Making Sense of Michigan's $50 Million Commitment to Academic Innovation

Looking beyond Ann Arbor.

October 9, 2019
 

On Oct. 3, the University of Michigan’s president, Mark Schlissel, announced a $50 million investment in UM’s Center for Academic Innovation.

The mission of this new center reads, “We are designing the future of learning through research, innovation, experimentation and iteration.”

For academics working in centers devoted to pursuing academic innovation, along with a wide range of other priorities related to advancing learning, this UM announcement is a big deal.

Over the past couple of years, academic innovation has grown as a priority and influential campus community at UM. Under the leadership of James DeVaney, its founding executive director, the center has pushed the boundaries on what is possible with MOOCs, XR and experiments in learning. The website for the new center lists 175 initiatives since 2014, across a wide range of activities and experiences.

This new investment of $10 million a year for five years shows incredible support for the center. Institutional commitment and, specifically, a commitment from university leadership, is at least as important as dollars. From all that we can tell, Schlissel is fully committed to prioritizing academic innovation.

One of the exciting things about this investment for those of us outside of the UM community is thinking about what it means for the rest of higher education.

DeVaney is a wonderful colleague, and we’re sure he’ll be sharing what he learns about what works and what does not as the center continues its work. We’re excited to see the good, the bad and the ugly as they try new things, push boundaries and help educators around the globe think about the role of online and virtual learning in the future of higher education.

We are also excited to think about how this kind of investment from a large, elite research institution can help us understand the kind of commitments to this work needed at other schools. And for those of us calling for a scholarship of learning innovation, it raises interesting questions about how we analyze the structural and organizational commitment UM has made.

Is it even possible to measure institutional commitment, for example?

How important is it that UM has elevated the work of academic innovation to that of a full-fledged center?

And how does this compare with the kind of investment other institutions have made to create centers and other campus organizations devoted to academic and learning innovation?

This gets tricky, as for many schools the work of learning innovation has been folded into the mandate of existing centers for teaching and learning. Still, doing some simple counting of the number of schools with organizations devoted to similar work as Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation would be a great start.

The University of Michigan is a large institution. The Ann Arbor campus has about 47,000 students with about 7,000 faculty. Is this kind of investment unique to an institution of that size and status? What would a relative investment in academic innovation at a small liberal arts college or a community college look like?

In the end, to understand the importance of Michigan’s $50 million announcement, it will be important to measure impact. But what measures of impact should we use? Graduation rates? The number of students receiving degrees or alternative credentials? Tuition costs? Student debt? Rates of STEM persistence among first-generation students?

Untangling the relative impact of even large-scale investments in learning innovation will be exceedingly difficult. But we believe that the time is now to build the scholarly infrastructure to step up to this research challenge.

By being so public about its commitment to academic innovation, the University of Michigan is setting a high bar for the rest of the postsecondary ecosystem.

We share in the excitement coming out of Ann Arbor.

What opportunities for scholarship do you see coming out of the exciting news about UM's Center for Academic Innovation?

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