On the Eve of Sabbatical at the Office Academic Innovation: Q&A with Dr. Meghan Duffy

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

A little over four years ago the University of Michigan established the Office of Academic Innovation to foster a culture of innovation in learning at U-M. In creating a new model for academic R&D, we set out to explore bold, mission-aligned, and learner-centric opportunities situated in the context you might expect for a great public research university operating in a world where our understanding of “learner” is happily expanding every day.

To effectively foster a culture of innovation in learning we hoped to equip and empower faculty innovators, reimagine instructional teams for the twenty-first century, and present ourselves to our campus community as thought-partners earned through exemplary service. This model for supporting innovation has evolved quickly, embracing aspects of an internal consultancy, innovation fund, and incubator which, when combined, seems to provide a rather unique approach to academic R&D.

An important part of this evolution is the flexible model we’ve constructed for faculty, staff, and students who seek to engage in academic innovation for different reasons and at different levels of intensity. Focusing on faculty partners specifically, we’ve provided an environment where faculty can collaborate with our team on projects, join or lead communities of practice, and mentor aspiring faculty innovators. We’ve found that some faculty want to engage around a specific project or more broadly around a thematic area such as learning analytics or college preparedness. Increasingly though, faculty look to academic innovation for an open canvas to explore a wider set of ideas and questions. An example of the latter is our first faculty sabbatical at the Office of Academic Innovation supported by our Academic Innovation Fund.

I’m thrilled to welcome Dr. Meghan Duffy to our growing community of positive problem solvers as she gets ready to spend her sabbatical year at the Office of Academic Innovation starting next week. This is a new opportunity for our team to support a faculty innovator with her goals and to engage her in solving for some of our most exciting educational challenges. I had a chance to ask Meg a few questions about the year ahead. Her ideas and goals run cut across our top institutional strategic areas of focus (diversity, equity and inclusion, public engagement, and academic innovation). In our conversation we touched on student mental health, encouraging data literacy in historically underserved communities, supporting faculty interested in public engagement, and, of course, Daphnia!

We are excited to welcome Meg to our team and to explore other opportunities to support faculty who seek to advance their research and teaching and learning through academic innovation. Here’s my exchange with Meg:

1. Can you tell us about your current research interests and any current questions you’re asking about teaching and learning?

I’m an ecologist and evolutionary biologist by training, and my research interests in that area focus on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. My lab studies little shrimp-like creatures that live in lakes known as Daphnia. We use them to understand why disease outbreaks begin, why they end, and what determines their severity. We use Daphnia for this work both because they’re ecologically important and because they’ve emerged as a model system for understanding infectious diseases. We’ve focused on how the food web influences disease in a particular host species, how global change is influencing disease, and how multiple hosts and multiple parasites interact to drive patterns of disease. I think Daphnia are amazing little creatures that have a lot to teach us and am somewhat of a Daphnia evangelist.

I’ve increasingly begun to do research related to teaching and learning as well. Some of what I’m interested in relates to the main course I teach: introductory biology. I’m interested in understanding students views on ecology, evolution, and climate change when they enter the course and how those views change over time. I’m also very interested in understanding student mental health. Right now, we’re characterizing student mental health and knowledge and use of mental health resources. My goal is to eventually try to understand what we can change — in introductory courses and elsewhere — to improve student mental health. Finally, I’m also working on projects related to pre-college learning and data literacy. I’m interested in understanding how to improve data literacy, especially in historically underserved communities.

2. Why are you choosing to spend your upcoming sabbatical at the Office of Academic Innovation? What questions and activities are you hoping to explore?

I wanted to think of something I could do for my sabbatical that would allow me to do things that I wouldn’t get to do otherwise and stretch me in new directions. As I thought about different options, I realized that the Office of Academic Innovation would be the perfect sabbatical home for me, as it will let me work on projects that I’ve been really interested in but unable to fully dive into before. One of my biggest goals for my sabbatical is to spend more time thinking about how to better support public engagement by faculty. Right now, public engagement by faculty is something they need to do on top of all their other job responsibilities. I would like to think of models that make it so that faculty can choose to make public engagement an official part of their job responsibilities. Second, I’m interested in working on projects related to undergraduate education, including student mental health and learning in introductory biology. Third, I’m interested in working on some projects related to a data literacy activity I developed (with my postdoc Mary Rogalski) and teach to high school students in the Wolverine Pathways Program here at Michigan. I want to think more about how to assess the impact of Prove It, about how to expand it, and about how to effectively encourage data literacy more broadly. Fourth, I am currently working on some initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in ecology and evolutionary biology. I suspect that AI folks will have great ideas about how to improve and scale them. Finally, I am sure that there are things going on in AI that would really interest me but that I don’t know about yet. I’m looking forward to talking with people about other opportunities at AI!

