Reimagining Higher Education from the Inside Out

The mounting case for investment in academic R&D.

This article was originally posted on 8/30/2017 on Inside Higher Ed

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

It’s time to reimagine higher education from the inside out. Whether you prefer revolution or renaissance, it’s clear we have entered a new era. As we begin to master the art of reach, bringing unprecedented numbers of lifelong learners into the system and making the system big on the outside, we must not forget to also make higher education big on the inside. Let me explain. To help, I may call upon some summer reading from Musk, Wells, and Asimov.

I’m fascinated by Elon Musk’s track record for innovation in complex, highly regulated industries – transportation (Tesla), energy (SolarCity), and aerospace (SpaceX). In Ashlee Vance’s biography on Musk’s captivating journey to the entrepreneurial pantheon, it is clear that to the Tesla CEO, everything is a design problem. There is a particular gem of a quote when Musk is asked about differentiation and designing the Tesla Model X. Responding with Muskian swagger and near contempt of inferior design efforts, Musk responds, “Anyone can make a car big on the outside. The trick is to make it big on the inside.” Musk goes on to describe the substandard experience of climbing into the third row of a competitor’s vehicle only to have your legs pressed up to your chin.

You can only make a high performance vehicle so heavy. Tesla designed the outside of the Model X with lightweight aluminum body panels in order to reserve heavier items for the optimization of the user experience on the inside of the car. Musk wants everyone to have a great experience, regardless of where they sit.

As we reimagine higher education from the inside out, how do we avoid building a third row of seats? As we solve for diversity and create more flexible pathways into a more porous university, how do we anticipate and solve for problems around inclusion and equity?

As we solve design problems in higher education, we must anticipate the new problems that follow. As an important example, we know we need to solve for diversity. We need more, on every dimension. We know the many benefits of diversity and we know our mission. Full steam ahead. Yet as we make large strides forward in attracting more diverse learners to our campuses, we have to anticipate new design challenges around inclusion and equity. If the new students and lifelong learners that enter our campuses are forced into third-row contortionism, have we really solved the problem? It’s not personalization or scale, it’s both.

To say this differently, and by way of a classic Simpsons reference, our goal is not to build the Canyonero. Anyone with funding can chase and indiscriminately add shiny features to make an institution huge. Our design choices must increase student learning. Fortunately, our emerging academic R&D models use evidence-based design and experimentation to create catalysts for academic innovation in the service of this goal.

Yet we can’t underestimate the barriers to diversity and inclusion. Today we experience digital polarization and design higher education solutions to reverse the trend. But this trend isn’t new. Look no further than H.G. Wells and The Time Machine to see how some problems endure. Here’s Wells in 1898 on the refinement of education for the few and not the many:

“Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people –due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor — is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land.  About London, for instance, perhaps half of the prettier country is shut in against intrusion. And this same widening gulf- which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich- will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent.”

Sound familiar? Some problems aren’t new. Happily, there are new opportunities to solve them. Technology and analytics present new opportunities to expand the reach and quality of experiences we provide. Yet technology is a tool. We need creative models for academic R&D to uncover the most mission-aligned opportunities to leverage technological, pedagogical, and business model innovation. Good news, there’s a positive storm swirling.

In January I had the privilege of delivering opening remarks at the first Harvesting Innovation for Learners gathering, or the HAIL Storm.  The HAIL Storm was born out of shared interest across a range of institutions to establish new models for academic research & development to improve access, quality, and equity in student learning. At the time of our first huddle, I suggested that we have an antifragility problem in higher education and called upon the Japanese art of kintsugi as a heuristic. There is beauty in brokenness and opportunity to go beyond institutional resilience. Through regular exchange with my HAIL Storm colleagues over the months since January, it’s clear to me that our emergent academic R&D models are progressing rapidly to solve some of our most important design challenges.

Through new models of academic R&D we seek and share evidence, enhance our organizational self-awareness, and create space to solve the most important design challenges in higher education.  We are creating antifragile institutions that become stronger when challenged and when exposed to chaos and uncertainty.

In mid-September, we’ll convene the second HAIL Storm discussion, this time in Palo Alto on the beautiful campus of Stanford University. The case for investment in academic R&D is mounting as we ready ourselves for a second exchange of ideas and another opportunity to challenge each other to push our models forward.

