Isis Jones is chief information officer and executive director of education at Full Sail University in Winter Park. Popular
with aspiring filmmakers, digital artists, record producers, game makers and other creative and technology-oriented students for
over 40 years, the award-winning university is currently the academic home for more than 22,000 students, 80,230 alumni, and
about 2,200 faculty and staff members.
How did you get started at Full Sail University 34 years ago? You have said you were deciding what to do next in your career but were “bitten by the bug.” Can you explain?
Growing up, I had many interests, in part because I grew up in a house of engineers and artists. Thus, my exposure to ideas and information was diversified in such a way as to appeal to both left and right brain. I wanted to work as soon as possible so I could contribute to the household and be financially independent while doing something I loved. While working at age 17 in a new hospital, I was introduced to its first mainframe computer, and my aptitude for it piqued my interest so much that it charted my education and career choice in technology. I would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer programming and information systems at Orlando College.
One of my first technology jobs was at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in Orlando as a systems programmer. I loved it there. Around that same time, I was helping Jon Phelps, the founder of Full Sail University, with the school’s technology. As Full Sail readied for a pivotal move to Winter Park, I was recruited by another company that wanted to send me overseas for a six-month installation of a mainframe to facilitate one of the first cellular phone system grids in Japan. It was a great opportunity for a person my age as well as for a woman in technology, yet it was also a little scary.
Jon and my husband, Garry Jones, the current president of Full Sail, who was then vice president of admissions and career development at Full Sail, knew of my hesitation. They persuaded me to join Full Sail to purchase, install and train the staff on a new computer system that would empower the institution for growth. This move, in 1988, alleviated my trepidation about living alone in another country, but it also gave me pause since I would be working with my husband and would be an IT department of one. However, Jon asked me to come on board for six months and complete the mission, promising to then hire my replacement so I could return to corporate America.
It didn’t take long to realize the magic of Full Sail — an alluring culture of people filled with passion for fulfilling careers in entertainment and media production. My favorite thing is solving problems, and there was no shortage of challenges at this relatively young institution intent on growing into a world-class university. Saying “yes” to Jon’s offer was the best decision I ever made.
Full Sail University has long been a leader in educating students about technology as well as using technology in that education. It also has been at the forefront of providing online classes in addition to on-campus instruction. How much of an advantage did that focus and expertise provide to Full Sail and its students when the COVID-19 pandemic struck? Did all of your classes move online fairly easily and effectively?
Full Sail University was at the forefront of virtual education when we adopted robust online education 12 years ago. Today, our faculty and students — including campus students — are well versed in our learning management system platform as well as Full Sail’s communications platforms. This played directly into the seamless transition of our place-based students into virtual education. One of the most significant factors in the seamless transition of campus students to virtual education because of the pandemic was that every student was equipped with what we call “Project LaunchBox.” We democratize technology by having every student equipped with the same model of computer with the software and peripherals they need to do their work. This was instrumental in the success of that transition.
We also saw a tremendous amount of innovation and effort from our campus faculty to augment existing online education protocols with new, intuitive ways to deliver education from studios and hard-to-replicate campus-based environments. We learned much, and it will forever change the way we accomplish online education. A positive area to note following the pandemic will be how technology was catapulted 10 years into the future by the education world’s forced adoption of various technological platforms.
We fared quite well during the pandemic and are now migrating back to campus in a methodical, safe fashion.
What differentiates Full Sail University and its faculty from other educational institutions? What are its most popular majors?
Full Sail is the only university in the country with degree programs in practically every area of entertainment and media arts. In addition, we are experiencing a robust expansion in emerging technologies to serve job market needs and new trends in technology that continually change.
Our most popular majors are game design, recording arts and film. However, our fastest-growing degree programs are those in emerging technologies serving job markets in the areas of visualization, coding, cybersecurity and the internet of things (IoT).
How do creative and technical pursuits, which some people might think are quite different, intersect at Full Sail?
That intersection is at the root of our existence. Full Sail has always had one foot in art and the other foot in technology, a hybrid not often addressed in traditional education. I call it “whole brain” education. It’s like being bilingual. When you train for both left and right brain, you not only find where your strengths lie, you become a more rounded person. “Speaking” art and technology is similar to speaking multiple languages — you can effectively communicate with different groups. It has become increasingly important for designers to communicate with programmers in a language they can both understand. As for the technical part of production, the real-world experiences our students receive pave the way for their employment because they are technically proficient as well as creative. We strongly encourage the pollination of technical programs with creative programs, such as matching computer animators with gamers and sound designers.
How difficult is it to stay on top of changing technology?
Most people might say it’s difficult to stay current with ever-changing technology. However, we find it easy. I am blessed to work with staff and faculty who are constantly pushing the envelope, always wanting to jump to the beta versions of the latest trends. We also have a generous board that agrees with funding the latest technological trends.
A good example is the innovation in one of our emerging technology undergraduate degree programs, Simulation and Visualization. It entails a unique mixture of technological skill sets that combine coding, 3D manufacturing, circuit board programming and virtual reality. It’s quite revolutionary to have all those skill sets combined in one program. At Full Sail, we’re not afraid to take the uncharted path.
What’s it like being married to the president of Full Sail University and combining your work and personal lives? Of the two of you, who is the bigger techie?
Anyone who knows Garry Jones knows that it’s great to be part of his life in any capacity. We have worked side by side for over 30 years now, and in today’s environment it is a seamless colleague-to-colleague relationship. The earlier years took some adjusting, such as the establishment of home versus work rules regarding how long we would talk after hours about work topics. But I can’t imagine having made this journey without him — we are stronger together. We each bring something different to the table, and our strengths complement each other. And I am definitely the bigger techie!
What does the future look like in terms of curriculum, growth and innovation?
We are excited about the future. Educational methods are moving to shorter-length options. Students are getting smarter every day. They know what they want, and they want it faster. We are launching programs in emerging technologies as well as shorter-term education options being sought by students looking for retraining or the acquisition of specific skill sets. Our degree program is also growing to meet the needs of new trends ranging from artificial intelligence to IoT platforms.
What are you most proud of?
Nothing brings me more pride than when graduates of our programs do well and win awards or come back to share their successes with us. I often pause and think about our first move to Winter Park into the original 24,000-square-foot space, when we offered two-degree programs. I contrast that with today’s 1 million-square-foot campus with more than 100-degree programs. It’s incredible to have been part of Full Sail’s journey.