided every customer with a way to motivate current staff toward learning how to develop and administer the Salesforce platform. With the recent Trailmix enhancement, that provides the ability to create your own custom ‘trail’ or learning path, anyone can tailor the learning for their organization at every level.


About UTx: The Institute for Transformational Learning (UTx) works closely with the University of Texas System’s 14 academic and health science campuses to define the infrastructure required to support the future of education and prototype new programming models that will bring higher numbers of Texas students to academic and professional success.