James DeVaney is the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and Founding Executive Director for the Center for Academic Innovation (CAI) at the University of Michigan. CAI has just announced the creation of the inaugural role of a Senior Director of Online Learning. To help spread the word about this opportunity, and to think about what this development might mean for the rest of us in higher education, James agreed to answer my 3 questions.
Question 1: Before we talk about this new role, let’s try to give folks some context. What is the Center for Academic Innovation?
The Center for Academic Innovation exists to reconcile the good and bad news of today to shape a better tomorrow for the higher education community and its stakeholders. At this moment, the good news is that technology is beginning to catch up with what we know about pedagogy and design and as a result we now have the ability to dramatically expand equitable access to higher education, provide more inclusive learning environments for these growing communities, and facilitate ongoing excellence through lifelong learning at a global scale. The bad news is that despite this accumulating know-how, we still face an epidemic of untapped human potential as institutions continue to struggle to dismantle systems of inequity and growing edtech investment remains unevenly focused on the educational problems that will create the most positive and lasting impact.
What is the Center for Academic Innovation? It is a community of incredibly talented change agents – staff, faculty innovators, and student fellows – that are drawn together to solve this kind of challenge and to shape the future of learning — and higher education. The Center is the place where creativity, excellence, and the University of Michigan’s aspirations for societal impact combine to reimagine the future of equity and excellence in higher education. We are an incubator, internal consultancy, and hub for innovation on campus. We partner with the U-M community to explore new modalities of learning and leverage the power of novel educational technology and translational research in service of strengthening the quality of a Michigan education and enhancing our impact on society — and over generations.
Our work takes place in the context of the premier global public research university, so whether we are advancing learning through curricular innovation, educational data and research, or educational technology, we are doing so at the intersection of excellence and public purpose. We strive to position U-M for a blended future and to extend the institution’s current mission toward one of global scale and impact. We also try to have a lot of fun while we’re doing it. Nothing beats purposeful colleagues who are also creative and hilarious.
Question 2: Why did you create the role of Senior Director of Online Learning at this time? What are the main responsibilities for this role? And what sort of background, skills, and outlook are you looking for in candidates?
It’s worth looking back for a moment in order to peer into the future. I stepped into my role at the U-M in early 2014 to help establish a new academic innovation initiative and foster a culture of innovation in learning at U-M. It didn’t take long to understand that academic innovation didn’t begin with the naming of a new initiative. It was in the DNA of the place and a major theme of the institution’s multi-century saga. The challenge was not determining how to initiate innovation in teaching and learning but rather how to create systems and supports in the spaces between the existing structures of a very large university in order to accelerate institutional learning and map out pathways to scale that uniquely leveraged our breadth of excellence and our public values.
Almost eight years later, our Center is now home to more than 100 talented staff, hundreds of faculty innovators, and dozens of the most creative student fellows one could hope to unite in a community of compassionate problem solvers. We have become leaders in open and online learning and have developed a reputation as a convener in higher education –bringing together experts from across the educational innovation ecosystem to solve grand challenges. This latter point is critical to our mission as we sought from the beginning to bring our public values to everything we do. Building a culture of innovation in learning at U-M is not enough – we aim to position U-M as a global leader in academic innovation to create and inspire change in higher education and to reinforce an engaged and informed society.
This can be seen through countless examples as we openly share our work with other institutions and lean heavily into meaningful multi-institution and multi-sector collaborations. We believe that the world needs Michigan to lead but also understand that this is far from sufficient. We believe in the capacity for change and understand that ecosystem change requires openness, thoughtful collaborations and partnerships, and the relentless pursuit of sharing what works (and doesn’t) with our colleagues across institutions and other organizational partners.
As we look ahead, we can point to an integrated online education strategy — and our expertise and experience across areas of open, online, and hybrid learning — as a differentiating strength of the Center. We are fortunate to have developed phenomenally talented teams that lead our work in learning experience design, media design and technology, open learning initiatives, and online and hybrid programs. We have sharpened unique expertise in this space by building considerable internal capabilities while also forming sustainable learning and R&D-focused partnerships with Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, and Noodle. Because our Center is scholarly as well as practical, we have instrumented nearly a decade of experimentation for research and created infrastructure to support continuous improvement at Michigan. This infrastructuring has also put us in a position to provide data for decision-making and evidence-based applied practices to other institutions and edtech companies. As a result, we are in an ever-improving position to answer “what works for whom?” and also “what institutional and strategic educational priorities are best for Michigan to pursue to maximize impact that is global in scope and lifelong in design?”
As such, this is the moment for a new senior leader to help us capitalize on our positioning as an R&D-centric innovation unit leveraging a multi-platform and internal capacity building strategy to shape the direction of online learning at Michigan for the next decade. We are looking for a leader who will cultivate innovations that advance equity, justice, and excellence. We are looking for someone who is ready to lead at U-M and create impact across higher education.
There are many really terrific leaders in the online learning space working with universities and edtech companies. The best candidate will be excited by the high-performing nature of the Center and will see possibilities as we look to accelerate the adoption of our strategy. We have grown quickly to date and have created a community that is passionate about transforming equity and access through online learning. As noted previously, knowing how to bring technology, design, and pedagogy together is necessary but also insufficient. This leader will also understand how to evaluate possible and probable future scenarios and build collective energy and support around pathways that lead to our preferred future. They will do so in a way that honors the rich tradition of an institution like U-M while challenging perceptions of fixed constraints and impediments to transforming access while expanding excellence. They will be called to the intersection of academic excellence and public purpose and will be motivated to help a global community to #LearnForGood.
Question 3: In thinking about this new role from a broader perspective, what do you think that Michigan’s investment in this position says about how teaching and learning is changing across higher education?
Not every university in American higher education can or should approach learning innovation in the same way. This is a feature of our “system”. As you and Eddie Maloney have discussed and shared through your writing together, “Learning innovation is not an outcome or a goal, but a set of repeatable processes designed to discover what works, and then scale those changes across the institution.”
At the Center, we started with experimentation in open learning with a goal to reimagine the residential experience and to understand new possibilities in teaching and learning given rapidly evolving technology and the use of data to inform our practices. As we learned what works (and for whom), we began to scale these practices across the institution, building a more integrated approach to open, online, and hybrid learning. Looking ahead, we are continuing investment in areas that support global impact and scale. We see lifelong learning in the context of global learning communities. Given Michigan’s strengths, we see an opportunity to support global learning communities that are interdisciplinary, interprofessional, and intergenerational.
The turn to learning and the expansion of online learning is part of a bigger story. Universities need to think critically about what they are uniquely positioned to do to maximize impact now and for future generations. For Michigan, the answer is derived from our unique combination of scale, breadth of excellence, and a commitment to public purpose. I’m excited about the path we are on and equally excited by the way other institutions are reconsidering how they too can create a more healthy and just world.