A New Renaissance for Higher Education

James Hilton, Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and Dean of Libraries

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

A new academic term, a bicentennial, and many reasons for optimism.

Education is the greatest transformative invention the world has ever known. It changes the lives of individuals and it changes the quality of human existence for the better. At the same time it is possible, perhaps almost inevitable, to assume that the future of higher education is dim at best. After all, the headlines are filled with various forms of higher education “crises.” Whether it’s concerns about student debt, declining public support, technology pressure, regulatory pressure, changing demographics, or global competition, it’s clear that the definition and aims of higher education are up for grabs. Where academics and their institutions used to be seen as key ingredients in solving the world’s wicked problems, today both our relevance and motivations are frequently questioned. Twenty years ago, for example, it’s hard to imagine anyone questioning whether an undergraduate degree was worth the price of admission. Today, despite all evidence to the contrary, the norm is to question the value of a degree. In two decades, we have gone from a default position that favors personal and societal investment in higher education to a default position that is suspicious of the probable return. It is easy to despair.

So why are we optimistic?

The very conditions that are giving rise to a pervasive sense of crisis are the same conditions that we see pointing to a new renaissance for institutions and individuals who are willing to experiment, learn and evolve. After all, the technology pressures that threaten to disrupt also hold the promise for a more personalized approach to teaching and learning. Global competition in higher education shouldn’t be a narrative grounded in loss, it should be about opening doors and connecting with students around the world who would never otherwise make their way to Ann Arbor. The focus on career preparation and the reality of a rapidly changing labor market doesn’t force us to reframe education as simply about vocation. It gives us opportunities to connect with lifelong learners in ways that are more meaningful and impactful than ever before. It gives us the opportunity to be a constant presence in people’s journeys towards the things that matter to them–including stewardship, resources, complex and enlightened habits of mind, and the pursuit of happiness.

Faculty sitting at a table in front of a large sitting audienceAt the dawn of our University’s bicentennial, we are inspired. We see a past worthy of celebration, a present we can challenge, and a future that is unwritten and filled with possibility. We see a unique combination of history, mission, and culture that invite us to imagine again the education that is possible at the great public research university.

Last term, President Schlissel launched a new initiative focused on Academic Innovation. From it’s inception, the goal of the initiative has been to launch a series of experiments and activities in order to learn by doing on the way to developing transformative recommendations for our future.

Not surprisingly, our community responded enthusiastically and is deeply engaged in these experiments and activities. To name a few:

  • We officially opened our third MicroMasters program on January 24th, a new and innovative collaboration between the School of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In the fall we launched MicroMasters programs with the School of Information and School of Social Work, respectively;
  • We began a second stage of work with Elisabeth Gerber from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy to continue building the digital, hands-on, role-playing simulation tool called Policymaker;
  • We began working on a MOOC with Arun Agrawal on Governing Sustainability with a start date that will coincide with the launch of the new School for Environment and Sustainability;
  • We are creating five new MOOCs on topics related to social impact with faculty from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the School of Social Work, the School of Education, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Ross School of Business that will launch in May;
  • We welcomed Problem Roulette, and a partnership with August Evrard from College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, as the latest digital tool to enter the Digital Innovation Greenhouse;
  • We are partnering with Richard Nisbett from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to create a new MOOC on Critical Thinking for the Information Age;
  • We launched the Gameful Learning Lab, and have built a course on gameful learning that will be available to the world in March.

In activities like these, our faculty see new connections between scholarship and the classroom. Our students see new opportunities to take advantage of our intellectual diversity. Our alumni see new porous pathways to continue their Michigan educations throughout their lifetimes. Our public constituents see new ways to participate with the University. Together we are tapping into the breadth and scale of this vibrant community to focus on big problems that don’t fit neatly into a single discipline.

