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The following are the opening remarks given by James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan, at the Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm gathering that was held earlier this month in Ann Arbor.   I asked James if he would be willing to let me re-publish his remarks in this space.

HAIL Storm Opening Remarks delivered by James DeVaney (@devaneygoblue), Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan:

I’d like to take a moment to recognize our steering committee for all their creativity and effort in imagining this event and bringing us together to explore new and emerging models of educational R&D. Let’s give a round of applause to Rachel Niemer and Mike Daniel from the University of Michigan, Kristen Eshleman from Davidson College, Sean Hobson from Arizona State University, and Allison Salisbury from EdSurge.

Welcome to the HAIL Storm, where we are Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners. The funny thing about acronyms in higher education is that we like them a lot. Occasionally we pretend they are beneath us. Then we proceed to gleefully rearrange the titles of fairly important events and task forces in order to make them fit. For a fleeting moment, we did consider a few tropical destinations for an event in January but once the HAIL Storm surfaced there was no turning back. For this unwavering commitment to acronyms we apologize and note that it is unseasonably warm outside in Ann Arbor today, relatively speaking. 

In this instance, our stubborn commitment to the guiding principle of acronyms-first does in fact yield clear benefits. By challenging your commitment with our climate, we now know the level of passion and perseverance in this room. We now know that the topic of exploring new models for educational R&D is shared by many. We now know that the problem space is vast and requires collective attention. We now know this problem space is intriguing to a set of institutions representative of our highly differentiated and evolving landscape. 

And armed with this knowledge, we see that the conditions for collaboration are set. The magnitude of the educational R&D opportunity requires a collaborative mindset. This mindset is bolstered by a competitive spirit as we each seek to influence each other and push every institution toward new standards for excellence in educational R&D to increase student learning. 

You’ve also, perhaps unknowingly, joined us in Ann Arbor as we begin our bicentennial: a year  when, more explicitly than others, we will celebrate and question the past and present, and seek new ways to position for the future. Questioning the past and present turns out to be quite difficult sometimes, assuming you’re willing to look carefully. Sharing what you find, especially when it’s messy, is even harder.

Yet doing this well helps us not only to determine where we are going but also allows us to help other institutions to discover their own strategies for breaking free from perceived constraints to more fully realize their missions. 

Can we handle what happens next after we take a close look? Are our institutions equipped to absorb true accounts of where we are today? Can we handle the new expectations we will set for ourselves and can we fight the urge to look away from imperfections? It strikes me that a principal question for our gathering is this: as we introduce new models for educational R&D and push through to our institutional breaking points, what do we do with the pieces?

One would argue that at Michigan, we don’t have a choice but to find out. 

In his 1852 inaugural address, Michigan’s first President, Henry Tappan remarked, “Is it not rather our doctrine, that a free people cannot know too much, and that the more we know, the more strongly shall we lay hold upon freedom? The clearer, the more perfect the element of light, the better we shall see.”

How about that for a call to action! I suspect each of you can cite something similar from your own institutions. This call to action seems to have no end. A free people cannot know too much. With light, the better we shall see. Many would run screaming from such open-ended challenges. The kind of people that receive an invitation titled HAIL Storm and fly north for the winter are a special kind of flock. You either have passion or a good sense of humor. I’m hoping for both as our opportunity is open-ended and riddled with complexity that will require that we find joy along the way. To fly toward such an open ended challenge says something special about this group. 

I started to get to know this group a little better by following our HAIL Storm Slack channel and some of the other discussions and tweets leading up today. Collectively we have a range of interests and motivations in exploring new models of educational R&D. We’ve posed questions about participation, pipelines, partnerships, and intellectual property.  We’ve underlined equity in education and meeting the needs of diverse learners as a shared interest. We’ve asked ourselves how we can convert growing momentum into a sustainable way of thinking and doing. We’ve begun to question how educational R&D should grow not only within the disciplines but as an model integrated within and across institutions and in the spaces between. 

Two comments from our Slack channel captured my attention and I want to mention them here. First, Kristen Eshleman from Davidson introduced herself virtually to the group by saying that she has a goal of helping her institution become antifragile in the face of pressures from globalization, digital learning & the future of work. Andy Saltarelli from Stanford said don’t be so quick to write-off incrementalism and challenged us to think carefully about evolutionary versus revolutionary change.  Why so binary we might ask ourselves?

Are our institutions uniformly fragile? When we think about this era of higher education, is the opposite of antifragile, fragile? Or is it risk aversion? Is there a single and best way to create catalysts for academic innovation? Have we discovered a sustainable model for fostering a culture of innovation in learning that works across our differentiated landscape? 

Risk tolerance has always been an interesting concept in higher education. We could argue that at the moment of this HAIL Storm there is a perfect storm of urgency and opportunity swirling around us.

Whether from access to new learners, an explosion of data, the future of work, declining public support, a noisy edtech marketplace, regulatory uncertainty, changing demographics, or global competition, it’s clear that the definition and aims of higher education are up for grabs. 

