Digital Education and Innovation leaders address office goals


The Office of the Provost announced a new Office of Digital Education and Innovation at the beginning of the academic year, saying it was created to “bolster personalized, engaged and lifelong learning by helping faculty explore creative ways to use technology and digital programs.”

James Hilton, vice provost for digital education and innovation, and James DeVaney, assistant vice provost for digital education and innovation, sat down recently with Laurel Thomas Gnagey of Michigan News to talk more in-depth about the goals for DEI.

Q: First let’s talk about what the office is and why it was started.

James Hilton

Hilton: It started sort of organically. From the beginning it was to support experimentation, to accelerate it. The way I think about it is to accelerate in a way that meshes with the culture of Michigan around engaging with digital education.

When we think about DEI, it’s about how we enable people to go out and experiment, and importantly, how we also start to harvest when that experimentation shows good results. So when you find that something works in one place, how do you make sure that other people know that it’s working? And how do you give them an opportunity to do it as well?

James DeVaney

DeVaney: Digital engagement technology has come a long way. We’re learning so much about how to use the data we already have and to make smart choices with technology to advance learning. There are all these new opportunities to engage students, to personalize the experience to create lifelong learning pathways. We can both transform residential education and amplify research.

How do we develop the capability to achieve some of those things? And so we’ve created an office. But that means different things to different people. For some it really is a physical place that you go for guidance and to access expertise. For others it’s a node in a network that provides some coherence and facilitates collaboration across a very distributed place. For others, it’s really more of a method for knowledge sharing when we’re on the fringe. When we’re pushing new terrain.

So the concept of an office is a tricky one. It is a physical place where people can go and experiment, but it’s also a place to access resources. And by and large, it’s a place to address this kind of opportunity statement, which is how do we take advantage of the opportunities that we have now, given our place in the world as a great university?

Hilton: Piggybacking on that, there are two other reasons we created DEI. There’s an historical answer for why this came into being. MOOCs — massive open online courses — came on the scene. U-M was one was of the original Coursera partners. And whether you love or hate MOOCs, they clearly captured the attention, both within universities and more broadly. And part of the creation of DEI, I think, was Martha (Pollack, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs) recognizing that we needed to figure out what was there beyond MOOCs.

From the beginning, Michigan has said MOOCS are an interesting thing, primarily because they’ve engaged the attention of a group of faculty who are now rethinking how they want to deliver residential education, in light of this technology that allows you to do things at this really large scale. So it’s always been clear that the emphasis is on how we use digital technology to improve, to enhance, to redefine, and to shape a residential experience for the century ahead. Part of it was recognition that we need to articulate our institutional focus and priorities.

The second thing, and I don’t know whether this was intended, is that when you look at what’s happening in Michigan, and look at the recognition that other institutions get for what to us looks to be lower levels of activity than what’s happening at Michigan, we were clearly missing an opportunity to shine a sort of coherent light on the exciting things that were already happening here. Part of DEI is also about that. It’s about shining a coherent light on the amazing work that our faculty are already doing in digital education and learning analytics.

Q: How unique are we in our approach?

DeVaney: We’d like to think we’re pretty unique. If I could simplify the four models that are in place, I think it will emphasize how we are unique.

The first model includes the universities that haven’t quite organized themselves around digital education, and they’re not doing much.

A second model creates a separate legal entity — a unit that stands outside of the university and really is more like a service provider that has one customer. Largely they take the assets of an institution and find ways to remix and reuse them to deliver programs to students that wouldn’t have otherwise been engaged with that institution.

Another model builds off the existing infrastructure of a school of continuing studies that has been positioned with that institution to help do very similar work to reach these nontraditional audiences.

And fourth, where we fall, is something that is embedded within the institution, tied very closely to academic unit and university priorities, to help find different methods for experimentation that align with the academic unit goals.

I think within that subset we’re also different because our view of digital education is not only about online education. It’s the three threads of digital infrastructure at scale, learning leadership and learning analytics, and curricular innovation. And even within those institutions that are tying it very closely and integrating it across the academic institution, we’re different in terms of the scope of focus that we have.