In the meantime at my own institution, the case for academic R&D at the University of Michigan is clear, and clearly supported by our President and Provost. As we reimagine education at a 21st-century global, public, research university, our academic R&D model is designed to create an open model for pre-college learning and preparation that broadens access and enhances participation; a personalized, rigorous, and inclusive model for residential learning grounded in learning analytics and experimentation; a flexible and networked model for global and lifelong learning that embraces the evolution of the “porous” university; and a participatory and inclusive model for public engagement that accelerates knowledge dissemination and information collection.

As we gather again for the second HAIL Storm, I hope to explore the following with my colleagues across higher ed. As we advance diversity, how should we think ahead to create more inclusive 21st century learning environments? As we advance personalized learning, how should we think about shared experiences? As we advance more flexible models for lifelong learning, how should we think about hybrid learning environments that maximize student learning? As we advance public engagement, how should we think about activating public concern and encouraging multi-directional exchange of knowledge and information?

It is important that we focus on “should” and not “could”. To create a future higher education model where everyone can participate, we need to acknowledge that some problems have been around for some time. We have to embrace antifragility in order to experiment, learn, and share. We have to identify the most important design problems, and anticipate the problems to solve for next. We have to be contrarian. Only then will we understand our possible and probable futures and maximize the likelihood of reaching our preferred future.

With such a complex set of challenges in front of us, what do we need to get started? As usual, Isaac Asimov makes the complex simple. From his classic Foundation series: “The psychohistoric trend of a planet-full of people contains huge inertia. To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia.”

As we move toward the second HAIL Storm discussion there are many design challenges to attack with similar inertia. I’m reminded that the problems we face vary widely: some are old, some are new, some are borrowed, and some are blue. Wells reminds us that a widening gulf between rich and poor is an old problem in want of new solutions. A new problem comes from our success. Last month, Michigan surpassed 6 million enrollments in massive open online courses since launching our first MOOC in 2012. That sounds like the start to solving an access problem. But how do we avoid building a third row of seats? As we engage more deeply in strategic partnerships and expand the ‘build versus buy decision’ to ‘build, buy, or partner’, we increasingly borrow the design challenges of other organizations. Of course, some challenges are also uniquely ours. While institutions of higher education have many shared interests and face many common challenges, they are also distinct. For Michigan, we need to design for our own institutional mission, strengths, and opportunities. Something (go) blue!

As we increase investment of energy and resource into new models for academic R&D, like Musk, Wells, and Asimov, we need to look carefully at the past and present while peering around the corner and into the future. We need to understand what futures are possible, probable, and preferred. Through increased investment in academic R&D, we can go beyond the design of something simply big and make higher education big on the inside.

James DeVaney (@devaneygoblue) is the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan where he leads the Office of Academic Innovation.

Gearing up for Fall 17 in the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG)

Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate


The Fall 2017 semester is almost here and much like farmers gearing up to harvest their fall crops, in the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) we are readying to reap the efforts of our summer development cycle. In DIG we use an iterative process to software design and development. What does this mean exactly? Essentially, we continually improve our tools — produce better code, strengthen user interface and apply behavioral science, to the the digital teaching and learning tools we’ve championed here at the University of Michigan (U-M). Iterating on our tools happens in parallel with scaling our user bases. This fall we are excited to show off new features and looks in our suite of software, while also highlighting some of our new users. Here are just a few of the things we are looking forward to:

The Problem Roulette Re-Launch

Problem RouletteIn 2011, Problem Roulette was born. Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Astronomy Gus Evrard created the Problem Roulette tool as a way to provide web-based practice of past exam-like problems. Problem Roulette offered students equal access to a low-risk practice space to develop domain-specific competencies. Its use quickly expanded to eight courses and 15,000 study sessions per month during the fall and winter academic terms. For the past several months DIG, in partnership with the Gameful Learning Lab (GLL), is re-designing and re-coding Problem Roulette substantially by improving the look and feel of the tool, while also increasing the ease of use for both faculty and students. Not only are we eager to re-launch the new and improved Problem Roulette, but we are especially keen on introducing new features including:

  • Exam mode, where students can do timed practice across multiple domains to mimic the experience of taking a test and creating their own practice exam templates;
  • Group study where students can work cooperatively with one another on problems.