3. The Academic Innovation team is focused on efforts that help U-M to create an open model for pre-college learning and preparation that broadens access and enhances participation. Can you tell us about the Prove-It program and how you are currently thinking about opportunities for pre-college learning?

Student in a computer lab facing a desktop computer with her left arm raised clenched in a fist

Student in the Prove It project “fist pumps” after successfully plotting data for her analysis.

Prove It is a project that I developed in collaboration with a postdoctoral researcher in my lab, Dr. Mary Rogalski. The idea that motivated this activity is that we are all presented with a firehose of information on a daily basis and need skills for processing and understanding that information, but very few people receive formal training in how to do so. To try to address this, we developed an inquiry based activity for high school students centered on using data to address questions they care about. We wanted to help the students develop the skills and confidence needed to critically evaluate information and work with data in the future. We think pretty much all high schoolers could use this training! We decided to work with the Wolverine Pathways program, which works with students from Detroit, Southfield, and Ypsilanti.

Our goal with this activity was to take students through the inquiry process. They had to identify questions, refine them into something that could be addressed with publicly available data, assess whether information was reliable, draw conclusions from their data and present findings in an accessible way. The students asked a wide range of questions — ranging from what effect LeBron James has on his teammates to whether police shootings of unarmed individuals varies by race or ethnicity.

We’re currently revising this activity to teach to Wolverine Pathways students this June and are thinking about how to refine it and improve the assessment we do of its effectiveness. I’d also like to think about how to make the materials we develop more broadly available and how to modify it for different audiences.

4. We are also focused on creating a participatory and inclusive model for public engagement that accelerates the construction and sharing of new knowledge through public dialogue. You recently received the first President’s Award for Public Impact. How would you describe your preferred future of public engagement at U-M?

I definitely share this goal! I’ve thought about this especially in terms of how to better support faculty who are interested in public engagement. I don’t think all faculty should be required to do public engagement, but I think that people who are interested in it should be better supported. One thing I am particularly interested in exploring is whether we can learn from the extension model of land grant universities. While there are differences between states in how extension works, the general approach is finding out what problems are of interest to stakeholders (e.g., farmers, fishermen, etc.) and bringing them information that is relevant to their lives and experiences. This is public engagement! Faculty who have extension appointments have that as part of their formal job expectations and evaluations. I’m interested in exploring whether this model can be applied to public engagement more broadly.

I’m interested in thinking more about how to support others who are interested in public engagement, as well. As just one example: many graduate students are already doing public engagement, but this is often unrecognized. I’m interested in thinking about how we can better support and reward this sort of work.

5. What should Academic Innovation affiliated faculty, staff, and students ask you about while you’re on sabbatical?

Anything they’re curious about! And, if they’re curious about Daphnia, I promise to do my best not to go on about them forever.

Scaling Homegrown Educational Technology

Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate

“Let’s take a leadership role in edtech since it’s part of our core business,” said Candace Thille, former Assistant Professor of Education at Stanford and current Director of Learning Science and Engineering at Amazon, in a recent webinar on the evolving role of faculty in an era of increasing digital education technology. This is what we are doing in the Office of Academic Innovation, where we launched a “homegrown” edtech accelerator that’s building and scaling digital pedagogy within and beyond the University of Michigan.

What happens to faculty technological innovation?

In many instances its usefulness does not extend beyond the academic departments in which it was born. Why? Because the infrastructure does not exist to scale it. The Office of Academic Innovation solves this problem by providing a team of software developers, user experience designers, and behavioral scientists, who work with faculty champions, to iterate quality educational technology. The Office of Academic Innovation, then, can do what faculty and departments cannot do on their own-grow educational technology tools from innovation to infrastructure, personalizing education at scale.

What’s the Office of Academic Innovation Building?

We started building software in 2015, and currently have seven tools in our portfolio. Although diverse, these tools all center on the intersection of teaching and learning and technology. Some, like ViewPoint, make it easier for faculty to implement simulation pedagogy. ViewPoint takes what was a paper and pencil process and is now a web-based application for instructors to plan, and students to execute, a deep learning experience. Hear more about the origins of ViewPoint in my recent podcast with ViewPoint creator, Dr. Elisabeth Gerber.

Screenshot of the ViewPoint interface including left-hand navigation and windows for "my role," "groups and roles," "my schedule" and "news."


Others, like ECoach, are tailored communication systems providing individualized messages to students in large courses, increasing engagement with, and ultimately the academic success of, learners. ECoach uses complementary data streams including institutional, course, and data students submit themselves to provide timely and personalized messages on how to navigate big classes, where faculty cannot provide ample individualized attention to every student (our Statistics 250 class, for example has upwards of 2,000 students enrolled in it every fall and winter term).