As we look ahead, we start to see some convergence of opportunity around a number of themes:

  • Gautam KaulUnbundling the curriculum from disciplines and rebundling around problems most important to society
  • Leading a public effort to design and implement the transcript of the future
  • Expanding efforts around gameful learning to reimagine a broader range of learning environments beyond courses
  • Reimagining relationships with lifelong learning alumni and pre-college learners
  • Leveraging our curriculum and expertise, and new technologies, to enhance our ability to engage with the public
  • Expanding upon engaged learning activities and further tipping the scales toward active student participation in content creation, problem solving, and doing
  • Developing a deeper understanding of where students learn on campus and how we can best nurture that learning
  • Establishing incentives that encourage faculty to invest time in educational R&D
  • Extending our leadership role in learning analytics
  • Exploring a framework for real-time teaching experiments

This academic term is also bursting with activity. Please join us for innovation hours, design jams, and other events this term that aim to engage faculty, students, staff, and alumni in our community-wide conversation about the future of higher education at U-M. We will continue to identify and start new experiments as we go.

Against what might seem like impossible odds given the tenor of the conversations about higher education, we see clear signs that point to a new renaissance for those institutions that are willing and able to experiment, rethink, and imagine again. We stand at the precipice of a new model of education that is more inclusive, scalable, and personalized. We hope you’ll join the discussion by participating in events, sharing an idea for the future, and/or proposing a new experiment.

Communities of Practice at U-M

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

What are unique models of residential education at the University of Michigan and what would it take to scale those models?

These were the questions faculty and staff asked during an informal conversation last fall exploring how to identify and support communities of practice at Michigan.

Faculty and staff sitting on out couches in discussionFirst, the group worked to establish a common understanding of a “community of practice.” Popularized in the 1990s by social anthropologist Dr. Jean Lave and educational theorist Dr. Etienne Wenger, one definition suggests a community of practices is, “a process of social learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in a subject or area collaborate over an extended period of time, sharing ideas and strategies, determine solutions and build innovations.”

In the context of higher education, the group suggested communities of practice are often problem-based, interdisciplinary and intergenerational, spanning undergraduate and graduate students to faculty and alumni and may include members of the greater community.

“The community of practice is defined by the problem that they are working on,” said Dr. Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Education and Information. “Different people bring different things to the table to help solve the problem.”

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer for the Office of Academic Innovation, echoed Fishman’s definition.

“It has to have a real need, it has to have something really driving it,” she said. “We have a common goal we are trying to accomplish that we can’t do without working together.”

Fishman mentioned communities of practice are commonly misunderstood as restricted only to “practitioners,” or a professional in the particular field relating to the problem. He suggested successful communities of practice include participants from different levels of expertise who all approach a particular problem from diverse viewpoints without the constraints of hierarchical dividers.

The group was interested in viewing a public institution through the lens of a community of practice and they looked for examples at U-M.

Dr. Mika Lavaque-MantyDr. Mika LaVaque-Manty, Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of Political Science, said Michigan’s 19 schools and colleges are Living Learning Communities, but do not necessarily represent a community of practice. He pointed to the Community Action and Social Change undergraduate minor through the School of Social Work and the Detroit City Study co-learning experiences as examples of communities of practice at Michigan and asked how the University can best continue to support these communities.

“What could the University do to make things more possible?” he asked.

Participants identified challenges when attempting to conceptualize a group of learners connected to a 13-week class as a community of practice. They asked how best to sustain the community both before it begins as well as after students complete the course.

Dr. Elisabeth Gerber, Professor of Public Policy at the Ford School of Public Policy, said the U-M Law School approaches a single issue across multiple courses.

“The institutional commitment to the problem and the study of this problem is very cool,” she said.

Gerber suggested creating a public catalog to identify communities of practice across the University would help to build connections between existing and new communities.

“How do we aggregate what’s going on as a way of learning about practice at our University?” she asked. “We should be learning from each other, this is a great way to start.”

The group said they were interested in exploring ways to identify which students do and do not have these experiences at U-M. Fishman said a next step is to find promising programs on campus and discuss ways to provide additional support. He said the best way to engage is to identify hindrances preventing a community’s “current state” from reaching its “ideal state.”

“What stops it from realizing its real potential?” Fishman asked.

Join us during the next Innovation Hour! View our list of upcoming events to learn about future Innovation Hour discussions.

