Why U. of Michigan’s President Says Universities Should Work to Transform Teaching

Why U. of Michigan’s President Says Universities Should Work to Transform Teaching

Not long ago, colleges took it as a given that their teaching was relevant and effective. These days, though, even the most well-known colleges feel pressure to keep up with the changing times and technologies when it comes to their classroom practices. It’s not enough to install a few “smart classrooms”—today’s new approaches go deeper, often requiring professors to change the way they teach.

The University of Michigan is among those taking a proactive approach. Last year, it launched a major campus-wide effort to encourage a culture of continual improvement in teaching. The directive is supported at the highest levels of the institution, so for this week’s  EdSurge On Air podcast, we went to the top: sitting down with Michigan’s president, Mark Schlissel, to talk about what is driving the effort.

The interview was taped just after he spoke at a national convening held at Michigan for leaders of similar academic innovation efforts, and the vibe there was that there’s a budding movement to take the issue of teaching innovation more seriously.

In talking to Schlissel, it becomes clear that the issue is deeper than just whether facts go into students heads and stick. It’s about how to teach citizenship in the age of fake news. And it’s about making sure the public at large understands what colleges do and why they matter.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a more complete version below, or on  your favorite podcast app.

EdSurge: I'm curious about this effort you started last year at the University of Michigan called the Academic Innovation Initiative. Why do you need to reinvent academics in the first place?

Schlissel: Universities are continuously reinventing themselves, it's sort of, part of who we are, right? We're organizations that are always asking questions and trying to make discoveries. As a research university, a lot of that activity goes on within the disciplines that our faculty study, but we also now take the same approach with teaching.

We're also in a societal moment, where there are resources available for education that have not been available before. The fact that you can carry around, in your pocket, a device that gives you access to all the information in the whole world, that must change what and how we teach. The fact that we've got networked communications that allows us to interact with people that are sitting next to us, but also people that are sitting half way around the world. The fact that we can now reach huge audiences of learners, not just on campus, but globally.

Now, also, as a large research institution, we've been collecting data about our students, really for decades and we have massive amounts of digital data. The tools of data analytics have developed to the point where we can now mine this data and learn from our past experiences how to do a better job teaching and how to tailor education to the individual.

A few years ago, there was all this attention to MOOCs, and Michigan was a leader in that. Now a lot of people have kind of turned away from that focus on these free courses, but it seems like it's a centerpiece actually of your Academic Innovation Initiative. Where do you see MOOCs fitting in now?

The whole MOOC craze was just fascinating to me. I was provost at Brown University when this first hit the national radar screen, and it was really being advertised as the disruptive force that was going to turn higher ed on it's head. To be completely honest, I didn't understand why. It certainly allows us to reach audiences of learners that previously did not have access to fantastic education and that continues to fulfill it's prophecy, it's potential.

What it can't really do is replace the kind of interaction you and I are having right now, where we are sitting together, exchanging ideas. Or, putting together a group of 10 students from different backgrounds with a professor, discussing an interesting and challenging topic. Even more than that, for residential higher education, the out-of-the-classroom learning that goes on in a great university is an irreplaceable adjunct to the in-the-classroom learning. I never thought of MOOCs as something that would disrupt in a threatening way, but what we've come to appreciate is that MOOCs can enhance what we're doing on campus and then increase the reach of what we produce to a more global audience.

Also, our MOOCs serve as a bit of an advertisement for the university. We have several MOOCs that are among the most watched or enrolled in, on the internet -- through several different platforms. People look and see our great professors, so they learn something and they also think about Michigan when they want to get a proper degree. We're also experimenting using online content in a blended way to take adult learners, give them some introductory material, and then involve them in perhaps an on-campus or professional-education program. We're experimenting with the MOOC format both for on-campus use, for outreach, and then for novel degree programs.

You're trained as a physician. What do can universities learn from the healthcare industry when it comes to innovation?

There’s a big movement in medicine now that is called personalized or precision medicine. The idea there is, we have the capacity to accumulate and analyze truly massive amounts of data about individual patients, then try to understand how disease works, one person at a time instead of how a disease works in an enormous population of people, so we can better tailor treatment to what will work in an individual.

Maybe you've had the experience, or a family member has, of a doctor saying, "We'll try this medicine, it works about 70 percent of the time. If it doesn't work, we will try something else." Our idea in medicine is to learn what is it about that 70 percent of the people for whom it works, and the 30 percent that it doesn't, so we can now predict which medicine will work in which patient.