Hilton: It’s enabling from the center of the mission. From the center of where this place is. It’s about how we look at the opportunities that this technology provides; to continue to improve and transform what we’ve always cared about, which is the residential experience.

Q: Who benefits from this office and this program being in place?

DeVaney: We’d like to think that’s a big list. When our north star is transforming the residential education experience at a great public university, we’re certainly thinking about the student experience.

Because our approach is both scholarly and practical, we’re also providing opportunities for faculty to push the boundaries of their scholarship in their pursuit of discovery.

Because we are providing this knowledge-sharing mechanism and projecting coherence across an institution, I think this is also a unique place where staff who are aligned with various innovation efforts across campus are benefitting.

And certainly through some of our broader initiatives like MOOCs there’s a far-reaching population that is benefitting, and we’re only at the very early stages of figuring out how. But we know we are reaching now nearly two million students, participants in these MOOCs.

Hilton: When I’m asked that question, I imagine what it would be like to have been around at the time that Gutenberg was bringing out his printing press, with the amazing possibility it presented. And it took decades.

There’s always lots of hype around new technology but people sort of always overestimate the short-term impact, and often underestimate the long-term impacts. So when Gutenberg came out with the moveable-type printing press, nobody predicted the rise of the Reformation and the role that the printing press was going to play in the emergence of democratic forms of government. And yet it had this huge transformative impact that enabled enlightenment.

I look at this phase as very similar. Universities have run on a set of technologies for centuries, and now we have this technology that lets information be fairly ubiquitously available, in a network connection that allows for interactivity. But what happens now is you put that information ubiquity, along with communication technology to allow interaction, and it creates this whole new way of thinking about it.

So who benefits? Anybody who’s interested in what a residential education at a great research university should look like for this century, this technology, this economy.

Q: Is there anything more to say about why it’s important that you’re doing this?

Hilton: One of the things that’s been interesting about launching DEI is that the response has been really very positive. People are in. Often when you start something like this, you feel like you’re going to show up and it’s almost like saying, “We’re from the government. We’re here to help.” And you get a response of, “Oh great.”

The faculty advisory groups that we formed around this, and the faculty who are interacting and participating in DEI, are making enormous time commitments. There’s a level of energy and enthusiasm. And I think part of it is that while everyone celebrates the distributed nature of this place, there is a hunger for just a little bit of connection.

One of the things that we really try to emphasize is that our job is to enable and connect people. Not to own it, not to control it, but to connect people. And that seems to really be resonating.

DeVaney: The other reason why it’s important is that we’ve arrived at a point in time when universities need to differentiate themselves. And while DEI is not the only voice in how to differentiate U-M, we are an important voice. And we are helping to trigger and facilitate that conversation in many important ways.

I think because of the newness of so many of the things that we are focused on, it helps people to look at some very traditional aspects of the university in a different way. At Michigan we celebrate the past, question the present, and position for the future.

You asked earlier about the response we’re getting, and almost without exception our orientation toward transforming residential learning has been incredibly well received.

A common piece of feedback we get is we’re emphasizing through our initiatives and through the way that we reach out to people that the journey is as important as the destination. And that philosophical point of view has been really well received, too.

People appreciate the real and tangible ways we’re helping them map those journeys and share examples across campus, in an otherwise distributed environment. So some of the matchmaking that we’ve been able to do, I think, is bringing a great deal of benefit across the institution.

There’s also a general feeling that we have this unique opportunity as a great visible public research university to share that dream with others. And so other institutions can also learn from Michigan.

Q: Can you elaborate more on the innovation part of this and this whole idea of experimentation?

Hilton: So how else do you become the leaders and the best? I think that getting people to experiment is not the hard part. I think the hard part is how do we learn from each other and scale that?

You have lots of independent, autonomous experimentation happening. DEI isn’t coming in and suddenly saying, “Hey, experimentation is really important,” and going out to convert people to that idea. That is this place. People are experimenting constantly.

