Academic Innovation Initiative aims to expand digital education

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 7:09pm

The University of Michigan’s new Academic Innovation Initiative, announced during a kick-off event last week, is intended to transform higher education, according to James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation.

“The Academic Innovation Initiative was created to build upon Michigan’s longstanding leadership in higher education, to foster a culture of innovation in learning, and to chart new pathways for leading the way for higher education through the information age,” DeVaney wrote in an email interview.

Physics Prof. Tim McKay, who also serves as the faculty director of the Digital Innovation Greenhouse within the Office of Academic Innovation, said while the world has greatly changed with the transition to the information age, undergraduate education has only just started to reflect that.

“Almost every aspect of our lives has changed because of this transition into an information age: the ways we interact with one another personally, a lot of careers have changed, the ways we do our research has changed enormously since the launch of this information age,” McKay said. “One thing that hasn’t changed so much is the nature of an undergraduate education in a college or a university. I think what we’re seeing now is that’s also beginning to change.”

McKay noted, however, that many individual faculty members have undertaken individual projects that have created new approaches to education over the past few years. Last year, he said, it was decided that the University would bring together these efforts into a campus-wide initiative.

“So a bunch of different people on campus were doing things that were moving in the direction of this academic innovation initiative,” he said. “And over the last year a set of conversations that took place across the whole campus between all the different schools and colleges led to the suggestion that we should launch a campus-wide initiative.”

DeVaney wrote the initiative incorporates three design groups with different topics to be tackled by members of the campus community.

“We are forming design groups that will engage the UM community around a set of themes in order to launch a rich set of experiments to explore the future of education and enhance our impact on society,” he wrote. “New ideas will originate within design group activities, from individuals and teams of faculty, and through discussions with academic unit leaders that take aim at solving global problems through new innovative approaches to learning.”

McKay said the first design group, aimed at fostering broad and enduring participation at UM, will explore reaching individuals who are not students on campus. They will focus on ways the University can work with students before coming to campus, using platforms like Massive Online Open Courses.

“(The first design group) is really recognizing that while we historically have mostly been about the residential experience people have when they move to Ann Arbor and join us as a student, it’s now possible for us to reach and interact with and teach and learn from people all over the world at almost any time,” McKay said.

The second design group, exploring innovation in the residential experience, will focus on engaging students who are a part of the University community.

“We’re thinking of new ways that we might work with students while they’re on campus — ways in which we might make courses that are more engaged with the community, ways in which we might rethink things like the credit hour and the grading system,” McKay said. “Maybe have an undergraduate experience be really different for four years.”

The third design group, creating catalysts for academic innovation, will think about possible future projects the Office of Academic Innovation, according to McKay.

He said often the reasons why they haven’t worked on innovative projects are because the current structures of education do not allow for certain projects, making the purpose of the third design group to think about how the University can change those structures.

The Office of Academic Innovation itself is also divided up into three labs — the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, the Gameful Learning Lab and the Digital Education and Innovation Lab — which similarly aims to encourage academic innovation.

McKay said the Digital Innovation Greenhouse is a place where professors can bring projects they created at a small scale for their own classes to be developed and expanded for a large number of people in a variety of contexts.

“(The Digital Innovation Greenhouse) takes in a good idea that’s not yet well developed and works with software developers and uses experienced designers and behavioral scientists to work with the campus community to understand how you should develop this technology to make it something that would really work well for everyone on campus,” McKay said. “Eventually, these ideas that come into the greenhouse as a little seedling, these ideas will grow up into a full grown plant, and we’ll plant them out in the field and use them at scale.”

Noni Korf, the director of the Digital Education and Innovation Laboratory, said the lab is a place for faculty to come to for help with their projects.

“The Digital Education Innovation Lab is a place to partner with faculty on innovative projects where we’re expanding on efforts to change the University of Michigan’s reach… and creatively work together to solve some of the issues we see in access to education,” Korf said.

The Gameful Learning Lab focuses on projects like GradeCraft, a grading platform in which students positively rewarded for choosing their own projects and assignments to complete.

McKay said the timeline for the overall initiative is difficult to establish because of the wide range of projects and metrics. He said for him, his timeline is longer because his goal is to see major features of undergraduate education change.

“I would like to see our opportunities to teach at different scales be much more wide open. Right now we mostly teach in courses that are one semester long and are usually three to four credits; that’s the kind of unit of teaching we do,” McKay said. “I would like to get to the point where education feels much more flexible in that way instead of just adding up a whole bunch of class units that are about the same size and duration.”

DeVaney wrote the overall success of the initiative will be measured by the quality of the projects created, as well as how well they engage the community.

“Success in the initiative will be a function of the quality of new experiments, the creativity of recommendations about our future and the level of engagement across our diverse community of faculty, students, staff and alumni,” DeVaney wrote.