Teaching and Learning

4 Ways to Fine-Tune Academic Innovation in Higher Ed

Academic technology leaders share how they encourage faculty to experiment and engage with emerging technologies and pedagogies.

three colleagues brainstorming

Getting faculty to try out new technologies can be a challenge. And while many universities have established programs to foster digital innovation campuswide, their efforts are constantly evolving with new developments in teaching and learning and changing mindsets around learning analytics, learning design and more. From internal grant programs to forming communities of practice, here are four ways academic technology leaders are fine-tuning their approaches to working with faculty.

1) Move Your Focus from Labs to Teams

In 2014, the University of Michigan launched a new Office of Digital Education & Innovation, charged with scaling up instructional innovation and experimentation across the institution. In its early days, the office was divided into three labs:   

  • The Learning, Education and Design Lab, focused on doing research and scholarship to understand how instructional technologies and digital media can be used in teaching, learning and collaboration;
  • The Digital Education & Innovation Lab, which was established to help create new digital courses, including MOOCs, and help develop open educational resources; and
  • The Digital Innovation Greenhouse, which emphasized development of software specifically to help students.

Today, the structure of that organization (now known as Academic Innovation) has changed to expand on capabilities developed by those labs, said James Devaney, UM's associate vice provost for academic innovation. "We still have a lab mentality," he said, "but we found that as our experiments moving forward, the lines between learning analytics, learning design and software development were blurring in positive ways. We wanted to have more of a team-based structure to enable faculty innovation in a broad number of areas."

Now UM has teams built around learning experience design, digital media, behavioral science, data science, research and development, software development, user experience design, and marketing and operations. That change in structure was accompanied by a shift from a project-based mindset to more of a long-term focus, Devaney explained.

"As the community of faculty innovators grew, we saw opportunities to create different kinds of relationships with faculty," he recalled. UM set up communities of practice around particular areas of innovation, such as simulation, gameful learning, and teaching with technology in the MOOC space. "Whereas the project-based mindset allowed us to work with faculty who had identified a particular problem we could help them solve, this is helping to create affinity groups of faculty members looking at similar areas of learning innovation," he said. "It all contributes to idea flow. The communities of practice seed new ideas among the faculty, and our hope is that it will lead them to partner on tackling new problems."

Where to Start

If universities haven't yet established a faculty innovation office, where should they begin? James Devaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation at the University of Michigan, suggests taking time to understand how best to match the effort to the university's organizational structure.

"There is a particular decentralization at Michigan," he said. "We developed something that is part incubator, part internal consultant and part production unit. We needed to build central capacity to complement what is being developed at different paces across the colleges," he explained. "We had to get to know the strategic priorities of each school and help them move forward by investing in faculty innovators to get projects going so we could showcase exemplars. That is the most critical piece: Make sure you can go beyond rhetoric and show what faculty can do and what is possible when you in invest in innovation teams around those faculty innovators."

2) Engage Faculty with Learning Communities

Penn State University has taken a similar approach by creating faculty learning communities around areas of interest. "We will launch eight such peer communities this fall," said Kyle Bowen, director of Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT). But that is just one part of a continuum of engagement opportunities. The most intensive is a faculty fellowship program: "Each year we develop a set of four to six thematic areas and put out a call for proposals for faculty who are interested in working intensively to explore those ideas," Bowen said. Fellowships have focused on artificial intelligence, learning spaces, 3D printing and immersive experiences. Findings from the program inform how TLT creates new services for faculty and students in the future.

Bowen added that another new approach at PSU is engaging faculty about how their scholarship applies to teaching and learning. "For instance, our work around AI comes from working with faculty whose scholarship is in AI. We get them to think about how to apply their findings to solve instructional challenges they are facing," he said. "As we design our makerspaces, we are working with scholars in additive manufacturing, asking them: How do we take 3D printing to scale to engage thousands of students instead of just one or two classes?"

3) Offer Funding Both Large and Small

A common approach for universities fostering faculty innovation is to offer internal grants. For instance, the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning (VIDL) offers faculty both micro grants and macro grants. The micro grants are for one-time purchases of digital equipment to aid with innovative projects in teaching or research, explained Gayathri Narasimham, VIDL's associate director.

Macro grants range from $1,000 to $10,000 and offer seed funding to jumpstart innovative projects that may otherwise not be undertaken, such as digital learning workshops. "We emphasize the collaborative nature of the grants, and what the faculty can do to work with faculty in different departments to establish a project that might have far-reaching benefits," Narasimham said. One example is Professor Lynn Ramey, who received a Digital Learning Innovation Grant in 2015-16 for the establishment of a training program and development of a video game for immersive learning of the Anglo-Norman language.

At Penn State, faculty can apply for Faculty Engagement Awards, a program that offers professors grants, support and an opportunity to collaborate with peers on a specific challenge. For example, this year's theme is Open Collaborative Assessment Creation. Faculty transitioning to openly licensed textbooks are working together to counter the loss of homework, quiz, and self-check content items that are packaged with traditional textbooks.

4) Create Innovators-in-Residence

Penn State is also creating an "innovator-in-residence" program to bring people from other fields to campus, noted Jennifer Sparrow, senior director of TLT. For instance, a data expert from the Washington Post is slated to give a guest lecture at the College of Communications.

The Teaching and Learning with Technology group also brings in "faculty-in-residence" to work on their scholarship. As part of this effort, TLT worked with Professor Ann Clements to launch a new Center for Pedagogy in Art and Design. In 2015, Clements was the inaugural winner of the Penn State Open Innovation Challenge for the idea of building a machine-learning-based virtual reality program for pre-service teachers.

Similarly, UM has two faculty members taking their sabbaticals in the Office of Innovation: Meg Duffy from the College of Literature Science and Arts and Barry Fishman from the School of Information. Devaney cited Professor Fishman's work on GradeCraft, which won a 2016 Campus Technology Innovators Award, as a great example of the work of Academic Innovation. Fishman and colleagues submitted a proposal to the Academic Innovation Fundto create a learning management system that uses gaming elements such as competition, badges and unlocks to provide students with a personalized pathway through their courses.

"We provided software development, learning design, and user experience support to help them build that product," Devaney said. "Now UM has used it in well over 100 courses on campus and it is also being licensed to institutions and K-12 organizations across the country." Its success led to the creation of a community of practice in gameful learning: "It became clear that while the tool is fabulous," Devaney said, "the transformative moment is engaging in new gameful pedagogy."

Innovation with Data Repositories

With the increase in online learning and MOOCs, universities are building data warehouses to house that learning data and make it available to data scientists to research how learning takes place online. At Vanderbilt, computer science faculty have taught MOOC courses and want to understand the process better, said Gayathri Narasimham, associate director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning. "My biggest goal is that the data repository will be a platform for data science students to practice," she added. "This could be data they can mine and clean up. That is where the energy is."

The University of Michigan, which has courses on both Coursera and edX platforms, has been working for the last six months to develop an online learning data warehouse. "For us to pursue our research agenda around MOOCs, we needed to create an online learning data warehouse that would allow us to look at what is happening in these courses across platforms," said James Devaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation. "Our plan is to open up that data to researchers at UM and elsewhere.

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