Where there’s often a gap is when I do something as a research project or something that I want to try in my class, and I think it works. How do I scale that? How do I hand it off? Where do I go from a curriculum that I’ve developed that might have impact broader in the department? Or how do I go from, here’s this digital tool that I’ve been using or that I’ve helped develop or that I’ve worked with a graduate student to program, and it’s really having an impact? How do I go from that to a centrally provided service for tens of thousands of people? That’s a huge gap.

Very few things actually should make it all the way across that gap. But part of what we’re trying to do is to figure out a midrange. Let’s figure out what the institution needs to learn about what you’re doing to enable more people to take advantage of it.

DeVaney: What we’re doing is encouraging more visibility around that experimentation. We’re facilitating the question of what’s next. We’re also helping to answer that question of how can we maximize the benefit to the U-M community. I think we’re facilitating those kinds of questions, while supporting experimentation through various resources.

Q: How do you reach that person who says, “You know, I’m not really a technical person?” Or the one who says, “I’ve incorporated technology. I’m letting students do assignments online and I’m using the clickers in class,” or whatever the base level of technology is. How do you bring those folks along?

DeVaney: The population you’re talking about has some different potential barriers to their experimentation. And I would say those are constraints brought about by a need for more information and assurances.

These are people who are saying, “I’d like to see more data to know that these pursuits broadly are commensurate with the quality of what we deliver in a purely place-based way. I’d like to see some pathways. So demystify this for me. What are the actual steps that will go into it, and how is it different from the things that I do today?”

They would like to see some real tangible examples from the vantage point of their peers. What we’re trying to do is to be able to answer that range of questions. So here is data that shows how this is working and, in some cases, best practices. And here are prototypes that we’ve helped to articulate and map which will simplify the process or the journey that you’re about to embark on.

And to those who are already engaged, we’re saying here are peers who are approaching things in similar ways that would benefit the experiments that you’re working on.

Hilton: In terms of sort of scaling innovation, part of what I think DEI is doing is providing a community basis for faculty to talk with each other. Because in the end, whether a faculty member is going to decide if it’s worth it is almost critically dependent on what colleagues say about it. Not what we say about it. Not what Martha says about it. It’s going to be about what other people who are in similar positions and circumstances — their colleagues who they trust — have experienced.

Q: You touched on this earlier but let’s elaborate a little more about what resources are available.

DeVaney: There’s expertise in learning analytics, digital media and production, pedagogical design, how to look at student demand and student interests, all that kind of expertise. There are financial resources. There’s space both physical and virtual to expand upon ideas.

We’re trying to program a digital education innovation lab where one can come with an idea fully formed, half-baked or in infant stages to talk through in various ways. I think that’s a really valuable part of what we’re providing. There’s a mapping of resources across campus to give a very faculty-centric how-to on getting started. There’s access to peers that are doing similar things.

Those are some of the ways I would describe the resources.

Q: And how can someone access them?

DeVaney: Multiple ways as you might expect. Our door is wide open at the digital education and innovation lab. People are encouraged to stop by and connect directly with our staff to talk through ideas. Increasingly we’re sharing resources through our website, and we’ll continue to do so.

We have, let’s say, advocates or champions across the institution, and we’re steadily building that network. So many of them are part of our digital innovation advisory group and several subcommittees. With each conversation we’re growing that network.

So I think depending on comfort level and the nature of inquiry, we’re trying to establish a few different forms and venues for people to access DEI. If someone was new to us and just wanted to start a conversation, then I would encourage them to come to our lab space and meet with our team.

Q: We’re talking about people doing things with engaged learning and global learning, and now digital education and innovation. Do these things all work together?

Hilton: Yeah, so the way I think about it is engaged is sort of the overarching. There are lots of conversations on what does it mean to be engaged? But, you know, how do you create a learning experience? How do you create a residential experience that’s engaging, that’s authentic, that pushes people to think critically? To think about how you apply what you’re learning. What you’re reading about. What you’re experiencing. How do you apply that?

