The Right Way to Lead Higher Education Through the Digital Age

Here at the University of Virginia, we have been going through a traumatic couple of weeks. As a result of a reckless and radical move by the Board of Visitors to drive President Teresa Sullivan from her office, we have lost financial support, students, and talented colleagues. The board has damaged the reputation of this great institution. So we on the faculty are fighting to restore the reputation.

When the rector of the Board, Helen Dragas, declared late last week that she was unsatisfied by the fact that she saw the University of Virginia falling behind other major universities in the deployment of digital classroom innovation, we were shocked.

Why didn’t she just ask us? UVa’s innovative digital reputation is one of the reasons I moved here five years ago. I have taught online, and so have many of my colleagues. If she had asked, I would have introduced Dragas to six or seven of my colleagues, including distinguished professors of computer science, English, religious studies, and engineering. I would have taken her to our world-renowned Scholars’ Lab and introduced her to the staff members who guide students and professors through the use of powerful digital platforms and tools.

Mostly, we would have told a story of how about 20 years ago, University of Virginia scholars and staff recognized the power of the digital transformation of higher education and became early leaders. We have not relinquished that leadership role to this day. We approach digital platforms and technologies eagerly but wisely. We examine their implications, discuss their strengths and weaknesses, and study the volumes of excellent scholarship on digital teaching. As scholars, we don’t believe in doing things recklessly or irresponsibly. As teachers, we believe in engaging our students in the assessments of what works and what does not. We experiment. We fail. We succeed. We revise. We explain. But we never assume we have all the answers.

We also consider innovations and experiments in research to be part of our teaching mission. We don’t think of research and teaching as competitive activities. They inform each other. And tools developed for one enhances the other. The better we can present and explain our research, the better we can perform in the classroom or online.

In the spirit of such an introduction, I asked my colleague David Germano, a professor of religious studies and the director of the Science, Humanities, and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (Shanti), to walk us through the history and variety of innovation at the University of Virginia.

Below is what David wrote. Because we believe the best work is collaborative, we enlisted input from a computer-science professor, William Wulf; a professor of English, Jerome McGann; William Guilford, an associate professor in the department of biomedical engineering; Professor Glen Bull of the Curry School of Education; and others. So this post is an example of the way we do things at the University of Virginia: collaboratively, inclusively, and deliberately.


The University of Virginia has been one of the world leaders in digital technology for research and teaching for the last two decades. Its relevant institutions, individuals, and projects have had a profound and continuing impact on higher education, and this pioneering work has been widely emulated at other major universities.

The foundations of our work go back to 1992 when four faculty members—two from science and engineering (Bill Wulf and Alan Batson), and two from the humanities (Ed Ayers and Jerome McGann)—were instrumental in creating UVa’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), which became perhaps the most famous institution in the rapidly expanding field of digital humanities, under the leadership of John Unsworth, Worthy Martin, and Daniel Pitti. IATH’s powerful model of faculty fellowships linking technologists with humanists for transformation in scholarship has produced an astonishing array of projects, beginning with Ed Ayers’s The Valley of the Shadow and Jerome McGann’s Rossetti Archive, and later leading to such major multi-institution online scholarly frameworks as Nines, the Tibetan and Himalayan Library, Chaco Canyon, Rome Reborn, and the Social Networks and Archival Context Project.

The University of Virginia Library has been a widely emulated pioneer in digital technology. It has played a key role in building the famed Fedora digital library framework, widely used throughout the world, and for years has supported digital innovation and internationally renowned faculty projects. This tradition continues today with the Scholars’ Lab innovation in geospatial and other scholarly technologies, as well as its Praxis program in graduate training, the Robertson Media Center,with its outstanding Digital Media Lab’s pioneering work in video and immersive technologies, and the Hydra digital library project.

In 2009, the Board of Visitors approved the money for two  successful experiments that leverage central IT and library resources to support faculty-led projects seeking to mainstream innovative digital technology throughout the institution. The Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives (Shanti) and the UVa Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering (Uvacse) have been creating sustainable and scalable solutions to integrate yesterday’s high-end innovations into today’s practices for the rank and file, with a focus on frameworks for creating, processing, and publishing scholarly resources, and on high-performance computing.

UVa thus has an enviable body of expertise distributed throughout the university and an exceptional track record of leadership in digital teaching, learning, and scholarship.

Last year’s developments in massive, open, online courses at MIT and Stanford are important, but those developments involve rudimentary forms of online content delivery (transmitting a video of a teacher and online multiple-choice questionnaires, for example), and have yet to produce a compelling business model, much less a viable platform for how such courses can be integrated within the institution.

We cheer on such experiments, but we don’t assume we can predict the educational results or prescribe such a wholesale adoption elsewhere based on what we know now.

Still, UVa has a long history of exploration and experience with online teaching. Thirty years ago, our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences created the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program (CGEP), which has innovated in distance education, institutional cooperation, and academic outreach. More recently, its Engineers Produced in Virginia program has been pioneering the use of online education to bring quality undergraduate engineering education to communities throughout Virginia.

Similarly, the Curry School of Education collaborated with the Virginia Department of Education to develop the nation’s first Internet-based learning environment for elementary and secondary schools, Virginia’s Public Education Network, and has created many online-learning systems that do everything from facilitating academic discourse in online education to developing online STEM education that spans kindergarten through graduate engineering.

As further developments in online teaching unfold, UVa’s unusually deep and diverse capacity in digital technology and scholarly activity well situates it to make distinctive contributions to not just online teaching but a spectrum of interrelated innovations in teaching, learning, scholarship, and engagement.

The educational transformations stimulated by digital technology remain largely potential rather than actual, and thus call for balancing dynamic leadership with deliberate planning, fully including all sectors of the university.

In this way, a university can fashion integrated plans that take into account all the variables—technical, intellectual, pedagogical, economic, and so forth—in order to be rooted in community needs and realities and also be sustainable and scalable in the long term. UVa has rich expertise and accomplishments to call upon in creating such plans. President Sullivan’s fashioning of a community of collaboration and consensus has laid the groundwork for tapping into those riches to continue our leading role in the years to come.

But to continue our pioneering work, we must integrate multiple stakeholders and technologies, address complex pedagogical challenges, and enhance understanding of both the technologies and the course subject matter, rather than simply recreate the correspondence classes of the past in a new electronic context.

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