We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
Now, after the pandemic, with the value of the bachelor’s degree foremost in the minds of students and families, a new academic arms race is emerging. This one is centered around academic innovation. The winners will be those institutions that in the decade ahead better apply technology in teaching and learning and develop different approaches to credentialing.
Sure, technology is often seen as plumbing on campuses — as long as it works, we don’t worry about it. And rarely do prospective students on a tour ever ask about academic innovations like extended reality or microcredentials. Campus tours prefer to show off the bells and whistles of residential life within dorms and dining halls.
That’s too bad. Recently, I got to see the University of Michigan’s new Center for Academic Innovation with its executive director, James DeVaney. The 47,000-square-foot facility is housed in the original Borders bookstore, the defunct chain that was founded in Ann Arbor (go ahead and cue the analogy between higher ed and the bookstore business). The center is the university’s hub for building new online programs and credentials as well as tech tools for teaching, which are then licensed to other colleges. It’s also master control for Michigan’s efforts around augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Studios for building AR/VR courses, for instance, feature enormous LED panels with such clear resolution that during the tour I was able to imagine what it would feel like to be immersed in my learning.
Technology is often seen as plumbing on campuses — as long as it works, we don’t worry about it.
And that’s the point. At Arizona State University, where I’m a special adviser, more than 15,000 students will complete virtual-reality labs for their introductory biology courses this year, and according to one study, they are nearly twice as likely to earn an A in the lab compared with their peers in traditional labs. Even small colleges have gotten into the virtual-experimentation game to better engage students in hard-to-comprehend concepts. At my alma mater, Ithaca College, where I also sit on the Board of Trustees, VR has been used everywhere, from assisting education students in teaching to helping occupational-therapy students practice on virtual patients.
In some ways, faculty experiments with AR/VR have been supplanted this academic year by experiments with AI in courses. On a recent webinar I hosted, Benjamin Breen, an associate professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz, discussed simulation experiences he uses in his courses, in which students use ChatGPT to generate conversations around a historical moment — from Pompeii to the Cuban Missile Crisis — and then fact-check those for the bias of historical sources.
Breen is an outlier. According to a recent Tyton Partners survey, only 22 percent of faculty say they are using generative-AI tools regularly, compared with half of students who say they are. As Andrew Maynard, a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University put it during the webinar: “If you’re a conventional educator, AI is breaking the way you teach.” Lev Gonick, the chief information officer at ASU, told me he has dedicated 20 full-time-equivalent positions in his division to building “sandboxes” for faculty and staff to experiment with AI. ASU just announced a partnership with OpenAI, which will allow faculty and staff to use advanced versions of ChatGPT to enhance the learning experience.
Microcredentials are all the rage in higher education right now and probably will become more so with passage of a bipartisan congressional bill that would allow Pell Grant-eligible students to use it toward college programs that last less than the traditional 15-week semester. Colleges always jump on a bandwagon when it means gaining access to federal dollars.
But there are other reasons why colleges should focus on academic innovation right now. So much of the current conversation in higher education is around decline, given completion rates that have stalled as students leave college short of earning a credential, and the coming demographic cliff. It’s important to remember that enrollment is a function of demand — and colleges can create interest by both what they offer and how they offer it. The problem is not a lack of learners, but rather a lack of alignment in what colleges offer to a generation of learners surrounded by Amazon, Netflix, and Instagram, where they can stream entertainment and music anytime, anywhere.
During the last two decades, prospective students and their families looked for better dorms and improved career services while on their college search, but now they’re coming to campuses with a different set of expectations. They’ll look for how faculty are engaging learners in the classroom (both in person and with tools like AR/VR), whether they’ll get the skills needed to enter an AI-enhanced work force, and whether institutions are certifying learning with credentials that have currency in the job market.
Colleges must make technology more central to the academic function of the institution.
This means that colleges must make technology more central to the academic function of the institution, much like they did in the late 1990s during the development of the internet. College leaders will also need to take calculated risks to leap ahead on the curve of innovation rather than wait and watch as other campuses pass them by.
As I was touring Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation, I was reminded that a decade ago, the university was a pioneer in MOOCs (massive open online courses) that legitimized online learning at selective universities. Everything the university has learned since, DeVaney told me, was incorporated into the design of the new center.
College presidents often see technology as a cost center, not as a place to drive differentiation in how they educate and serve students. But with the right set of investments in the coming years, colleges can see academic innovation as an opportunity to improve learner engagement, the overall student experience, and ultimately drive demand for their offerings.