At some level, what we’re really trying to do everywhere at the university is ask how do we maximize a residential education at a research university? It’s a gift that we can provide and that students can take advantage of, and so, for me, engaged learning is how you make sure that that you’re challenging people. You’re putting them in situations where they’re actively learning, actively applying. Learning to collaborate. Learning to critically think. And those have been the goals for education all along. Now there is recognition that learning is often about doing.

So and then I think that global and digital are just sort of there. It’s calling attention to these opportunities. We’re after engaged learning and along the way, let’s make sure we take advantage of the moment, the opportunities, the pressure, to think what does it mean to be in the globally connected world? And what does it mean to create a residential experience in a digital world?

DeVaney: To piggyback, everything is engaged. And the use of the smart choices with technology, and enhancing our capability to use learning analytics, support further engagement.

Technology and learning analytics will help us point more and more students in the direction of finding their experience in places that we might not have thought of otherwise. The more individuated this becomes, the more we are able to ensure that students have that moment or series of moments that feel more like a continuous capstone, as opposed to something you build towards during your experience.

Hilton: I think that’s part of what’s exciting about where we stand.

So, I went to the University of Texas as an undergraduate. And my father is an English professor. As I was headed off to UT, he said, “You know, you can get a great education at any university. It’s on you to do it.” And UT, like Michigan, is a large research university. And it worked really well for me because I had, I don’t know, the temperament. I grew up in an academic family so it never occurred to me to not go seek professors, not talk to them, not find out what their research was, not get involved.

So for me, it was this banquet of opportunity. But it was on me to do that. And part of what I think is exciting about this technology is being able to help students navigate this incredibly complicated environment in a way that increases the chances that they have those kinds of experiences.

And as James was saying, we often talk about how we want to make sure that students have opportunities to do scholarship in the humanities and creative works in the arts. That’s what research universities do. But we want that to be the default experience, not the exception. And part of digital technology maybe is going to help us do that.

DeVaney: In a place that has near 100 programs in the top 10, with an external environment pushing toward information abundance, how do we help students make choices? Some of that will come through technology. Some of it is still very personalized face-to-face experiences. But how do we help them make those smart choices?

One of the bold vision statements behind the learning analytics activity is how do we help every incoming Michigan student benefit from all the students that came before? And that’s a really fascinating idea. And the cool thing is it’s not that farfetched. We have the power of data. Our next very important step is putting that data in the hands of people in a way that they can use it.

So advancements in technology, but also communication, and the way we organize the data that we have and the way that we use it is all very important to that effort.

Q: How do you plan to get that into the hands of more people?

Hilton: When it comes to the individual experiment level, we’re already working with faculty who are testing out some of these tools. And some of the ways we’re helping is to build a community of faculty with shared interests who are willing to experiment along with those who are leading the development of a tool.

So there’s some community building around programs like E-Coach or Grade Craft, or Student Explorer or the others that will come next. We’re hoping to give some shape to experiments with real hypotheses to test, and to support it with experts and project managers and space, and to help align the faculty and staff community around growing and testing these tools in different ways.

We’re also working on policies. So right now one of the biggest challenges and questions still to be answered revolve around what are the legal, ethical and institutional values that you want to apply to this question of learning and teaching data? The university collects tons of information.

As we enter into this era of analytics and big data there’s a lot of hype around it. I always say, however, that all the data in the world won’t help you if the questions that you’re asking aren’t intelligible, thought-out questions. There’s nothing magical about suddenly having big data. There’s tons of noise in big data, which you can mistake for signal. But, there is this opportunity to become more outcome data-informed driven.

We believe that having a residential education is supposed to help improve your habits of mind and your quality of life. But it’s very hard to go beyond faith-based assertions of that impact. And so one of the things that we’re starting to look at is, that we have access to all kinds of data that right now are kept separate. What are the conditions under which we might link them? And how do we do that in a way that’s ethical, legal, value-driven?

