On the Matter of Small Changes and Big Differences

Donald J. Peurach, PhD, Associate Professor of Educational Policy, Leadership, and Innovation in the School of Education


I am writing at the end of the 30 Blogs in 30 Days campaign celebrating the rechristening of the University of Michigan’s Office of Academic Innovation as the new Center for Academic Innovation. In my travels across campus, it has been a remarkable 30 days, including the kick-off of the 2019/2020 academic year, yesterday’s formal announcement by President Schlissel, and exciting points in between. 

All of this has me reflecting on the matter of small changes and big differences, and on what those big differences might mean for advancing academic innovation at the University of Michigan.

On Changing a Single Word…

Consider, for example, the difference that changing a single word can make: in this case, the change from office to center. The notion of an office has me imagining academic innovation as playing out in some small space tucked off to the side, behind a closed door, and with a special key required for entry. As I sketched it in an earlier blog, this is an image of academic innovation not far removed from the status quo in research universities: academic innovation as a personal and private affair, with professors locked away in their own offices, working on their own to devise creative approaches to teaching and learning.

Don PeurachThe notion of a center conjures up a very different image: academic innovation as planted squarely in the middle of everything, as if on the Diag, at the crossroads of the University, and open to all. This is an image that better captures the Center of Academic Innovation throughout its history, as it has supported faculty members from across the University to advance the creativity, quality, and reach of their teaching, and as it has welcomed people from within and beyond the University to leverage these new learning opportunities. As a faculty affiliate, this is also an image that captures my work with the Center for Academic Innovation throughout the first 30 days of the 2019/2020 academic year, including:

  • Collaborating with other faculty affiliates to review proposals for a slate of new massive open online courses.
  • Joining colleagues from across the University in welcoming FutureLearn as a new partner in extending our global reach.

On Changing a Single Letter…

If it is surprising that changing just one word can make such a big difference, then it may be even more surprising that an even smaller change can make an even bigger difference. Consider, for example, the addition of a single letter: in this case, moving from center to centers. In my experience, to witness the rapid evolution of the Center for Academic Innovation has been to witness the emergence of new centers of academic innovation in-and-among schools and colleges:

  • Initially established in 2014, the Office of Digital Education and Innovation began coaxing early adopting professors out of their own offices and collaborating with them to develop stand-alone massive open online courses. 
  • I jumped onboard in 2016, as the newly renamed Office of Academic Innovation began collaborating with a critical mass of faculty members in a small number of schools and colleges to bundle massive open online courses into new types of micro-credentials that would serve as gateways to campus-based degree programs.
  • Throughout these past 30 days, I watched as the newly established Center of Academic Innovation joined the School of Information in celebrating the launch of its fully online Master of Applied Data Science degree while, at the same time, partnering with the School of Public Health to develop its own online master’s degree.

Look no further than other contributions to the 30 Blogs in 30 Days campaign for further evidence of new centers of academic innovation emerging in-and-among schools and colleges. Yet these past 30 days have also brought me into contact with still more centers of academic innovation on campus beyond those catalyzed by the Center for Academic Innovation. This has included:

On Advancing Academic Innovation

All of this has me reflecting on the matter of small changes and big differences. This movement from an Office of Academic Innovation to a Center for Academic Innovation and, from there, to multiple centers of academic innovation marks an exciting shift in the usual place of teaching-and-learning at major research universities: out of the shadows of institutional and professional incentives that privilege a primary focus on externally-funded research projects, and planted squarely in the middle of everything.

But this shift in academic innovation from the shadows to the centers is more a work in progress than a fait accompli. And that, in turn, has me reflecting on what it might take to institutionalize innovation in teaching-and-learning so that it is deeply embedded in the culture, structure, and core work of all schools and colleges across campus, and so that it is integral to the experiences of all learners – on campus and online. 

Establishing the Center for Academic Innovation is an exciting move in this direction, especially as complemented by the efforts of other University-level centers. Yet these University-level centers can only work in-and-through schools and colleges to advance the creativity, quality, and reach of teaching-and-learning at the University of Michigan.

If the University’s recent efforts to advance campus-wide commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion are any indication, institutionalizing academic innovation campus-wide will require a coordinated, multi-component strategy that includes:

  • Careful study of affordances and constraints on academic innovation both a.) in-and-among schools and colleges and b.) in the bureaucratic and administrative structure of the University.
  • Building consensus around value statements and strategic plans for advancing academic innovation in individual schools and colleges.
  • The creation, legitimation, and empowerment of new roles and teams charged with leading academic innovation in schools and colleges.
  • Resources and incentives for developing and leveraging faculty capabilities for academic innovation.
  • Awards and recognition for those leading the charge.
  • Accountability across the board.

This is a formidable agenda, no doubt: a program of organizational development and institutional transformation running in parallel with (and in the service of) academic innovation. Yet work of this sort will be required to establish the University of Michigan — the world’s preeminent public research university — as a preeminent center of academic innovation. 

The first 30 days of the 2019/2020 academic year have been remarkable, in that they have made clear, at least to me, that such a lofty goal is well within our reach. It’s time now to roll up our sleeves and get down to work.

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