ECoach Expansion

ECoachWhat would it look like to deliver personalized content to students in a large course where faculty cannot otherwise easily reach each and every one? Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy and Education and Faculty Director of the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, asked this very question several years ago, and sought to seek a technological solution to this pressing question. ECoach was Professor McKay’s solution. Initially developed by a research team as a way to create personal connection and support for students in introductory physics, chemistry, statistics and biology classes, the application has now grown into a tailored communication system built on behavioral science techniques like motivational affirmation. Students use ECoach to receive personalized assistance in large classes, learn best practices, discover opportunities in areas of interest and avoid common pitfalls. As ECoach becomes more refined, we are actively seeking to increase its use in large courses throughout U-M. We are excited to announce that this fall ECoach will go live in nine courses:

  • New ECoach courses include Biology 171 (Introductory Biology: Ecology and Evolution) and two sections of Econ 101 (Principles of Economics I);
  • ECoach is coming back to Physics 140 (General Physics I);
  • ECoach will remain in Chem 130 (General Chemistry), EECS 183 (Elementary Programming Concepts), EECS 280 (Programming and Introductory Data Structures), Engr 101 (Intro Comp & Prog) and Stats 250 (Introduction to Statistics and Data Analysis)

In addition to these large introductory courses in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), we are also eager to pilot ECoach in an applied liberal arts course:

  • ALA 125 (Positioning Yourself for a Successful Internship)

This kind of course is new for the ECoach team, based on factors like the course’s duration (it’s two seven week sessions), the kind of assignments the course requires (no exams), and its grading structure (pass/fail versus letter grades).

Finally, while the First Year ECoach’s content will remain focused on first year students, all U-M students will now have access to it so any student who needs a refresher on, for example, best ways to study, will be able to view what ECoach has to say.

M-Write Developments

M-Write logoWhile we, rightfully, spend ample time helping students become better writers, how do we help students use writing-to-learn by asking them to explain what they know? M-Write, founded by Anne Gere, Arthur F. Thurnau, Gertrude Buck Collegiate Professor of Education and English Language and Literature and Director of the Sweetland Writing Center and Ginger Shultz, Assistant Professor, Chemistry, address this very issue by employing writing-to-learn pedagogy through digital infrastructure, enabling faculty to infuse writing into large gateway courses. As Professor Gere and Professor Shultz work to expand the use of M-Write in concert by facilitating faculty development, DIG is focusing on making improvements to and expanding the digital components of the tool. Over the fall semester we are eager to work on:

  • An enhanced peer review tool that has benefited from DIG user experience expertise to create an easy-to-use way for students to seek peer-to-peer feedback on writing-to-learn assignments. Our enhanced user experience will also extend to instructors and writing fellows increasing the ease with which writing assignments may be reviewed;
  • An automated text analysis tool that will work with trained writing fellows to provide feedback to students on the quality and content of their writing, and to lessen the work of grading writing in large courses for instructors and writing fellows;
  • A long-term integration with ECoach to send personalized feedback to students on their writing based on the results of the automated text analysis coupled with writing fellows’ review.

As you can see, fall is an exhilarating time here in DIG as more and more students, faculty, and staff use the tools we continue to iterate on. We look forward to planting another crop of DIG seeds and watching them grow till our next release of digital edtech made at Michigan.

Reflections on the Gameful Learning Summer Institute

Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab

Back in June, I wrote about the (then upcoming) Gameful Course Design Summer Institute. Our goals for the event, held on July 24 and 25, were to introduce a new group of instructors, from within and beyond the University of Michigan, to the ideas of gameful course design. Attendees included K-12 teachers, higher ed instructional designers and educational technologists, and professors from a range of institutions. We hoped that giving people dedicated time, away from the requirements of everyday work, would open up space for them to imagine and create new learning environments and experiences. Beyond giving individuals a new toolkit for course design, we hoped to seed a community of adventurers: educators who want to experiment with new approaches to assessing student learning and blaze new trails to engage students.

The event began  with welcoming remarks from James Hilton, Vice Provost of Academic Innovation and Dean of Libraries, and a dynamic keynote from Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the U-M School of Information and School of Education. Fishman’s talk explored ten principles of game design that make games excellent and engaging learning environments, and posed the question, “What might your classes look like if you applied these principles to the design of your courses?”

I followed the keynote with a mini-workshop to guide instructors through a set of exercises to articulate their teaching philosophies, identify gameful design principles that align with those philosophies, and employing practices they can use in their course design and teaching to embody those philosophies and principles.

Evan Straub, Learning Experience Designer in the Gameful Learning Lab, and emcee/creator of the Institute, led participants into the heart of the event: working through a design process for their courses. She provided a set of worksheets to help participants visually sketch out possible assessment structures and to guide them through developing a model for the point structures in their new courses. We capped off Day 1 with a scavenger hunt around central campus and downtown Ann Arbor, followed by an opportunity to socialize at a casual reception.