Part of what DEI is doing is having that conversation. So we’ve been going around talking with a variety of groups about what would happen if we started to look at linking some of these data right now, what are the implications of that? And how do we make sure that if we do that, we do that in a way that resonates with the values of the community?

Q: You did a call for MOOCs recently. Talk to me about this, your emphasis on it and promotion of it. What’s the value to the university and to the individual who’s doing them?

DeVaney: We should point out that the opportunity to propose is open and it’s not a finite window. DEI is also making strategic investments in a range of initiatives beyond MOOCs that are designed to maximize institutional impact and explore questions and experimentation around curricular innovation, learning analytics, and leveraging digital infrastructure at scale.

Faculty are more knowledgeable about what MOOCs are and what they are not. We have a few years of learning under our belts, and I think that’s been really helpful. The nice thing is that when we look in hindsight to the MOOCs we’ve created, there are clear benefits to the residential learning experience. So what we’re doing is emphasizing how important that is in our future experimentation.

The other change that we’re making is where we’ve produced several MOOCs and we’re now ready to carry those experiments forward. So this goes to the “what’s next?” question. We have one faculty member who has run a MOOC, and now that MOOC is required for first-year graduate students in one of our programs.

So we have now 20 plus MOOCs in various stages of production that are out there available to the world and we want to think about what academic areas of excellence we’re portraying to a very wide audience.

So I think that’s the next challenge for us. How do we put our multidisciplinary strengths in perspective? How do we showcase our unique ability to address complex global issues? How do we leverage the experimental opportunity provided by MOOCs to redefine public residential education and amplify our commitment to discovery and scholarship?

Hilton: I tell people, don’t pay too much attention to the feast and famine of where MOOCs sit and public discourse right now.

One really interesting and important question to ask is, what can you do with technology to potentially educate at scale? Which is fundamentally how MOOCS started. From the beginning, Michigan’s response has been, what could we learn from the tools and technologies that allow you to educate at scale to enhance the residential experience?

The second thing is, the faculty who’ve been engaged at Michigan around the question of MOOCs have been engaged with the question about what are the most effective ways to teach. How can I rethink? How can I experiment and play around in a way that it’s just joyful to be around? I mean they are like kids in the sandbox, constantly questioning how they’ve done things in the past. Sharing with each other and really forming a community.

And the third thing that I always think about is the controversy about whether MOOCs are succeeding at that first thing. Are they really educating at scale? How well are they doing it? What are the completion rates?

There’s no question that MOOCs have captured public attention and that they also provide opportunities to highlight an institution — one of the things that we value, and that you might want to come here for.

So certainly when I think about MITs engaging with open courseware and with EdX and MOOC, their strategy, from where I sit, looks like it’s mostly about projecting MIT globally as the place you want to be if you want an engineering education. If you want a technical education, they’re the place to be. And it’s been enormously successful.

And I look at a place that has 100 top 10 programs and go, “Well probably there’s some opportunity out there as well for projecting out.” So, I think that much like the printing press example, people overestimate impact, underestimate long-term changes.

DeVaney: Faculty here who have been in the forefront of MOOCs have reached broader audiences, captured data and learned from those very large sample sizes, created repositories of digital media, assets and learning objects that they can use in different ways, and are experimenting with broadly defined flipped classroom opportunities here on campus. And that leads to them saying, “OK, I get it, more data from larger sample sizes. Learning objects that I can remix and reuse in really interesting ways and personalized experiences.”

We’ve learned that flipping classrooms is more than just giving learners content in advance. It is a thoughtful and deliberate process of unbundling and re-bundling the way we deliver a learning experience. And all of this in the interest of using this precious time that we have together on campus in more meaningful ways.

“Got that. I’m there. Now what?” What are the best practices to use that finite classroom time in more interesting ways? So that’s the other place that we can help. And that’s, of course, in collaboration with folks that are looking at engaged learning more broadly. We’ve used technology. We’ve used data in interesting ways to enhance the experience of students on campus. But that does free up some time to do different things, and what are the best different things that we can do? 


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