Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about industry-university partnerships in the education innovation space and whether they are creating new opportunities with lasting value. There has been a lot of negative press over the past year centering on relationships that haven’t worked or haven’t lived up to their potential. But I know in my own travels and discussions that there are many colleagues across sectors who seek to create new and positive ideas for innovation in learning. Are there industry-university partnerships that work better than others? What sets them apart?
To explore further, I reached out to my friend James DeVaney, the associate vice provost for academic innovation at the University of Michigan and founding executive director of U-M’s Center for Academic Innovation. James has agreed to answer my questions about industry-university partnerships that work for higher education and the educators and learners we serve.
Q: How do successful industry-university partnerships get started?
A: Well, you shared some really practical advice to potential industry partners about how to avoid transactional thinking. By the way, many similar tips could be offered to university colleagues for consideration before reaching out in the opposite direction. As you said, universities are interested in relationships. As time passes and strategies become more refined, universities interested in shaping the future of higher education are evolving to be less and less interested in engaging in transactional arrangements and are far more interested in understanding what potential partners stand for, what positions they take and how firm are their commitments. The problems worth solving take time to address; is this potential partner in it for the long haul? With more practice crafting such partnerships, universities are less focused on how a potential partner will resource a pilot and much more interested to understand how they will support what comes next if the pilot works.
So with a more durable relationship mind-set, it’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when a partnership starts. But it is becoming more clear that the way they start is with each partner sharing openly about what they hope to accomplish and with each partner recognizing complementary strengths in the other. With long-term sustainable impact in mind, these partners are comfortable dwelling together on an unhurried path to alignment, whether that alignment manifests in the first conversation or over many cups of coffee.
The more underwhelming and transactional alternative to this successful model is one my higher ed colleagues have grown far too accustomed to confronting: an engagement overengineered to close a near-term knowledge or capabilities gap but not designed with the intention of strengthening both parties for the long term. These are no longer difficult to spot.
Q: Give me an example. What is a really promising industry-university partnership you are seeing right now?
A: Simply put, in a strong partnership, there is clear alignment between the core problems each partner aims to solve. Further, the partners are able to identify something they can accomplish together that they likely can’t do alone. I’ll share a really timely example that captures the essence of what I think matters most.
Earlier today, Grow with Google, the University of Michigan and Coursera announced a new collaboration to develop an industry Specialization to help Google Career Certificate graduates and new learners to build on their job-ready skills by enrolling in a new data analytics in the public sector with R series. The U-M online course series complements Google’s Career Certificate in data analytics, a professional certificate that teaches the foundations of data analytics. Completers of the industry specialization will earn a dual badge from Google and U-M and gain access to jobs through Grow with Google’s employer consortium, which includes more than 150 organizations that are eager to hire people with these skills.
As we identified this opportunity together, we found clear alignment between the problems each of us aims to solve. Grow with Google is making the job market more equitable. The University of Michigan is making higher education more accessible and inclusive. Coursera is transforming opportunities for learning through their dynamic network and platform.
Through this emergent partnership, we can point to an audacious goal that calls for our combined strengths. With this new program, we'll help nontraditional learners and early-career professionals in the public sector looking to gain skills in analyzing public data effectively. We’re doing this so we can diversify and accelerate the development of talent in the public data analytics space. All of this is in the interest of strengthening public administration and public policy making and improving decision-making for the public good. This is a big problem to solve and calls for our unique and combined perspectives on the changing job market, agile curriculum and high-quality scalable learning.
I stated earlier that an enduring industry-university relationship based on shared values leads to more impactful programs over time. We’ve been nurturing a successful partnership with Coursera for over 10 years. By growing and learning together, we are able to explore multilateral partnerships—like this one with Grow with Google—that expand our collective impact, serve individuals and communities important to us all, and contribute solutions to important social problems.
We’re excited about the potential for learners who engage in this program and also other similar programs announced today with Columbia, Illinois, ASU and Johns Hopkins.
Q: You’ve often shared with me that Michigan’s strategy is centered around a blended future for higher education. What does that look like and does a blended future for higher education open opportunities for more productive partnerships?
A: Almost certainly. We’ve architected a strategy at U-M that helps us extend our mission as we position for a blended future. In our view, a blended future is one that integrates in-person and online learning, combines degree-based education with shorter and targeted forms of education within and across disciplines, expands the role of educational credentialing well beyond the current degree framework, frames education as a lifelong activity as careers change and knowledge requirements continue to advance, and crosses regional and national boundaries. In a blended future, we can truly support interdisciplinary, interprofessional and intergenerational learning communities as we translate research into practice and vice versa.
Industry-university partnerships have traditionally focused on targeted funding for research in applied and professional fields, course-level partnerships, or efforts that aim to support recruitment pipelines. These can and should continue where they offer mutual value. Yet a blended future and academic innovation offer opportunities for new types of partnerships—new in scope and scale.
Beyond the strong potential scalability of the partnerships like that with Grow with Google and Coursera, an additional, obvious opportunity presented by a blended future is found in new ways to integrate industry experience and practice into traditionally residential degree programs. From scaling the ability of faculty to bring in industry experts and live issues (particularly apt to professional degree programs), to allowing students to cohabit, create in and learn in extended-reality environments, industry partnerships can support universities in creating learning experiences that can extend beyond traditional constraints imposed by physical colocation.
Equally, by distributing the place of learning, a blended future opens the possibility of much greater scope and scale in meeting industry’s own learning needs. University-based executive education providers traditionally meet industry needs on specific topics, sometimes over many years. But a blended future allows for a much more nimble, comprehensive approach to universities supporting industry learning needs and, crucially, industry providing valuable feedback to universities. At the University of Michigan, we’re starting to see that firms who might have initially sought out domain-specific learning (e.g., programming) see the impact of on-demand and cohort-based online learning in their organizations and seek to broaden it to other, complementary topics (e.g., human skills, leadership, management). This is the foundation for an enduring, responsive partnership in support of lifelong learning.
The most exciting part of all is that we’re still in the early stages. There are plenty of opportunities for strategic partnerships with partners across sectors who share a commitment to expand access, democratize opportunity and increase impact for learners at all levels.
James DeVaney (@DeVaneyGoBlue) is the associate vice provost for academic innovation and the founding executive director of the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan.