Michigan’s ‘Next Step’ in Technology

U of Michigan starts a “yearlong conversation” about innovation in the classroom to determine what a public research university should look like in the 21st century.

October 13, 2016
U of Michigan
U of Michigan President Mark Schlissel speaks during a leadership breakfast event.

The University of Michigan is launching an Academic Innovation Initiative to encourage even more of its faculty members to experiment with technology in the classroom.

The initiative, which comes as the university prepares to celebrate its bicentennial in 2017, is being billed as a “next step” by President Mark Schlissel for Michigan to play a leading role in shaping the future for public research universities. Schlissel formally launched the initiative during a kickoff event last week.

“The initiative will formally help us consider how U of M will lead the way for higher education through the information age and further strengthen the quality of a Michigan education and our impact on society,” Schlissel said. “We know more about learners and curricula than we ever have before, and using the power of data analytics, we can measure their interactions in ways that are unprecedented. And using digital modes of communication, we can reach millions of learners no longer limited by geography or by demographics. This initiative will help us supply all of this -- the data, the content, the access -- in service of higher education and in service of society at large.”

Michigan is by no means short of the types of experiments the university hopes the initiative will foster. The university was one of the first to embrace massive open online courses, and as recently as last month, it became one of the strongest supporters of graduate degree programs offered through MOOCs. Its in-house personalized education platform, ECoach, has this fall grown from a pilot in a handful of physics courses to a tool serving the entire freshman class. In a news release announcing the initiative, the university also highlighted its work in data analytics with the Academic Reporting Toolkit (ART) 2.0, a visualization tool.

Most research universities could put together a similar list of projects. Another thing they likely have in common: too many projects -- at least according to a recent survey of college leaders conducted by Eduventures, which found initiative fatigue is the No. 1 barrier preventing them from improving student outcomes. Organizational silos also placed in the top three.

The innovation initiative adds a new layer of organization to Michigan’s many experiments. Three faculty-led design groups will explore how the university can increase access to education, test new ways of teaching face-to-face courses and create opportunities for academic innovation. That work will be overseen by a steering committee, also made up of faculty members, which will deliver a set of recommendations to university leaders next fall.

Michigan’s Office of Academic Innovation will host the initiative. A website set up to promote the initiative features many of the projects already finished or in the works at the university, and points faculty members interested in participating to resources on campus.

James L. Hilton, vice provost for academic innovation and dean of libraries at Michigan, described the initiative as a “yearlong conversation” that will take place across the university.

“At the highest level, the Academic Innovation Initiative is an invitation to the entire campus to imagine again what the great public research university ought to look like for this century, this technology, this economy, this global scale, this workforce,” Hilton said. “We know people are going to have to continually learn, and they’re probably not going to be able to drop out for one, two, three years to retrain every time they’re going to have to take on something new. How do you think of Michigan in that space?”

Hilton said the innovation initiative is meant to be a positive counterargument to recent debates about the value of higher education, many of which have been framed around “threat and crisis.” Online education is one example -- administrators and faculty members sometimes focus on concerns about how it could replace face-to-face education, as opposed to how it could complement it, he said.

When the initiative concludes in 2017, Hilton said he hopes to see more of everything: more new projects, more conversations among faculty members about how to structure face-to-face courses and more involvement from the university’s colleges and schools.

Joanna Millunchick, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, serves on both the steering committee and the design group looking at increasing participation. In an interview, she said she plans to focus on projects that will increase students’ access to education before they come to campus and after they have graduated.

“A real success to me a year from now is if we can point to a handful of projects, some of which have really worked and some of which have really failed,” Millunchick said. “If we fail, that means we took a risk. … What we really want to do is start shifting the culture to be less risk averse -- not to the detriment of students, of course, but to really get faculty to think about different ways of teaching their courses and different ways of engaging their students.”


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