R&D Leaders from Top Universities Gather at U-M To Discuss What’s Next in Academic Innovation

Written by Laurel Thomas, Michigan News

As universities increasingly experiment with how technology can enhance the learning experience, what if the people on the front lines of these efforts could systematically share stories of success and failure to help others steer in the right direction or avoid pitfalls?

This is just one of the topics leaders from nearly 20 educational institutions discussed as they met earlier this month at the University of Michigan to explore new models for academic research and development.

Staff members who manage efforts like those of U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation came from places like MIT, Georgetown, Stanford, Arizona State, Dartmouth, Davidson, Southern New Hampshire and a number of other colleges and universities that are in various stages of growing their academic innovation efforts.

President Schlissel speaks to HAIL Storm attendeesThe sharing that took place represented what U-M President Mark Schlissel had in mind when he announced a focus on Academic Innovation at his annual faculty breakfast in the fall, during which he laid out initiatives for the new academic year. The president addressed participants at the conference called HAIL Storm, Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners.

“We are taking the approach that there are limits to what one institution can do alone. We want to engage with others and approach the work ahead as partners,” Schlissel said. “Our institutions have different missions, different structures and different types of students. There is a tremendous amount we can learn from one another.

“If all of us are able to help build a nationwide culture of academic innovation, we have the best opportunity of seeing more successful collaborative projects. Your work as the top researchers and innovators in academic R&D and your commitment to experimentation give us a solid foundation moving forward.”

Leaders, many of whom have been recognized nationally for their work in this area, shared approaches that have worked and others that failed. They discussed the cultures of their institutions that often embrace experimentation but sometimes rail against “disruptive” change.

In opening remarks, James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation, posed tough questions to the group.

“Can we handle what happens next after we take a close look? Are our institutions equipped to absorb true accounts of where we are today? Can we handle the expectations we will set for ourselves and can we fight the urge to look away from imperfections?

“We’ve posed questions about participation, pipelines, partnerships, and intellectual property. We’ve underlined equity in education and meeting the needs of diverse learners as a shared interest. We’ve asked ourselves how we can convert growing momentum into a sustainable way of thinking and doing.”

The event was co-sponsored by EdSurge, an online resource for educators created in 2011 to provide information about what new technologies “can and cannot do to support learning,” according to its website.

EdSurge Director of Higher Education Allison Salisbury guided participants through sessions, one of which asked them to propose innovations that would assist with collaboration among the institutions.

“This is the first meeting of its kind to bring these R&D leaders together. These are the people who are leading innovation on their campuses,” Salsbury said. “Some will choose to end their involvement tomorrow but some teams likely will go on to collaborate.”

EdSurge interviewed Schlissel following his remarks to the team. He discussed the opportunities for using technology to strengthen educational quality, tailor content to meet student needs and transform teaching.

Related articles:

What Do You Call It When Colleges Turn Their Research Powers On Their Own Practices?

5 Questions for U of Michigan’s Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

A Collaborative Mindset: Driving Innovation and Excellence in Student Learning

Collaborative Transformation – Recap of the Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

How can educational leaders take collective action to advance educational research and development to catalyze transformational change shaping the future of higher education?

This cross-institutional discussion continued last week.

The Office of Academic Innovation advanced this dialogue by welcoming more than 50 educational innovation leaders from 20 different institutions to the University of Michigan for a special convening titled Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners, or the HAIL Storm.

The event extended the breadth of the Academic Innovation Initiative, a charge to the Office of Academic Innovation by President Mark S. Schlissel and Provost Martha E. Pollack to steward a conversation to “consider how U-M will lead the way for higher education through the information age and further strengthen our impact on society.”

With HAIL Storm, this conversation included an industry-wide discussion about how to advance educational R&D models drawing from experiences to improve access, quality and equity in student learning. Higher education innovators from public, private, non-profit and for-profit institutions and university systems established new connections at the event while surfacing perspectives from those currently working in the educational R&D space.

