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January 2021 Director Update

Dear Center for Academic Innovation Community,

We began 2021 with harrowing images from the Capitol. We continue to observe injustice all around us, while indifference to the miseries of others impedes compassion and reconciliation. Only three weeks into a new year, and it hardly feels prophetic to declare that 2021 will become an important year in our history. I find myself inspired by the theme of Monday’s MLK Day Symposium at the University of Michigan: Where do we go from here?

As we move precariously through historic impeachment and inauguration events, I imagine a different future. I imagine a future where integrity is reclaimed, information is reliable, positive ideas flourish, inclusion is central to our shared values, and institutions are strengthened. With unrest and tragedy all around us, it is clear that we cannot simply turn the page and expect to find a healthy and just world. New chapters need to be written.

We all have the opportunity to look inward to determine how we — as individuals, communities, and organizations —  can contribute to a more healthy and just future. At the Center for Academic Innovation (CAI), we aim to do our part by creating better opportunities for learners on campus, across the State of Michigan, and around the world to understand and solve society’s most complex problems. To make progress toward this goal in 2021, we are asking ourselves many questions. Who are we reaching, and for whom do the doors of opportunity remain closed? How might we elevate voices that are traditionally less well represented? Which educational opportunities are we designing to be more accessible and affordable? Do those educational opportunities support the development of purpose-driven leaders? How are we exploring increasingly complex problems? Which learning innovations are working for whom?

While the first few weeks of 2021 are unsettling, we feel a sense of purpose in the learning innovation community. Over the last several years, CAI has developed a large portfolio of open learning initiatives. We’ve now surpassed 14 million enrollments from more than 8 million learners, and we are part of an even larger movement to transform access to higher education. Class Central recently released A Review of MOOC Stats and Trends in 2020 that states there are now more than 180 million learners who have enrolled in MOOCs since 2012. Among U-M’s partners — Coursera, FutureLearn, and edX — there are now 125 million learners. Class Central reports that one-third of the learners that have ever registered on a MOOC platform joined in 2020. If we can build thriving learning communities at scale, imagine what we can accomplish.

We invite our faculty innovators; our partners at Coursera, FutureLearn, and edX; and our many colleagues across the learning innovation community to join us in better serving this growing global community to help each other thrive in an information age. Now, more than ever, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s words ring true, “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

Understanding what’s working, and for whom, is so important to our continued efforts to expand access and end educational privilege. This is why we’re excited to kick off this year’s Data Showcase, a month of data visualization, conversation, and inspiration about learning innovation.

It’s also critical we develop new methods for understanding and addressing complex problems. We recently announced a second wave of projects that are leveraging extended reality technologies. Through an unrelenting 2020, we’ve gained a greater appreciation of the hidden and complex systems that shape our lives. As problem spaces become more complex and the stakes feel higher than ever before, our pre-pandemic predictions about the transformative power of XR technologies put us in an enviable position. We can create the rich and immersive learning experiences that will soon feel foundational in a post-pandemic university environment.

As we continue to expand our community of global and lifelong learners, we must develop content that goes beyond areas of data science, business, and technology to comprehensively explore the most important societal challenges. Our newest MOOC specialization, The Influence of Social Determinants on Health, helps learners to understand the social, behavioral, economic, political, and structural factors that contribute to health inequalities, to understand the main sources of these disparities from a population science perspective, and identify innovative ways to improve population health. It is important that future purpose-driven leaders in fields such as public health reflect the diversity of the world around us. So we are designing new models for educational delivery that meets the needs of a wider range of learners. We are also pioneering new models for helping learners develop skills for the future of work.

We hope you’ll join us for events like our new Michigan Online Visionary Educators (MOVE) series, which launches in February, our Data Showcase, and through many other learning innovation activities throughout the year as we move through crisis and pandemic to create a better future.


James DeVaney

Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Founding Executive Director of the Center for Academic Innovation