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AI, new technologies, and ‘courage to fail’ mark IT Summit

Sarah Lewis at Klara Jelinkova onstage at Sanders Theatre.

Sarah Lewis (left) and Klara Jelinkova at Sanders Theatre.

Photos by Neal Adolph Akatsuka

Campus & Community

AI, new technologies, and ‘courage to fail’ mark IT Summit

Tech leaders encourage ‘sandbox’ environment 

5 min read

The “relentless” pace of technological change and how Harvard’s IT workforce can embrace both creativity and failure to foster a culture of innovation loom large for those in the field, so they were the primary themes of the University’s 11th annual IT Summit, hosted by its CIO Council on June 6.

More than 1,000 Harvard staff and faculty gathered for a day of panels, networking events, and an afternoon keynote address from Sarah Lewis, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and associate professor of African and African American studies. The event also featured more than 40 staff-led breakout sessions showcasing the breadth of new technologies being explored and implemented across Schools and disciplines at Harvard.

“The willingness and the courage to fail, to be wrong, to shift gears and to engage in dialogue and disagreement” will be key to Harvard continuing to lead in the successful adoption of new technologies.

Klara Jelinkova

Unsurprisingly, given its near ubiquity in technology discourse over the past year, generative AI was a frequent topic. In her opening remarks, Klara Jelinkova, vice president and Harvard’s chief information officer, praised University IT staff for “rising to the occasion” to quickly provide tools and support for community experimentation with generative AI. Referencing Lewis’ 2015 book, “The Rise,” Jelinkova characterized this era of rapid technological development as one of “uncertainty” in which “the willingness and the courage to fail, to be wrong, to shift gears and to engage in dialogue and disagreement” will be key to Harvard continuing to lead in the successful adoption of new technologies.

In a morning panel, technology leaders discussed the balance between innovation and operations while spotlighting how Harvard’s CIO Council supports the missions of both individual Schools and the University at large. Emily Bottis, managing director for Academic Technology at HUIT, said Harvard’s IT structure enables innovative uses of technology to be trialed in disparate fields before being brought to the center and distributed widely. She cited Teachly — a software tool developed within Harvard to help faculty teach more inclusively using data — as an example.  

A group of panelists onstage at Sanders Theatre.
Summit panelists included Stu Snydman, associate University librarian and managing director, library technology, HUIT (from left); Beth Clark, CIO, Harvard Business School; Dan Hawkins, CIO, Harvard Divinity School; Emily Bottis, managing director, academic technology, HUIT; Meena Lakhavani, CIO, Harvard Kennedy School.

Kennedy School CIO Meena Lakhavani highlighted the University’s AI working groups and “sandbox” environment as an example of central coordination providing frameworks and tools in which Schools can innovate. Beth Clark, CIO for Harvard Business School, mentioned “tutorbots” — AI chatbots trained to give students information on specific classes or course materials — as a way different pedagogical styles can be exchanged between IT teams to assess scalability.

Tutorbots were among the many AI-related topics featured in the breakout sessions, alongside presentations on how AI might be used to enhance campus sustainability, workplace productivity, course evaluations, IT service desk support, and many other facets of higher education. Staff assembled in classrooms across the Cambridge campus to hear updates on new systems such as Harvard’s Learning Experience Platform (LXP), a platform for delivering asynchronous and blended learning that emerged from a 2022 report from the Future of Teaching and Learning Taskforce, and the new HarvardSites website publishing service. And IT teams shared their expertise in tutorials on topics encompassing digital accessibility, using design and data to enhance user experiences, navigating compliance and resourcing discussions, exploring open-source solutions, and many more.

Along with excitement about the potential of AI, its rapid emergence has also raised significant concerns about cybersecurity. In a “speculative voyage into the future,” Michael Tran Duff, University chief information security group and data privacy officer, predicted that while it’s likely we will see a rise in cybercriminal activity aided by the use of generative AI, the eventual deployment of AI-enabled vulnerability assessment and “personal AI assistants” to block social engineering attacks, coupled with cybersecurity measures such as a transition to passwordless logins, could lead to significantly fewer incidents.

Concluding the day’s events in Sanders Theatre, Lewis encouraged the audience to reconsider their definition of failure as they strive for innovation. Drawing on themes and research from “TheRise,” she shared examples of celebrated innovators throughout history whose progress was frequently halted by failure. Rather than seeing failure as a negative comment on themselves, their abilities, and their identities, said failure can be used as feedback: valuable information that’s part of the process of finding solutions.

Lewis also offered advice on how organizations can create environments in which failure and risk-taking is made safer, such as creating time and space for employees to experiment, and reducing the stigma of seemingly outlandish ideas (which may later be hailed as innovations). Responding to an audience question, Lewis likened failure to a New England winter: I may feel interminable as it happens, but, “Just as the seasons change, there is always the possibility for spring.”

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