Screenshot of the ECoach interface with a personalized message for a user named "Kathleen" including a course grade scale showing a a current grade of 83 percent and a goal of 96 percent, a "to do" list for the week of October 17, quick links, and a message center.


ART 2.0 visualizes course and instructor data in meaningful ways to help guide class discovery and selection. ART 2.0 helps bust myths on the University of Michigan campus about things like “the workload in this class is overwhelming” or “no one ever gets an A in this course.”

A screenshot of the ART 2.0 interface for a Physics 140 class including a description of the course, a grade distribution bar graph, advisory prerequisites, enforced prerequisites, credits, and course evaluations.


M-Write, founded on writing-to-learn pedagogy, uses smart software to more easily implement writing exercises in large STEM courses. The M-Write team has developed and implemented a dashboard and process for peer reviews so students can evaluate one another’s work on concepts in courses like chemistry and economics. M-Write integrates seamlessly with the Canvas Learning Management System for a positive user experience for students.

A screenshot of the M-Write interface showing a peer review page for a student including a due date, word count, and topics covered as well as boxes detailing the reviews given and reviews received.


These examples showcase the breadth of technological innovation happening in the Office of Academic Innovation, while not minimizing its focus on improving teaching and learning through digital intervention.

How does the Office of Academic Innovation increase the number of faculty and courses employing its tools while ensuring the pedagogy on which our tools rely scales in parallel with the technology?

In the Office of Academic Innovation we grapple with this question as we try and learn from diverse strategies that increase faculty engagement with our digital tools. When we talk about our work and our team we say we blend thought partnership with exemplary service. This approach embodies how we work with faculty in adopting our tools. Some teams, like ECoach, invite faculty to work with them frequently throughout an academic term on the content and cadence of how messages are delivered to students. Other teams, like Gradecraft, host communities of practice to ensure that pedagogy and technology are not divorced from one another as our user bases expand. We know, for example, that embracing gameful pedagogy including concepts like giving students many choices in course assignments and helping them try (and sometimes fail) assignments without jeopardizing their grade are core tenets of gameful course design. Not only do we offer faculty who collaborate with us opportunities to help inform new iterations of our tools, but we also use our software to conduct teaching and learning research. For example, we have used data collected in tools like Problem Roulette and ECoach to study gender performance differences in STEM courses.

Our approaches to partnering with faculty to scale our digital educational technology will continue to expand as our user base does too, positively changing the teaching and learning landscape at the University of Michigan in its third century.

Amy Homkes-Hayes will present on “Growing Digital Pedagogy in the Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan” this week at the 2018 OLC Innovate Conference in Nashville, TN where her talk has been awarded “Best in Track” in Effective Tools, Toys, and Technologies.

Get to Know ViewPoint: Next Up in the Origin Stories Podcast Series

Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate

ViewPoint. Origin stories podcast series.What happens when a U-M faculty member comes to the Office of Academic Innovation with a good idea for software that doesn’t exist? We build it. In our next episode of the Origin Stories podcast series we talk to Dr. Elisabeth Gerber, Jack L. Walker, Jr. Professor of Public Policy and Associate Dean for Research and Policy Engagement at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, who came to the Office of Academic Innovation with an idea to build software to support simulation pedagogy. For those new to Origin Stories, we tell the tales of why and how the our digital edtech tools were created. We focus on learning from our faculty partners about how their ideas for improving teaching and learning with educational technology software came to be.

Dr. Gerber talks to us about the “a-ha” moment she had when planning one of her largest role-playing simulations, the Integrated Policy Exercise, and how that moment spurred her to reach out to us where ViewPoint was taken from concept to reality. Listen to Dr. Gerber talk about ViewPoint’s features, and how it makes planning and running simulations far easier to produce better learning experiences for students. Dr. Gerber shares what it is like working with the Office of Academic Innovation team, and her ideas for the future of ViewPoint. Take a listen by clicking below.

A New Team is Discovering its Identity – Reflections from HAILstorm Three

This article was originally posted on 4/2/2018 on Inside Higher Ed

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Two weeks have passed since I had the privilege of attending my third HAILStorm, this time hosted by CSU Channel Islands, a young institution with a big story to tell about the prize that lies at the intersection of academic innovation and upward mobility. The first HAILStorm was hosted in January 2017 by my home institution, the University of Michigan and the second in Fall 2017 by Stanford University. HAILstorms one and two revealed an emergent network hungry for new connections. HAILStorm three, lightly structured by design, and featuring representatives from a range of institutions that reflect the diversity of the US higher education system, yielded shared interests worthy of pursuit. We pursue these shared interests while carefully establishing a new network that resists unnecessary structure.