“Inspiration” was the focus of Day 2. We launched the day with a panel of U-M community members who have had a range of gameful experiences. Panel participants were:

  • Pamela Bogart, Lecturer and Digital Initiatives Coordinator, English Language Institute, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
  • Monica Chen, BSI ‘17 and User Experience Intern, Digital Innovation Greenhouse
  • Jandi Kelly, Doctoral Student, Center for the Study of Higher and Professional Education, School of Education
  • Mika LaVaque-Manty, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and Director of LSA Honors Program

Much of the rest of the day was collaborative working time so participants could share their designs with one another, get feedback and refine those designs.

Without a doubt one of the highlights of the day was the keynote address from Paul Darvasi, Educator, Writer & Game Designer, Royal St. George’s College/York University. Paul has explored many intersections of games and education, which he writes about at During the keynote he talked about his work developing pervasive games for learning. In his classrooms,  students can choose to be immersed in a role-playing game to learn about literature or technology. It was fascinating!

We are already preparing for next year’s event. In addition to the workshops, we hope to add a conference which will include presentations from some of this year’s attendees sharing the success and challenges of their newly designed gameful courses. Save the date: July 23-25 — we hope to see you there!

The Digital Education & Innovation Lab is Hiring Talented Problem Solvers

Dave Malicke, Operations Lead

The Digital Education and Innovation Lab (DEIL) within the Office of Academic Innovation partners with faculty to drive curricular innovation, and as a strategic priority for the University of Michigan, our work continues to grow. To help us keep pace with this accelerated growth we are excited to announce a number of new open positions. With the addition of new members to our creative team we will continue to unlock new opportunities for innovation in learning for the U-M community and learners around the world. These positions are:

Project Manager, Digital Learning Initiatives
The Project Manager reports to the Project Facilitation Lead and collaborates with faculty, course teams, instructional designers, learning experience designers, instructional, media specialists, external platform partners and other project managers to manage the scoping, design and development of online courses and other learning initiatives.

Learning Experience Designer
The Learning Experience Designer works closely with faculty, project managers, programmers, researchers, and media specialists to design and enhance courses and learning experiences. This role is a key contributor in expanding the capabilities of Academic Innovation and the School of Social Work to achieve our vision of transforming education. By leading instructional design processes, the Learning Experience Designer role assists faculty in incorporating best practices, learning theories, and engagement techniques in the development of new courses and the transformation of existing courses.

Community Engagement Manager
The Community Engagement Manager will collaborate with faculty, project managers, learning experience designers, and media producers to develop and lead a community of Course Advocates in the monitoring and maintenance of active courses, and the discovery of new audiences. This role signals a new opportunity to encourage participation in online courses, such as MOOCs, and to find new audiences for our digital initiatives

Course Iteration Manager
The Course Iteration Manager will collaborate with faculty, project managers, learning experience designers, and media producers to manage the review and iteration of online courses and other learning initiatives through the use of design and data driven thinking.

Media and Technology Solutions Engineer
A key component of the Media and Technology Solutions Engineer role is the development and management of a media asset management system for Academic Innovation. The incumbent will work to develop and maintain recording studio infrastructure, assess and address technical issues, identify opportunities for enhancement of workflows, develop new tools and technologies to support the advancement of innovation in teaching and learning, and participate in proactively designing a work environment where digital assets and workflows support efficiency and experimentation.

With more than 6 million enrollments across 112 courses, 61 of which are currently available on Coursera and edX, courses such as Python for Everybody, Data Science Ethics, Social Work Practice: Advocating Social Justice and Change and exciting new global learning events in the Teach-Out Series, there are tremendous opportunities at DEIL to research and design learning experiences for the 21st century. The evolution of design in academic innovation is far from over, and we hope to continue our exploration with you on the team.

20+ U-M Initiatives Supporting Social Impact and Public Engagement

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

Coursera recently announced a series of 14 empowering and transformative learning experiences from institutions around the world addressing difficult issues facing global society today.

#LearnActImpact from Coursera is designed to encourage learners to explore these courses in depth and apply their learning at the individual, community and societal level. In light of the University of Michigan’s longstanding commitment to public engagement and impact, the Office of Academic Innovation continues to support the University’s ongoing social contract by expanding access to educational resources in the areas of equity, diversity and inclusion, social justice, environment and sustainability and more.