What does it take to help our respective institutions to become antifragile? Given that the magnitude of the opportunities ahead of us require collective attention, how can we support each other through journeys where mileage and terrain vary wildly? How should we think about optimal balance between incrementalism and moon shots as we create catalysts for academic innovation and sustainable models for educational R&D?

Like the many millions we seek to reach, motivate, equip, and convert, I am a lifelong learner. Sometimes my quest is intentional. Just as often it is serendipitous. As an example of the latter, I found myself surfing the web over the winter break and stumbled upon something exquisite. I read a bit and clicked a few times and found an article and then another and then a video and then another and found myself learning about Kintsugi. 

Are you familiar with Kintsugi?

I wanted to avoid slides this morning but I do need you to have a visual so I’ll ask a quick favor. Take out your phone and search images for Kintsugi. K-I-N-T-S-U-G-I. Find one? Show your neighbor.  You should have clicked through to an image of a ceramic piece... it probably looks pretty old... it has gold disorderly streaks running through it… it looks like it may have shattered and have been put back together.

Well it turns out that Kintsugi translates to “golden joinery”. It’s the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold. One origin story suggests that Kintsugi started with a 15th century military leader in Japan who sent a damaged tea bowl back to China for repairs. When it was returned, repaired with metal staples, it prompted him to look for a more aesthetic means of repair. A second attempt involved mending the pot with gold and thus preserving and, by illuminating, calling attention to the shattering event as part of the object’s history. Collectors admired the new technique and and it took off. From shattered pieces came rebirth and often something more beautiful than before.

Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery with elegance and grace. The repair involves no attempt to disguise the damage but rather involves a deliberate method to treat the breakage and repair as part of the history of the object. One expert described it as the ‘art of embracing damage’.

Many of us would like to help our institutions to become antifragile. This goes beyond resilience. Resilient institutions resist shocks and may stay the same. They can be risk averse and often design ways to prevent themselves from falling off the shelf. The antifragile institution by comparison becomes stronger when challenged and when exposed to chaos and uncertainty. 

As with the art of kintsugi, we must acknowledge that higher education is a work in progress. We have done beautiful things but we’ve also done so imperfectly. Liberation follows our willingness to embrace our brokenness. Making no attempt to disguise damage but instead emblazoning our models with golden significance allows us to illuminate the journey. We seek evidence, organizational self-awareness, and ultimately new models for educational R&D that engage institutions across a differentiated landscape.

We must be willing to expose ourselves to chaos and uncertainty; to find our cracks and fight the urge to simply discard. How should we bring our messy history and present to light and help each other position for a future where complex problems require collective attention and action? 

Our collective commitment to educational R&D is critical. Not only for the successful results that we will certainly achieve. But for the lessons learned along the journey.  Our campuses have become living laboratories. Higher education is huge and highly differentiated. We are only just beginning to take advantage of our scale and unique strengths.

To become antifragile is not to avoid the stressors the that shatter. It is to break through and then see beauty in our scars. 

By coming here you’ve demonstrated that you are aware and committed to developing educational R&D models as a response to the uncertainty of rapid and exponential change in higher education. We know that that the opportunities we can see, and those around the corner, call for the collective energy and talents of many who are not sitting with us. Are we willing to treat breakage and repair as part of our histories and perhaps create something more gorgeous, and more precious, than before we pushed our institutions to their limits. 

As kintsugi became all the rage in the 15th century, many collectors were accused of deliberately breaking prized pots in order to mend them with gold. 

My hope for the next few days is that we will embrace our brokenness and illuminate the the ways we’ve pushed our system to its limits. We will highlight the cracks in our emerging models and learn from each other. There is beauty in experimentation and perhaps we can become masters of kintsugi.  We will move educational R&D beyond its infancy. We will embrace a collaborative mindset and competitive spirit to push for new standards of excellence.  We will explore new opportunities for collaboration between existing and new roles in higher education and share insight about models that are sustainable.  We will embrace openness and bring others to the Storm.  We will think critically and inclusively about participation in educational R&D.

When I received a first update about RSVPs for this gathering in January in Michigan, I initially wondered why you would do this to yourselves. I quickly realized that you too understand the magnitude of the opportunity and the responsibilities that we share. We are in an incredibly fortunate position to be at the leading edge of higher education; to be supported to do what we do every day. What will we do with this responsibility? We can’t just have another conversation. We have to break things. We have to accept that we are a work in progress. We have to repair with elegance and grace and think creatively about how we will share all of our history, not just the best practices that emerge.

Last night, in anticipation of today, I tried to learn something about hail storms. First of all, for those new to this climate, know that there have only been 35 hail reports in the state of Michigan in the last decade so we’re probably good. Second, I learned that there is a difference between ice pellets and hail stones. Who knew? Hail stones are the problems we seek to address; they are irregular...let’s be honest, like many of us; and they are clumped together… as those of us who embrace a collaborative mindset tend to be. 

It’s truly an honor to be here with each of you. I look forward to challenging each other to think creatively about the future of higher education and new models of educational R&D.

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