5 Questions for U of Michigan's Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

A conversation with James DeVaney.

January 25, 2017

James DeVaney (@devaneygoblue) is the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan where he leads the Office of Academic Innovation.  Earlier this month James hosted the Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm event at his institution.

James has graciously agreed to answer my questions about the academic innovation at the University of Michigan.  

Question 1: Tell us about the Office of Academic Innovation.  What is the mission of the organization? How is the Office situated in the University in terms of governance structure? What are the main components of the Office, and what are the big projects and initiatives that each of these components has responsibility for? What is the budget, headcount, and funding / resource trajectory of the Office? Where does the money to run the Office come from?

Since music tends to stick, you might channel Bob Dylan when thinking about the Office of Academic Innovation: “Come gather ‘round people / Wherever you roam / And admit that the waters / Around you have grown”. Indeed, the times they are a changin’. Yet we experience change and urgency quite differently across the higher education landscape and within our complex institutions. Our office seeks to meet faculty innovators where they are, to provide enabling capacity for colleges and schools, and to activate educational R&D in support of learning. We see important trends and immense opportunity and of course a fair amount of risk if we fail to look around the corner. 

The Office of Academic Innovation is relentless in its pursuit of something pretty profound and also quite simple. We foster a culture of innovation in learning. We do this within a wonderfully large learning laboratory called the University of Michigan. We are imagining again the role of the great public research university and we seek ways to influence the future of education around the world.

Our unit is part of the Office of the Provost and is responsible for stewarding the President’s Academic Innovation Initiative. We interact with several faculty advisory boards that provide important counsel on different aspects of our work. This close alignment with the academic mission is critical as we invite the growing U-M community to actively engage in this important movement.

Our group has evolved over three years as we’ve grown to more than 40 FTEs. We’ve partnered with more than 150 faculty and more than 50 students on our first 100 or so projects. We created three AI Labs - the Digital Education & Innovation Lab, the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, and the Gameful Learning Lab - and an Academic Innovation Fund to enable experimentation and innovation at U-M. We’ve also assembled really terrific operational and marketing teams to create infrastructure, engage diverse communities of learners, assess impact, and tell the important story of academic innovation as it continues to unfold.

It’s difficult to highlight only a few of our projects but I’m particularly excited at this moment about our new MicroMasters programs, our Youth Civil Rights Academy, and a digital, hands-on, role-playing simulation tool called Policymaker. Why? Each of our MicroMasters programs in social work, education, and information, represent a significant commitment to personalization, flexibility, and affordability. Through online and blended learning opportunities, the Youth Civil Rights Academy takes a novel approach to preparing young people for college and to preparing a new generation of civil rights leaders who will strengthen civil rights and social justice. Policymaker places students in a real-world simulation where they learn how public decisions are made in our modern and diverse society. 

These projects are of course representative of a broader set of trends. Through our particular model for educational R&D, we are unbundling the curriculum and rebundling around problems most important to society. We are leading a public effort to design and implement the transcript of the future and new records of learning. We are reimagining relationships with lifelong learning alumni and pre-college learners. We are leveraging our curriculum and expertise, and new technologies, to enhance our ability to engage with the public. We are developing a deeper understanding of where students learn on campus and how we can best nurture that learning. Through all of this we are asking ourselves difficult questions about how education should take place in the context of the great public research university in the twenty-first century. 

We expect to continue growing in line with our mission and are focused on creating a financially sustainable model. Our financial resources come from a mix of soft and hard funding. We receive funding from the Provost, revenue from MOOCs and new blended programs, licensing revenue from the digital tools we build, fundraising, and external research. As an example of the latter, building this educational R&D model helped us to win a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how educational personalization can improve equity in large lecture-style STEM classes.

Question 2:  Can you give us the backstory on how the Office of Academic Innovation came into existence? This is a good time also to share your background. Why did you decide to move from consulting to a leadership role in higher ed?

The Office of Academic Innovation was established three years ago as U-M was nearing its bicentennial. At a unique moment in our own history and also in the history of American higher education, when many were interpreting shifting conditions as inevitable crisis, the leading voices in Ann Arbor saw opportunity. Adopting academic innovation as a strategic pillar was a logical next stage if you look at U-M’s long history of leadership in higher education filled with many firsts and dominated by a trailblazing ethos. Today we stand as the model for the public research university and as a community bound together by a commitment to discovery.  

To state the obvious, academic innovation was a part of our university community long before we established an office. So what was missing? We needed a lab to start new experiments, to learn, and evolve. We needed to build enabling capacity and culture of innovation in learning. We needed a flexible consultative model to fully realize our strengths. 

