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To tip off the University of Michigan’s Academic Innovation Initiative Summit, University deans gathered at a panel on the future of innovation in academics Tuesday afternoon, with 70 in attendance.

Last year, University President Mark Schlissel and former Provost Martha Pollack kicked off the Academic Innovation Initiative, an effort to engage all members of the University community in discussions on how to further the University’s projects and promote constant academic innovation. The summit, held at the end of the University’s bicentennial year, included panels and breakout activities supporting the initiative.

James Hilton, vice provost for academic innovation and dean of libraries, moderated Tuesday’s conversation and began by asking panelists how they are developing academic innovation within their respective schools.

Lynn Videka, dean of the School of Social Work, spoke about three main areas of academic innovation the school has been working toward: Launching a MicroMasters Massive Open Online Courses program in the fall, using captivated modules and face-to-face interactions to train social workers in hybrid continuing education programs and developing the Civil Rights Academy, a program that aims to provide technology and tools to instill middle-school- and high-school-age youth with social action skills at an early age.

“It’s in helping develop informed and responsible citizens,” Videka said. “This Civil Rights Academy does just that — it awakens young adolescents to social justice issues, how to organize in the community, how to achieve goals working with social groups. We think that’s a great skill and a worthy contribution and something that doesn’t compete … with our in-person based programs.”

Joanna Millunchick, associate dean of undergraduate education in the College of Engineering, discussed how the school’s on-the-ground classroom innovation techniques, such as their new Ph.D. program, Engineering Education Research, place engineering education researchers into the actual departments rather than creating a new, separate research department. The school is also developing new modes of teaching through virtual and augmented reality techniques.

“Our students know (these techniques) are the next big thing, too. … They are the ones taking the top (research) prizes. They already realize what it is that future scorers hold,” Millunchick said.

Jonathan Massey, dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, spoke on the school’s emphasis on preserving a community of face-to-face learners and peer collaboration. However, architecture’s high contact hour per credit hour program raises the question of how to apply academic innovation to preserving hands-on training and balancing time dedication.

“(Time dedication) skews the field,” Massey said. “Our project is to figure out how to incorporate some of the academic innovation and blend in a way that preserves the strengths of the studio pedagogy.” 

Laurie McCauley, dean of the School of Dentistry, emphasized her goal to use academic innovation to personalize education in three main areas: online degree completion programs, the University’s first completely online bachelor’s degree; Pathways, the dental school curriculum used throughout all four years of the program; and the community-based dental program, partnering with health professionals at 20 sites throughout the state for patient care.

“I am quite fortunate that our faculty need very little prodding to do this; they love doing these projects, they love engaging with students on a one-on-one basis and individualized manner,” McCauley said.

Thomas Finholt, dean of the School of Information, emphasized the importance of Massive Open Online Courses and the school’s commitment to online education. Several hundred thousand people are taught through MOOCs and a third of faculty are involved in these online education platforms, according to Finholt.

“(MOOCs) really reflect three kinds of considerations — expanding the brand and reaching out, 80 percent of students who have taken our MOOCs are outside the United States, representing over 200 countries,” Finholt said. “We also aspire to use our MOOCs to reach an important domestic audience, which are students in community colleges who are transfer candidates … And (use) MOOCs as a way of exploring alternative completion of a residential degree.”

Hilton then moved the conversation into a dialogue on MOOCs and their place at the University. Instead of a dichotomous relationship between offering completely online courses and face-to-face interaction with professors as implemented now, Videka said both teaching methods can be utilized to provide comprehensive educations.

The Masters of Social Work program only offers a full-time option, which includes a mandatory 912 credit hours of field experience, and Videka said many people cannot commit to the full-time program. Even now, MSW students have demanded equitable pay for these field hours because they offset time students could be working to pay for school, rent or food for their families.

Videka said online courses could both include these students who could only complete a part-time program that currently isn’t offered and spur new ideas in the full program.

“In some sense, (MOOCs) will open a slightly new market but the flipside of that is it’s requiring us to completely rethink the rest of our program,” she said.

Taking into account the field experience many programs require at the University, Finholt said some MOOCs in the School of Information lend themselves very well to an autograder that can check an assignment automatically and show whether the student got the question correct, but other courses require more thought in how to replicate a field position.

“How do we deal with this problem of assessing (our programs) online when so much of the pedagogical practice of my school is oriented toward experiential learning or engaged learning where people are doing field placements?” Finholt said.

Millunchick said the current tendency of MOOCs to be large classes can decrease diversity in ideas, especially in task-oriented fields. She said instead of putting one large class on a project, they could utilize small, private online courses, set 50 smaller classes on a project and see a large diversity of solutions to the same problem.

Many argued MOOCs puts quality education that is inaccessible to some communities in their hands, provided they had the technology to support it. Massey said while this is true, the product the University already offers, face-to-face education, will become highly coveted.

“(MOOCs) democratize education but we will, in fact, reinforce the prestige value, the monetary value of face-to-face communities around campuses like this one because that will become the exception rather than the norm,” Massey said.

During a Q&A segment, Provost Martin Philbert asked the panelists what innovations they would take with their schools if they had no budgetary restrictions. While specific applications in their schools varied, many panelists saw common characteristics of higher education such as expertise and curriculums as worthwhile targets for innovation.

Finholt said academic institutions across the Big Ten conference and worldwide are not recognizing where their strengths are nor catering educational products to those strengths. With no monetary restrictions, Finholt said students could access professionals across the country digitally.

“It would be great if we could … stop having to teach the things we’re not very good at and recognize that there are other places in the world that are really good at teaching those things and let our students take those courses from those institutions and from those instructors,” Finholt said.

Millunchick said the way schools in the University such as the College of Engineering and the Taubman College have to structure their students’ curriculums so they can graduate on time includes taking classes certain semesters to align with course offerings. Millunchick said the University could be utilizing technology to help students explore their other interests, gather necessary knowledge for their concentrations and break out of locked-in curriculums.

“If we could somehow use technology to break that curricular demand so that … rather than having to follow these curriculum locks, students could take the curriculum a different kind of way,” Millunchick said. 

Rachel Niemer, director of the Gameful Learning Lab in the Office of Academic Innovation, said the summit was designed to gear the campus community toward thinking forward to what the University could achieve.

“I think, honestly, we’re heading for some really interesting, thoughtful conversation amongst the community about what our values are and how we’re going to share and co-create knowledge with the broader community,” Niemer said.

Philbert, during his segment, noted all of the panelists had come from professional backgrounds and professional schools and, therefore, have a bias toward preparing students specifically for the workforce.

Matt MacQueen, a lecturer at the Center for Entrepreneurship, attended the summit and found it encouraging to hear people critique longstanding institutions of higher education. He said while LSA was not represented at the final panel, the ideas mentioned are not limited exclusively to professional paths and these tools could be available to more liberal arts students and faculty.

“I think the opportunities in less professionally driven programs are just around different, more exciting ways to learn, less that it has to have a concrete, job outcome at the other end of it,” MacQueen said. “I would be bullish on people in LSA thinking about these tools as just more engaging ways to get more learners and get them thinking in different ways than it is, ‘Here’s your path to a profession exactly.’ ”

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