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Taking Stock and Looking Ahead: The Academic Innovation Initiative

Sarah Moncada, Academic Innovation Initiative Project Coordinator

In September 2016 President Mark Schlissel and former Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Martha Pollack charged the Office of Academic Innovation with stewarding the Academic Innovation Initiative. The Initiative is a year-long effort to discuss, design and pilot strategies that will support the University of Michigan’s continued leadership within the evolving landscape of higher education.

President Schlissel speaking while standing at a podium

How should the university adapt to continue to deliver academic excellence and social impact in a digital era where there is vast opportunity to reach new learners, create new opportunities for learning, and better meet increasingly diverse learner needs? To address this challenge, the President and Provost outlined the following goals for the Academic Innovation Initiative:

  • Launch a set of rich and interconnected experiments to explore the future of education at the University of Michigan, on and off campus, in formal and informal environments
  • Assess the constraints that inhibit academic innovation and explore ways to overcome them
  • Propose designs for structures and systems that enable ongoing academic innovation across the U-M
  • Recommend investments and solutions by which the designs can be realized and made available to the entire U-M community
  • Propose a transformational approach for leveraging academic innovation to shape the future of education and further realize our mission

Over the past several months the Office of Academic Innovation has worked closely with the Academic Innovation Initiative Faculty Steering Committee to tackle these goals. Below, members of the Steering Committee reflect on the accomplishments of the Initiative thus far, identify current challenges and share next steps for future academic innovation at Michigan.

Accomplishments of the Initiative

When asked what they believe have been the most significant accomplishments of the Academic Innovation Initiative to date, several Steering Committee members called attention to projects that “think outside the box” of traditional university offerings.

Teach-Out SeriesFor example, Dr. Agrawal believes the U-M Teach-Out Series to be a significant achievement of the initiative. Teach-Outs are short, weekend-long, open online learning experiences on contemporary issues. He helped create and facilitate the first U-M Teach-Out on Democratic to Authoritarian Rule. Dr. Agrawal values the flexibility and reach of the format. He observes, “The Teach-Outs allow faculty and learners to engage in ways that are usually not possible with a short lead-time, or because people with an interest in a particular topic are distributed very widely. With the Teach-Outs we can bring them into a common space to learn from each other and to engage with different experts. This is an interesting and important mechanism for the university to reach out and to engage with the public.”

Other Steering Committee members identified ways initiative-related efforts have helped shape the residential experience. Dr. Fishman pointed to the increased use of gameful learning principles on campus. More U-M instructors have begun using GradeCraft, a digital platform co-created by Dr. Fishman and Caitlin Holman, Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Information and Lead Software Developer at the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, that facilitates gameful course design. GradeCraft recently launched for commercial use by K-12 schools and universities.

In courses using GradeCraft, learners build their grade up from zero and have increased autonomy in the types of assignments they complete to achieve their desired course grade. Students are able to view their progress and feedback at any time, and there is flexibility to take risks and explore challenging activities without the fear of ruining one’s course grade. Beyond these core features of GradeCraft, Dr. Fishman thinks of gameful learning as a framework for profound change of the residential learning environment, “My real vision for gameful learning is that it’s a whole different way of thinking about the relationship between learners and content, between learners and goals–a different way of thinking about how we mark learning, regulate learning and promote learners.”

Many members of the Steering Committee believe the community-building work of the Initiative to be another significant accomplishment. Dr. Gerber notes, “To me, nurturing a culture of innovation is important. And you do that really through the experiments and through talking to people about constraints and what their ideas are. We have a couple of big signature projects, but then just being the place that is pushing the university to think about innovation differently–I think that’s really important.”

As one piece of this community-building effort, the Office of Academic Innovation hosts bi-weekly “Innovation Hours,” informal gatherings featuring a different theme each session. Innovation Hours have helped promote a culture of innovation by bringing diverse constituents together around shared interests. Some have even inspired ongoing communities of practice, where participants meet regularly to go more in depth on a particular topic. Dr. Gerber, for example, facilitates the Simulations Community of Practice, an interdisciplinary group that meets regularly to discuss the development and implementation of simulation-based teaching tools.

Challenges to Consider

Faculty members also reflected on challenges to address as the work of the Academic Innovation Initiative continues. Many cited the need to cultivate deeper connections between U-M’s campuses and disciplines. The Ann Arbor campus alone has 19 schools and colleges–each with its own organizational structures, priorities and resources. It is a challenge to break down the silos to connect constituents across campus(es) who are searching for solutions to similar pedagogical problems.

How does the Steering Committee plan to address this challenge? Dr. Gonzalez recommends studying the successes of innovative, discipline-specific teaching models and then exploring ways they might be useful or scalable in other domains. She pointed to the immersive, apprentice-based learning systems employed in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance as an example.

Similarly, Dr. Kaul agrees that “each school has something to offer” and suggests a systematic data-gathering effort to survey the teaching challenges and creative solutions of each of the campus units. Increased awareness of what other units are doing would encourage interdisciplinary collaboration as people discover shared problems and identify useful approaches from other areas.