I came to U-M from management consulting where I helped build a practice that worked with  universities to design digital and global strategies. In this capacity I was fortunate to work with more 50 universities across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Australia and North America and to visit another 250. I had wonderful mentors at Huron Consulting Group and many opportunities to solve ambiguous and interesting problems. In U-M, I saw a great institution at a singular moment in its history. I saw an institution that was ready to take on some of the most interesting problems in higher education. With it’s mix of excellence, creativity, and scale I saw in Michigan a place where I could help shape the future of higher education, in some small way.  It also didn’t hurt that I am a three time Michigan graduate and that I realized it would be difficult to fully indoctrinate my kids as loyal Michigan fans if I continued to live in Dubai or DC. 

My path to this role is perhaps uncommon but I suspect we’ll see more people with diverse backgrounds who see careers in higher education administration as a way to solve complex problems with real and significant societal impact. 

Question 3: Why start a separate Office of Academic Innovation? Why not situate the innovation efforts in the existing IT or Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) offices?  

The opportunity space for academic innovation at Michigan is big and complicated. This is what makes it fun. The educational R&D model that we set out to build was fundamentally different than anything that existed at that time and we felt it required its own space. We also envisioned new roles for a new era of higher education and needed to experiment with a new kind of operating model to create catalysts for academic innovation. We needed to be able to form nimble teams around faculty led initiatives. In our environment, learning experience designers, project managers, data scientists, software developers, UX designers, instructional media technologists, and behavioral scientists quickly flex and join faculty and students to form dynamic instructional teams. We partner closely with our talented colleagues in the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), and with units across campus as we seek novel ways to enable experiments across our colleges and schools.

Question 4: Every university would like to prioritize academic innovation. The problem is that the needs at every institution are vast, but resources (both people and money) are constrained.  How is it that the University of Michigan has been able to make such a big commitment to academic innovation? What are the institution’s strategic goals in investing in this area?  

I’ll quibble here for only a moment. I’m not sure every university would like to prioritize academic innovation. At least, not yet. Each institution experiences the shifting conditions in higher education differently and with varying urgency. U-M is academic innovation. So the creation of our office is evolutionary. I don’t look at Michigan’s commitment to academic innovation as confined to the last three years. We’ve made great progress in the last few years because we are building on two centuries of leadership in innovation.

The information age provides a new set of opportunities to strengthen the quality of a Michigan education and our impact on society. Our community is responding with increasing intensity. Our faculty are leading the charge. Our students are accepting greater agency and doing more to shape their own experiences. Our administration is setting a high bar by calling our community to open new frontiers in teaching and learning, to rewrite the social contract for the public research university, and to make U-M one of the world’s great engines for innovation. What we’re seeing now isn’t so much a new commitment but rather a doubling down on legacy. Or as the great LL Cool J put it, “Don’t call it a comeback / (we’ve) been here for years.”

Question 5: Who are your peers at other schools?  Is there a professional organization or group for “Vice Provosts of Academic Innovation”? What advice do you have for higher ed people who would like to create the sort of leadership buy-in and institutional organizational structure to catalyze academic innovation that appears to be the reality at the University of Michigan? 

There are many professional organizations and formal settings with which to engage with a growing number of peers. There is always a conference around the corner to provide a good opportunity for exchanging ideas. This is higher education after all. In my experience, it is during some of the more informal and purposeful gatherings that we’re able to produce the best exchanges of ideas.

Earlier this month, representatives from about 20 institutions convened in Ann Arbor for an event we called the HAIL Storm to unpack and enhance our varied approaches to creating new models for educational R&D. Last spring, representatives from 15 institutions huddled in Cambridge to give shape to the emerging micromasters model. In December, a group of representatives from institutions around the U.S. exchanged ideas at U-M about how to design the transcript of the future. It is focused exchanges like these that allow us to push hard on some of the most exciting and challenging questions in higher education. 

My advice to others is pretty simple. We have a lot to learn from each other. At the same time, we need to embrace an era of differentiation. There is no playbook for academic innovation that will work across all of our great institutions. Leadership buy-in is accelerated when unique strengths and opportunities are known. Be a strength finder. Make sense of the opportunities in the spaces between existing structures and systems. Don’t ignore constraints but don’t start with them either. Help your institution to go beyond resilience to become antifragile. Have some fun along the way. It’s an amazing time to play even a small role in shaping the future of higher education. 

What would you like to ask James about academic innovation?



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