The convening was designed to establish a knowledge base for educational R&D models and grow a network of innovation leaders across institutions sharing recommendations for institutional structure, human capital, funding models, accreditation, assessment and building a culture of experimentation as well as developing and nurturing internal and external partnerships.

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for the University of Michigan’s Office of Academic Innovation, framed the two-day collaborative discussion by invoking an illustrative metaphor of Kintsugi – the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver and platinum. He noted the intention of the Japanese art form is not to hide the breakage, but to accept it as part of the history of the object.

Kintsugi bowl

An example of Kintsugi via Wikipedia

“From shattered pieces came rebirth and something often more beautiful than before,” DeVaney said.

He urged attendees to embrace the shifting nature of student learning and seize new opportunities to scale collaboration by leveraging the unique strengths of every institution. Through this collective action, our institutions become not only resilient to a changing world, but “antifragile” according to DeVaney.

“To become antifragile is not to avoid the stressors that shatter,” he said. “It is to break through and then see beauty in our scars.”

In her keynote address, Dr. Michelle Weise, Executive Director of the Sandbox Collaborative at Southern New Hampshire University, compared the two vectors of sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation. In the context of higher education, she said sustaining innovations tend to support student expectations while disruptive innovations recognize the shifting needs of 21st-century learners.

Weise discussed how organizations foster potentially disruptive growth by creating separate organizational units focusing on innovation. She used her office, the Sandbox Collaborative, as an example of how this could translate to higher education.

In addition, speakers representing six different institutions shared what educational R&D looks like at their college, university or system in a series of lightning talks. Themes from these brief presentations touched on constructing solutions with empirical data, redefining the value proposition for the Liberal Arts, creating context for innovation, connecting pathways between learning and employment and building relationships to scale new innovation.

Dr. Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Principal Investigator for the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, called the University of Michigan a “giant laboratory of education” as he described the three labs comprising U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation.

“Educational R&D is a collaborative thing, it means everybody is at the table,” he said.

Man writing on worksheetParticipants then turned to group discussions beginning with one-on-one pair interviews intended to build an understanding for each others’ experiences. Partners discussed their approaches to educational R&D and the pain points they’ve experienced in the pursuit of fostering equity-driven innovation. The pairs ultimately synthesized their partner’s needs and drew insights from their conversations to identify problem statements.

In small groups, participants shared their problem statements to identify a single problem to explore in greater depth. The teams approached the problem from the perspective of adopting the idea in service to the broader community.

Idea leads from each group presented their problem in a 60-second pitch to the larger group. Participants were then given the option to “jump ship” by joining another group after listening to each pitch. The newly formed groups continued to iterate on solutions to these programs, ultimately sharing their proposed solutions in a three-minute presentation to the larger group.

Woman writing on sticky noteThe groups discussed themes of benchmarking the impact of R&D outcomes, ways to better define student competency and mastery through assessment and solving the biggest innovation challenges through collective change. Participants discussed transforming higher education into an “open data” community as well as ways to catalog their successes and failures in the educational R&D process. They also plan to develop a framework to demystify the process for peer institutions launching innovation offices.

A willingness to build bridges of cross-institutional collaboration was ubiquitous throughout the event debrief. Many participants said they were surprised by the functional similarities between their institutions yet recognized the diversity in the size and scope in their approach to innovation.

These educational leaders said they will look to scale educational innovation and celebrate iterative change while maintaining the momentum initiated by the convening. Moving forward, participants said they intend to continue collaborative discussions and develop declarative statements guiding this transformational process. They also look to coin a term for this activity beyond “educational R&D,” “innovation” or “research.”

In his closing remarks, President Mark Schlissel called the event an “unprecedented gathering.” He said he saw this collaboration as a way institutions can fulfill and renew higher education’s social contract.

President Mark Schlissel“We’re at a moment where we have opportunities that are really going to change the nature of education for succeeding generations,” Schlissel said.

He praised the participants’ commitment to collaboration and encouraged them to enjoy the discovery process while taking the necessary risks to obtain the best results.

“We want to engage others and approach the world ahead as partners,” Schlissel said.