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Doubling Down on the Learning University and Personalization at Scale

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Digital Education & Innovation

Election season is here so I suppose our expectations should be set for division, oversimplification and the fallacy of the excluded middle. When the road ahead gets complicated, as many innovative decisions and pathways tend to steer, we often force each other to reject complexity and any number of mid-range choices in favor of extreme positions. This black-and-white thinking may or may not be a feature of the modern two-party system. When applied to higher education, it is almost certainly a bug that can cause unintended behavior and scare away the very colorful innovation we aim to seed and scale.

Happily, it appears we are mostly done arguing about completion rates in massive open online courses (MOOCs), where public debate initially squeezed out all but two options, to complete or not to complete. Gradually, there was acceptance that all learners are not created equal and perhaps their motivations are in fact wonderfully varied when presented with unprecedented levels of choice. Unhappily, in its place there are rumblings of a new debate that smells like party politics. Inside Higher Ed is the latest to ask you, the digital innovator: do you hail from the house of Coursera or the house of edX?

Let us please squash this false alternative before it becomes a single issue that distracts us from positioning for the future. Not only do we risk excluding the middle, but we also obstruct our collective view of the outer bounds of discovery. The current evolution in learning – which we might remind ourselves is a great privilege to shape – is not about a choice between Coursera and edX. At Michigan we are harnessing a digital innovation strategy to understand the potential of personalization at scale in designing the learning university of the 21st century. We are thinking impractically before pragmatically layering in constraints to create learning environments that would make the resources of the university and the world available to the broadest possible range of learners. Our aim is to advance the vision of equitable and advanced education for all.

Along the way, we find great thought partners like Daphne Koller and Anant Agarwal, who share our vision of a world that harnesses technology and learning analytics to provide high quality personalization at scale. I repeat, this is not about a choice between Coursera and edX or movement from one MOOC platform to the next. There is no “one-way street” to navigate. A lateral shift is not the same thing as acceleration of experimentation. Nor is this “double dipping” which implies a risk mitigating hedge; we’re doubling down on what’s working and raising new questions as great research universities are built to do.

I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Daphne and Anant, two brilliant and passionate higher education leaders. They have more in common than not and maybe, just maybe, the magnitude of the opportunities and challenges facing higher education will require more than two choices.  

At the University of Michigan, we recently joined edX as a charter member, 3 years after becoming a founding partner in Coursera. As with Coursera, in edX we see a partner that is embracing some of the most difficult questions about higher education and learning. Has either organization figured it all out? Again, let’s not squeeze the middle or the outer bounds. This is the beauty of discovery and learning; figuring it out just means the arrival of a new set of even more interesting questions. We see in each partner and platform a different set of opportunities for experimentation where each set complements our digital innovation strategy to realize a new, lifelong approach to delivering a Michigan education.

At the same time, our approach to designing the learning university stretches well beyond these two partnerships. As an example, we created at U-M the Digital Innovation Greenhouse to harvest educational software innovations from Michigan’s research community and to work with local user communities to grow them to maturity, and establish pathways to scale. Combined with the Learning, Education, & Design Lab, where we investigate the design and use of learning technologies in higher education, we are able to partner with faculty innovators to make the strongest possible connections between research and teaching as we reimagine the residential education experience.  We will continue to experiment with the best learning technologies developed here at Michigan and from a rapidly evolving higher education landscape as we AIM for personalization at scale.

There are many opportunities for a University like ours to approach innovation alone. There are many others where strong partnerships with organizations like Coursera and edX or university and industry partners will help us to push the boundaries of discovery even further. It is true that joining into partnership with an organization means “doing more than filling out a sign-up sheet”. Universities shouldn’t partner with any organization without first drawing a big circle around shared vision. Overlap can be minimal but there should be evidence of a commitment to enable each other to achieve each partner’s respective objectives. We found different models in Coursera and edX, respectively. Yet given the breadth and depth of experimentation at Michigan, we found no problem identifying overlap with each organization as we continue down an ambitious path to redefine residential education.

Universities will continue to experiment. Given the potential we’ve seen from today’s technology coupled with advancements in learning analytics, it would be nearly impossible to turn back. Universities will continue to seek opportunities to realize their visions and missions in new and interesting ways as new learners challenge our once firm beliefs about the characteristics of learning communities, modes of delivery, and personalized learning potential. These experiments will accelerate and evolve, changing dramatically the ways we work within and between universities and also with new kinds of partners.

The fallacy of the excluded middle and limiting exploration of the  outer bounds of discovery promotes a myopic view of what’s happening in higher education. It also ignores the new and increased opportunities available to learners and the broadening community of innovators committed to a better future. At a time when it is so important to articulate and differentiate the value of learning and higher education we must resist the tendency to oversimplify a beautifully complex world.

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