Now, with learning analytics and the application of big data, we can take a class of hundreds of students, and then figure out what works best in terms of educational modalities for every individual student in that group.

People learn differently. I was always a person that learned great sitting in a lecture. I learned much better having someone explain something to me and take me through the thinking, than I do reading a book. For a lot of people, it's just the opposite. They barely go to lecture at all, and they absorb tremendous amounts of material from reading a book or from a media presentation. That means our minds all work differently. Taking advantage of this huge amount of data we've been able to accumulate about student learners, over the course of decades, we can try to figure out how to optimize education one individual at a time.

As we tape this, a new president of the U.S. is about to take office, Donald Trump. In this election, we saw such a rise of fake news and misinformation about both candidates. I wonder, do you think colleges have to work harder at digital and media literacy in this environment, either in their on campus program, or through MOOCs, or some other way?

One of our obligations at colleges and universities is to teach our students how to be citizens. Part of being a citizen is making a personal commitment to pay attention to what's going on all around you in the body politic, the big issues of the day that are being debated. To get good, reliable information and to discuss with your peers, your family members, the other people who live in your community, your thoughts about what direction our country should be taking in all of the issues we are confronting. That's citizenship. It's even in our mission statement, to create citizens that are going to challenge the future. That's very important.

The university does that in many different ways. One might argue that a research university is incredibly well suited to do that. Our faculty, through their research are really trained to be skeptics. They are trained not to take things as a given and to look for and demand data, to demand good logical arguments. They teach our students how to identify important problems and how to frame really good questions, how to pursue the unknown. That's great training if you want to be an active, involved citizen in your community.

From a different perspective, one of the ways, I think the academy hasn't served society optimally is our faculty should really be more engaged in providing their expertise into the public debate. We've got 3,000 tenure-streamed faculty at Michigan with experts in almost every area you could possibly think of. That expertise has to be more generously offered to the public, not just presenting itself in written journals or in books that other scholars read, but put into public debate in ways the public can learn from and then use to make good decisions about policy, about voting, about all of the issues that we are confronting.

One of my initiatives as the president here is to help incentivize or maybe even liberate faculty to be more outwardly focused in their scholarship. Writing op-eds, doing a podcast with you, testifying, serving on federal commissions, going up to Lansing and helping educate the state legislature, doing work in DC -- just helping our political leaders and helping our fellow citizens have good facts upon which to form their own opinions.

You mentioned in your remarks that there is this broader debate, even before the presidential election, about the value of higher education that is an ongoing one. It seems like there is this sense of people questioning it, so is the antidote then, what you described, just being out there more?

I think we have to de-mystify what goes on inside a university. People's image of a research university is really very much a place where students go to classes and sit in lectures and go to football games. We need to give the public a deeper impression of what it is to do academic research and why it's important.

If the public understands better the culture in that part of the world, the history, the religion in that part of the world. We're likely to vote in a different way maybe, than we voted before. It's making the scholarly work of the academy, more accessible and available, not just to our students, but to the general public so the discussions and the debates we have are based on more thorough thought and knowledge. More fact based debates. I don't think the academy should be telling society what to do, but it should be providing information—validated, fact-based, scholarly information that the public can then use to make its political decisions.

It seems like that’s hard to do these days—that both journalist and academics are probably working through—because there is such intense questioning that goes on. Sometimes people get attacked. I know even something you said during the election that got blew up in for a minute there. It seems like it happens to journalist all the time too. How do you get professors to be able to navigate that, I suppose, or students?

Many of our faculty are very anxious to have a positive impact on the public. They either, in the past haven't been rewarded for it, or sometimes their enthusiasm is diminished.

I'll tell you one thing that I mean by that. Our faculty come here as assisting professors and one of their goals is to achieve tenure. To develop a body of scholarly work and a teaching portfolio that will enable them to get the security of employment that will lead them to the latter stages of their career. The incentives there are to do scholarly work, publish in peer review journals, and to put your nose to the grindstone and write your next great book that will be published by the University of Michigan Press, or some other fancy press.

That doesn't place as strong an incentive doing these outwardly focused things that the academy traditionally hasn't known how to value. What I think we need to do is adjust or tweak our value system so that making the products of our scholarly work more accessible to the public becomes an institutional value that we reward people for.

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