As a community of academic innovation leaders grows, the informal nature of these occasional huddles continues to be a feature, not a bug. Yet convergence around several emerging themes suggests an opportunity to turn from new connections to collaborative action.

A new team is discovering its identity.

This blogpost goes live roughly twenty minutes before tipoff as the University of Michigan men’s basketball team plays for the NCAA national championship. I’m not a casual college basketball fan so it’s not lost on me that there is something special about this particular Michigan team. As I went through my various pre-game March Madness superfan rituals this weekend, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between this team and an emerging group of HAILstormers.

Michigan’s men’s basketball coach John Beilein may have said it best in his pre-game press conference when asked about having success with lightly recruited players, “We aren’t amassing talent. We’re building a team… it’s about development”. Nearly all of the HAILStorm participants I spoke with in Camarillo talked of teams and new models for professional development that would enable academic innovation at a scale we know to be necessary. Building effective teams in the new era of academic innovation is a continuous effort for leaders of a growing number of units established to create catalysts for reimagining higher education.

Or perhaps it was the warm-up t-shirts Michigan players wore for much of the season which distill commitment to a simple mantra, “do more say less.” New academic innovation units around the country are turning ideas into action. They are talking less and enabling more. Thought partnership through exemplary service. Faculty innovators and student creators come to our units to partner, to do, to learn, to iterate. But ‘say less’ doesn’t mean ‘say nothing’. We have to tell stories along the way and do so with data wherever possible. Importantly though, we occasionally need to take smart risks before the data exists.

Those following this Michigan basketball team also notice something different about the style of play as compared with prior seasons. Coach Beilein has long been hailed as an offensive genius. But this year’s team plays defense too – really good lock-down defense. This balance gives options in a game filled with uncertainty – more rotations, greater adaptability, built to set pace or react to it.

HAILstormers also live with great uncertainty. In fact, we’re charged by our institutions to help our constituents to become more comfortable living in a world where unpredictability is the norm. With uncertainty and change stipulated as persistent conditions, HAILstorm three discussions surfaced at least four areas of shared interest that suggest a pivot from new connections to collaborative action.

Equity and Innovation: First, HAILstormers are deeply committed to pursuing opportunities at the intersection of equity and academic innovation. Many of our institutions have made public commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion. A consistent theme across our conversations was a desire to further entangle our academic R&D initiatives with goals for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. Though many think we can and should set the bar even higher and establish targets for upward social and economic mobility.

A few days before HAILstorm three, University of Maryland, Baltimore County captured national attention (harder and harder to do in an attention economy) with the rarest of rare March Madness upsets. The sixteenth seed triumphed over a number one seed. College basketball fans frantically googled ‘UMBC’. But for those of us paying attention to trailblazers in innovation and equality, UMBC, like Georgia State and Arizona State, raises banners regularly when it comes to serving students who are most in need of access to higher education. We should contribute to a movement that values outcomes such as mobility when designating elite status in higher education.

Sustainable Models for Academic Innovation: Second, HAILstormers are exploring different scenarios that provide pathways to sustainability for our relatively new organizational models. The funding models, cost structures, and revenue streams for our organizational units vary dramatically. So too does the risk tolerance of our respective institutions. There is benefit to this group when we actively explore different approaches to sustainability and to share openly the relative success of different strategies and tactics. Our increasing comfort with sharing failures will benefit our institutions, our constituents, and a broader mix of higher education actors seeking to reimagine higher education.

Home-grown Innovation and Commercialization: Third, HAILstormers are designing new models for edtech commercialization. Many of our institutions are developing new technology to advance learning. We all know the extent of investment in edtech companies over the last decade. I hope this investment will continue. I also hope that institutions like those represented at the HAILstorm will continue to pursue different models of edtech development that puts great emphasis on developing tools with faculty and student users and thinking critically about privacy and learning analytics. Multiple approaches give us the best chance of dramatically improving access and mobility and of realizing true personalization at scale.

Building for the Future with Human Capital Development: Fourth, HAILstormers seek to close the human capital supply/demand mismatch in our emergent field. By higher education standards, many of our organizations have grown very quickly. Our collective demand for talented and positive problem solvers is currently outpacing supply. Ultimately, we will see the market correct itself but the HAILstormers agree that there is an opportunity to accelerate this shift. Most of my new colleagues at the HAILstorm have successfully recruited or developed talent to take on roles without precedent. We are learning quickly about the traits of academic innovation professionals and need to think creatively and collaboratively about how to expand the pool. Without solving for this particular problem, our work will remain boutique in the grand bazaar of higher education

There are many other shared interests that inspire action among this group. But this should give us plenty to pursue as we grow a community bound together by a shared commitment to advancing learning and inspiring positive impact through sustainable approaches to academic innovation.

A new team is discovering its identity. Back to doing more and saying less.