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Caitlin Hayward is the director of research and analytics at the University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation. As Cait has one of the cooler alternative academic titles in all of higher education, I wanted to learn more about her job and background.

Q: Tell us about the Center for Academic Innovation and your role there.

Caitlin Hayward, a light-skinned woman with blond hair who is wearing a blue and red patterned top.

A: The University of Michigan Center for Academic Innovation’s mission is to collaborate across campus and around the world to create equitable, lifelong educational opportunities for learners everywhere. We have staff who are experts in software development, behavioral science, learning experience design, media design, user experience design, educational research, data science and more. Together, we design online learning experiences, build educational technology and imagine how higher education could be better for all.

I run our research and analytics team, doing research across all of the work our colleagues do, and on the design and outcomes of higher education broadly. I strongly believe that research is crucial for driving innovation; across all stages of innovation, we need to critically evaluate if we’re achieving what we aimed for. If the new thing you are doing isn’t working or isn’t working the way you think, you need to iterate, and you can’t know you need to do that if you haven’t set yourself up to do research.

My team works with our colleagues to instrument initiatives for systematic data collection and then do a combination of reporting, user research and scholarly research. Digital experiences casually create a massive amount of data, and it takes time, commitment to understanding the context and the ability to understand how those experiences fit within the broader landscape to evaluate what we’re seeing. I’m extremely grateful for the team of people I get to do this work with, and to CAI’s founding executive director, James DeVaney, for supporting our work.

Q: Is there a research project you are working on that might interest practitioners and scholars of academic innovation?

A: Yes! Let me give you a picture of the kinds of work we’re doing across the portfolio.

  • Listening to MOOC learners

Nate Cradit, a research scientist on my team, has led a 70-person global interview study to hear directly from MOOC learners what they’ve gotten out of these experiences. MOOCs have taken a lot of criticism for low completion rates, but they’ve also had a lot of success—we currently have 11 million learners taking 200-plus U-M open courses. Themes that emerged from learner stories include one we’re well familiar with, that MOOCs are valuable for workforce development and upskilling. But we also heard that learners use them to test out new areas of interest safely—say you have been encouraged to get a data science degree, but you want to see how you do with data science, and you go try a MOOC. We also heard that MOOCs are a way to find personal fulfillment, as there is no application and no cost to explore the core content. This reduction of barriers has enabled people around the world to explore their passions.

  • Learning about teamwork through Tandem

In our educational technology portfolio, Becky Matz, a research scientist at CAI, is collaborating with faculty in our College of Engineering to investigate how to foster productive teamwork in classrooms. Our teamwork tool, called Tandem, is designed to actually teach teamwork skills. We so often expect students to do teamwork but don’t tell them what that is or how to do it; Tandem aims to fix that. We are particularly focused on proactively identifying and addressing inequities that often occur in these spaces, like women being relegated to secretarial roles or students from marginalized racial/ethnic backgrounds not having their ideas taken seriously. We’re now working on using data from Tandem to see how early we can identify group challenges and design interventions to address them.

  • Major and department equity report

We have been working closely with colleagues from across the university, including the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching; the College of Literature, Science & the Arts; the College of Engineering; and the Marsal Family School of Education, on a report that summarizes historical student record data to reveal trajectories and outcomes through an equity lens. We’re now building partnerships with units across campus to expand access to and use of the report, to investigate what kinds of challenges are observable, and to support our partners in seeking solutions.

  • Surveying the landscape of academic innovation

We’re honored to partner with Anne Keehn and Quantum Thinking on the Leading Academic Change 2.0 survey. Here, we’re working with leaders in higher education from more than 20 different institutions to sensemake the landscape of academic innovation. This work builds on a survey Anne did in partnership with MJ Bishop at the University of Maryland 10 years ago and will help higher education leaders understand what innovations universities are currently prioritizing and how they are structuring and supporting these efforts. Ask me about this project again in a few months—we should have lots to say!

Q: Keeping your career path in mind, what advice do you have for others interested in pursuing a nontraditional academic career?

A: Research methods are incredibly useful, and they can create all sorts of opportunities in nontraditional academic careers. The time I spent learning methodologies means that I feel comfortable bringing all kinds of projects to life, and also that I can identify when different methods aren’t right for a particular project being proposed. Stock up on them if you can! Similarly, research literature can be hard for nonacademics to parse, so if you’re willing to help identify and translate meaningful findings, there are a lot of insights to offer.

Second, I can’t emphasize enough the value of exploring and asking questions: talk to colleagues who have gone alt-ac, talk to people who are on the tenure track about their experience, talk to nonacademic folks about the skill set and perspective you’ve crafted. If you see interesting organizations, ask for an informational interview. My role at CAI came about because I asked James DeVaney to talk to me about what research might be possible in what was then a very new office, and we started dreaming up a new role.

Finally, I’ve watched many colleagues plan for the faculty track first and alt-ac as a lesser backup, and I hope more people will consider both simultaneously and realize they can both be deeply fulfilling careers. I want people to make active choices about the characteristics of the job they’re considering, characteristics like resources, autonomy, the potential to have impact, opportunities to collaborate, location and work-life balance. In my alt-ac role, I have an opportunity to be uniquely impactful because of the collaborations I get to be part of and to build.

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