In creating a culture of innovation in learning, we have partnered with many faculty innovators and academic units to create new opportunities for on campus and global learners to engage around topics most important to addressing societal, economic and political problems.

We encourage you to explore these educational opportunities and engage in thoughtful discussion about these important global challenges.

Group of young people planting in a treeAct On Climate: Steps to individual, community and political action, School for Environment and SustainabilityDeveloped by a team of faculty, staff and students, this new MOOC encourages and supports social action to address and respond to climate change at the individual, community and political levels.

Man speaking to crowd and illustration of a red AIDS ribbonAIDS: Fear and Hope, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Learn about the economic, social and political factors and basic biology of the virus, HIV, and the disease it causes, AIDS, as well as the progress of scientific research and medical treatments.

Lady Justice sculptureData Science Ethics, College of Engineering Explore how ethics apply to data ownership, different aspects of privacy, how to get informed consent, and what it means to be fair.

Democratic to Authoritarian RuleDemocratic to Authoritarian Rule, School for Environment and Sustainability Understand how contemporary changes in political systems fit into the larger historical context of how countries shift between democratic and authoritarian governments in this Teach-Out.

Fake News, Facts, and Alternative FactsFake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Learn how to distinguish between credible news sources and identify information biases in this Teach-Out to become a critical consumer of information.

Woman pointing to a crowd of business professionals raising their handsLeading for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Higher Education, School of EducationExplore new approaches to leadership in higher education in the context of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMastersLeading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters, School of EducationGain new knowledge and core skills to advance educational instruction through educational policy, reform and practice.

Children working on desktop computers in a library computer labPublic Library Management, School of InformationLibrary professionals can expand their toolkit of management strategies in this new series of courses.

Yes check boxSecuring Digital Democracy, College of Engineering Learn what every citizen should know about the security risks, and future potential, of electronic voting and Internet voting.

Saluting veteranService Transformed: Lessons in U.S. Veteran Centered Care, Medical School Learn the origins of Academic Medical Centers and Veterans Administration affiliations, recognize and manage the influence of bias, class, and power on clinical encounters and reflect on the biases that affect U.S. veterans.

Smiling people sitting on a benchSocial Work: Practice, Policy and Research MicroMasters, School of Social Work Better understand social work core theories and practices.

Stand up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussing Science that MattersStand Up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussion Science that Matters,  College of Literature, Science, and the Arts & School of Public Health – Develop strategies to effectively bridge communications between public audiences and scientific researchers in this Teach-Out.

The Future of Obamacare - Repeal, Repair, or Replace?The Future of Obamacare: Repeal, Repair, or Replace?, School of Public Health Understand the facets of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and how different options for its future will impact the U.S. healthcare landscape in this Teach-Out.

Young man looking in the distance standing in front of a wall of graffitiYouth Civil Rights Academy, School of Social Work An interactive, digital portal for high school students to learn about their rights in a modern day context, share their stories and experiences and discover resources for effecting change at different levels.

In addition to these initiatives, the Michigan community continues to engage around topics that align closely with our commitments to impact and public engagement. The following new courses and learning experiences are currently in development.

Building a Business for Social Impact, Ross School of Business Explore if, when and how to launch a social enterprise.

Centering (IM)Visible Voices, School of Education Explore the lived experiences of historically marginalized individuals.

Community Organizing for Social Justice in Diverse Democracy, School of Social Work Examine strategies for organizing for social justice in a diverse democratic society.

Governing Sustainability, School for Environment and Sustainability Examine sustainability governance strategies of real-world decision makers.

Mass Incarceration in the U.S.: Toward Decarceration, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Explore an accessible and educational frame to thoughtfully examine the history, societal impacts, and efficacy of the American penal system.

Storytelling for Social Change, School of Music, Theatre and Dance Learn how theatre can motivate social change and activism.

Upcoming Teach-Outs The next round of weekend-long, global community learning events will focus on modern civil rights and liberties, the evolution of the Internet, privacy and identity in a Big Data era and sleep deprivation.

Using Digital Modules to Holistically Prepare Students for Sustainable Community Engagement, School of Social Work Learn how to effectively and respectfully engage in, work alongside, and transition from a community-based initiative.

We encourage faculty innovators and cross disciplinary teams to help us continue to fulfill the University’s commitment to social impact by partnering with us! Learn how you can get involved. We also ask the greater to community to share their ideas, recommendations and enriching experiences for new innovative approaches in support of social engagement in the Ideas2017 Challenge.