What Do You Call It When Colleges Turn Their Research Powers On Their Own Practices?

What Do You Call It When Colleges Turn Their Research Powers On Their Own Practices?

Colleges around the country have been setting up a new kind of research center—with the goal of continually improving how their institutions teach and work with students.

In some ways the centers are inspired by autonomous R&D units within major corporations, ones tasked with inventing the next big product or improving business efficiency. Except that analogy doesn’t really work, because education isn’t a product, and most professors bristle at comparisons to the corporate sector. So some college officials liken the new labs to sandboxes, others to greenhouses. One makes reference to an ancient form of Japanese pottery (stay tuned for more on that). Most of these college leaders have the words “academic innovation” on their business cards.

Last week a select group of these leaders gathered at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for a day-and-a-half-long convening. With a mixture of playfulness and urgency, organizers named the event “Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners (HAIL) Storm.” (EdSurge’s own Allison Dulin Salisbury helped facilitate the convening.) 

In interviews after the event, several attendees expressed their hope that more colleges will set up similar centers, and that the spirit of innovation can be, to use yet another metaphor, woven into the fabric of higher education.

The University of Michigan was a fitting place to host the HAIL Storm (and not just because the rainfall during the event could easily have turned icy). Last year the university kicked off a campuswide Academic Innovation Initiative that involves three different labs on campus: the Digital Education and Innovation Lab, where professors can experiment with new teaching tools and techniques; the Gameful Learning Lab, designed to help professors bring a game-based approach to teaching; and the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, which attempts to spread successful teaching experiments so the approaches catch on more broadly.

James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation at the University of Michigan, stressed that professors at Michigan have long been classroom innovators. The challenge, he says, is spreading successful experiments across campus and across disciplines. “It’s an environment where a thousand flowers bloom, and that’s really valuable,” he says. “But what we see is an opportunity to bring some more color coherence to that garden.”

One part of that is teaching professors to fail, or, at least, to change their attitude toward failure when it comes to campus experiments. Officials have said that one sign that the Academic Innovation Initiative is a success is if they end up trying a mix of things, some that are big successes and some that don’t work out. Lessons will come from both.

That’s when DeVaney compared campus innovation to Japanese pottery. Specifically, he invoked the ancient practice of Kintsugi, the art of repairing broken bowls with brightly-colored laquers, so that the break becomes part of the object’s history that is celebrated rather than disguised. “By preserving the damage, by showing that history of an object or an institution, we’re able to enlighten those around us,” he says. “We’re able to illuminate pathways. We’re able to help other institutions take advantage of the wisdom that we gained from the journeys that we were on.”

Many of the new academic-innovation efforts at colleges started about three years ago, amid widespread hype around massive open online courses, or MOOCs. In deciding whether to join one or both of the two major MOOC platforms, edX or Coursera, some colleges created new positions to oversee those efforts and think about broader strategies around teaching and using other digital tools to improve the student experience.

At the HAIL Storm event, part of the time was spent brainstorming projects that might be created to provide resources to those working in academic innovation.

One group proposed a free online repository of educational innovations, modeled after GitHub, the popular online space where computer programmers share their code.

Another team proposed developing a guidebook for colleges that want to create innovation efforts on their campuses.

Matthew Rascoff, vice president for learning technology and innovation at University of North Carolina, noted that there is a personal career risk in being the first to take on a newly-defined role. “What I sense in this group is a lot of anxiety,” he says. In industry, he adds, companies often set up innovation efforts that they later abandon.

I asked some participants what colleges should call this new function of, as Rascoff put it, “turning the lens of research on our own practices” at colleges.

“Educational inventors,” suggested Mike Goudzwaard, an instructional designer at Dartmouth College, via Twitter.

“Precision education,” offered Katy Börner, a professor of information science at Indiana University, after the event.

The fact that no two answers were the same shows how new colleges are to the practice, whatever it ends up being called.

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