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5 Questions for the Director of the Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation

A conversation with MJ Bishop.

February 15, 2017
 
 

MJ Bishop is the inaugural director of the University System of Maryland's William E. Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation

Question 1:  Why does the Kirwan Center exist?  Why should a large public university system, encompassing 12 diverse institutions (or really any postsecondary institution), invest in a Center for Academic Innovation?

A: Higher education, like other industries, need R&D spaces within their business model where they can experiment with new ideas in a “safe space” where it is okay to take risks and even, sometimes, to fail.  As an industry, we need to make the move from “episodic” to more systemic change, a process that requires a sustained and persistent effort.

The advantage to doing this work at the system level is that we get to leverage the strengths of each of our institutions on solving the problems facing higher education.  For example, our online institution, University of Maryland University College (UMUC), has years of experience designing, developing, and delivering online instruction.  The USM’s new system-level membership in edX is giving the Kirwan Center the opportunity to work more closely with UMUC on findings ways to share the good work they have been doing with the other USM institutions.

This is where we believe this system-level center can bring real value to the work and help advance the statewide and national discussion around transforming higher education.

Question 2:  How did the Kirwan Center get started?

A:  The Kirwan Center emerged out of 6 very successful years of course redesign work initiated by the system office.  This project marked the first time that an academic innovation like this was lead out of the University System of Maryland,  instead of it being individual campus projects.  

In 2012, as the course redesign initiative was winding down, it became clear to then Chancellor Brit Kirwan and USM Board of Regents that maintaining momentum at the system level would require dedicated resources and personnel who could remain focused on the work over time. Very shortly after the center launched in June 2013, all of the USM institutions created similar centers, offices, and positions that are direct reports to their provosts and charged with leading academic innovation initiatives on their campuses.  The Kirwan Center convenes monthly meetings with this group, which we call the Academic Transformation Advisory Council.

Question 3:  What are some of the academic innovation initiatives that you are working on that you are most excited about?

A:  The projects I enjoy most are the ones that really capitalize on our “system-ness” and the strengths our diverse institutions bring to the conversation about how to improve student success.  Those are the ones where working at the system level brings value above-and-beyond what the individual institutions can accomplish on their own.

I think the USMx initiative will prove to be that kind of project for us.  Several of our institutions are already discussing partnerships that will bring their individual curricula together in ways that create new opportunities.  Like our first MOOC on Global Health, which was a collaboration between the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) medical school and UMUC’s health management program.

I’m also very excited about the USM’s digital badging initiative, in which we’re exploring ways to validate and provide a credential for our graduates’ career ready skills.  Our University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) has been a leader in this space and a very active partner in helping our systemwide initiative be successful. 

We are also exploring a state-wide OER initiative, which will build on the lessons learned by UMUC, who recently became the first public four-year institution in the country to move entirely to zero-cost instructional materials for undergraduate and graduate students. 

Question 4:  What was your career path that brought you spending your days leading academic innovation efforts?  What keeps you up at night nowadays about the present and future of higher education?

A:  My doctorate is in instructional design and technology and I spent 13 years on the faculty of Lehigh University’s graduate College of Education. While there, I was becoming increasingly concerned about the state of higher education and eager to contribute to the academic innovation conversation… particularly with respect to the many years of research and experience the instructional design field has at the intersection of instructional technology and meaningful/sustainable academic change.  My current position at the USM was the perfect fit… my “dream job!”

What worries me most is our continued inability to synthesize what we already know about technology in education and build upon that in a more systematic way so that we’re all benefiting from each others’ efforts rather than duplicating effort.  If we can’t get our acts together soon, I think we’re going to find that others will take it over. 

Question 5:  What advice do you have for your colleagues at other institutions who are trying to institutionalize academic innovation?  

A:  I like the way academic innovation was framed at the recent HAILStorm convening as “research and development.”  

Higher education needs to begin investing in R&D on behalf of the higher education industry, just like healthcare, aeronautics, telecommunications, agriculture, and just about every other industry does in order to be able to adjust to external pressures on their core business model.  I think that reframing the academic innovation discussion in that way will help clarify the importance of higher education investing in this work.

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