Dr. Alcock recommends using digital tools to further connections between the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses, “It would be very cool to have classes taught on all three campuses and have the students interact. It could be online partly. That is something that has always interested me, to continue this three-way campus.”

Another constraint involves the entrenched practices and incentive structures of the separate units, which often discourage collaboration, pedagogical risk-taking and/or extensive change. In considering this challenge, Dr. Millunchick notes faculty incentives like titles and resources really matter– instructors might have great interest in developing a new pedagogical tool or trying a creative approach in their teaching but feels such work might not be valued or supported in their home departments. Titles like “Academic Innovation Fellow” signal prestige and significance, Dr. Millunchick suggests, while targeted resources and support help offset the burden of other professional obligations.

Dr. Gross believes a way to encourage innovation might involve offering more low-stakes ways for instructors to get involved with this work. She reflects on some of the Office’s existing projects and tools. “What could hook faculty into this, so they can start growing their skills stealthily, so they can start experiencing these things incrementally? I want the programs to be bold, but I want there to be a way for faculty to take small steps to start moving in this direction. So making sure ladders are built for each of these tools that we make.”

Many Steering Committee members lament the restrictive nature of the credit-hour system and the academic calendar, noting how difficult it is to create a radically different learning experience when it must still somehow fit neatly into the semester schedule and academic transcript. Dr. LaVaque-Manty asks, “How do we free faculty and students from worrying about the structural constraints of the curriculum?”

Dr. Stalburg, for example, wonders if the General Studies major might be reimagined as a prestigious means of handcrafting a self-directed, competency-based degree program. Dr. Gross suggests a summer institute that could serve as a safe space for academic exploration and risk-taking. Dr. Gonzalez envisions a small-scale experiment in which a cohort of faculty and students are released from typical requirements and supported by the university to participate in project-based learning experiences. Regardless of what this future project might look like, many agree with Dr. Fishman when he says, “I would love to see us move rapidly beyond the idea of credit-hours and grades to create constraint-freeing spaces.”

Next Steps

So what is next for the Academic Innovation Initiative? In an effort to continue pursuing the goals of the President’s charge, here are some activities and projects the Steering Committee members and the Office of Academic Innovation have on the horizon:

  • Traveling Innovation Hours – Instead of hosting bi-weekly themed conversations in the Office of Academic Innovation Spaces in Hatcher and 500 E. Washington this fall, Academic Innovation staff will host Innovation Hours in different regions of the Ann Arbor campus to hear from departmental communities about pedagogical challenges and creative solutions in their home units.
  • Intend to Attend – Dr. LaVaque-Manty, Dr. McKay and Dr. Millunchick, in collaboration with the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, are developing an M-Cubed project entitled Intend to Attend, which will use digital tools to build opportunities for college admissions support and guidance about the college experience for pre-college learners.
  • Foundational Course Initiative – Dr. McKay, the REBUILD team and CRLT will pilot its program of collaborative course design that provides instructional, technological, assessment and student support resources to teaching teams of foundational courses.
  • Expansion of the U-M Teach-Out Series – The next round of Teach-Outs is slated for early fall 2017 and will include offerings on the evolution of the Internet and its impact on society, civil rights and liberties in the contemporary era, privacy and identity in the face of Big Data and the modern epidemic of sleep deprivation. Instructional teams are invited to submit proposals for the third round of the U-M Teach-Out Series by September 27.
  • Academic Innovation Initiative Summit – The Office of Academic Innovation will host a series of events and activities in fall 2017 to celebrate the progress of the Initiative and foster dialogue on important questions related to higher education. Mark your calendars for November 14, 2017, when we will host an inclusive, interactive, day-long summit to close the initial year-long push and to collaboratively design the future of academic innovation at Michigan. Check our events page for updates and further details as the fall term approaches


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Members of the Academic Innovation Faculty Steering Committee:


  • Arun Agrawal, Samuel Trask Dana Professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment
  • Sue Alcock, John H. D’Arms Collegiate and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Classical Archaeology and Classics in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Special Counsel for Institutional Outreach and Engagement in the Office of the President
  • Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Education and Information in the School of Information and School of Education
  • Elisabeth Gerber, Jack L. Walker, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy in the Ford School of Public Policy
  • Anita Gonzalez, Professor of Theatre and Drama within the School of Music, Theatre and Dance
  • Melissa Gross, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Biomechanics in the School of Kinesiology
  • Gautam Kaul, Fred M. Taylor Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Finance in the Ross School of Business
  • Mika LaVaque-Manty, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Political Science in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
  • David Mendez, Professor of Health Management and Policy in the School of Public Health
  • Joanna Millunchick, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Material Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering
  • Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Principal Investigator for the Digital Innovation Greenhouse
  • Caren Stalburg, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Learning Health Sciences and Division Chief of Professional Education in the Medical School


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