Carving a Role for Academic Innovation

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Key Takeaways

  • Academic innovation is not just about new channels for delivery, but includes approaching questions and answers in the context of new technologies and data.
  • A strong impetus for innovation in teaching comes from faculty members who want to use current technologies in rethinking their pedagogy.
  • Instruction is moving from work done by an individual acting alone to a project that requires a group with a range of skills.
  • Changing long-established practices and competing for resources to do so require marketing and promoting the work.

Peter Schilling, Associate Vice President for Academic Innovation, Office of Global Technology Services, New York University

Toward the end of my first meeting with the provost at New York University, he used an analogy that I have since learned is part of the NYU culture. I had had a couple of conversations with senior administrators at NYU about the impact of new technologies on learning, and they asked me to talk with the provost. He told me that some jobs were well defined, like a carefully finished desk with drawers, a tray for pens, a space to pull in a chair, and such. Other jobs resembled a block of wood that one turned into a desk while sitting at it over time. What did I think, he asked, about a block of wood–type role?

In the summer of 2010 when this conversation took place, I was in my fifth year as the head of IT at Amherst College. After completing a PhD in English literature in the mid-nineties, I had developed some of the first web sites for Prentice Hall and then the College Board. I returned to higher education a few years later to create Bowdoin College's Center for Educational Technology and then led the IT department at Wagner College before moving to Amherst. I linked technology to changing educational culture when it was still discouraged.


New York University (NYU) is large, with over 40,000 students and more than 3,100 full-time faculty. It is a nearly 200-year-old, private (in the United States), tuition-driven, highly decentralized institution of 18 schools and colleges. Like many other universities, over the years its central IT department mostly focused on infrastructure and administrative systems.

Very few NYU faculty had the opportunity, resources, or support to apply current research in learning, neuroscience, or cognitive psychology to their instructional practices. Lectures still dominated undergraduate instruction. NYU could not support more active approaches to learning, nor had it bridged the divide between education and research (or learning by doing) for undergraduates. The technology available for teaching and learning included the usual tools for administering classes, such as a learning management system (LMS), a media streaming service, a platform for surveys, and, more recently, Google Apps for Education and Wordpress hosting. Classrooms had projection as well as wireless access, and some had clickers and lecture capture. PowerPoint, as at so many higher education institutions, defined the pedagogy.

Impetus for Change

The limitations of these typical approaches came into sharper relief when NYU became a global university: NYU now has three main campuses (New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai) and 11 study sites around the world. The university wants courses to relate to the specific locations in which they offer them, yet have a global scope as well. This concept should become part of the global curriculum.

"[We] provide students the real opportunity to think globally while looking at a local context."
—John Burt, Professor, Biology, NYU Abu Dhabi

At the same time, some NYU faculty members came to appreciate that undergraduate and graduate students needed more current skills. As with digital humanities efforts at colleges and universities around the country, writing and studying cultures remained important, but now students also need programming, data management, GIS, statistics, and web publishing capabilities, among others, to provide them with marketable skills. More importantly, though, it helps students view intellectual questions in the context of the tools now available to help find answers to them. (Many years ago I wrote an in-depth piece on this topic: "Technology as Epistomology.") To put it simply, if PowerPoint is the tool for presenting the solution to every issue we face, our answers will be bullet lists of marketing jargon with questionable grammar. But if we get to include data modeling, video, animation, narrative, graphics, sound, simulations, and more, we might get some nuance.

Finally, similar to sentiments felt on campuses around the world, some NYU faculty members had grown frustrated by offering the same lectures semester after semester. They sought ways beyond simply videotaping lectures or re-creating face-to-face experiences, to rethink the whole course in light of all the media options available. Outside of the classroom they used digital video, TiVo, Photoshop, Skype, computer games, Garageband, and more. Now they wanted similar tools for teaching.

So my block of wood or my charge started to take shape:

  • Global curriculum locally inflected
  • Courses infused with contemporary computational thinking skills
  • Courses built from the ground up with current technologies

Then MOOCs happened. Everyone, except matriculated students and faculty, seemed to want MOOCs, a MOOC strategy, a MOOC partnership…. Until they did not.

"Throughout the year of the MOOC, much of the debate was diverted to discussions of a single educational modality and not the more precise questions of which modality, for which student, under which circumstances."
—David McLaughlin, Provost, NYU

Building Support for Global Collaboration

Shaping my block of wood — or charge — to support these three needs, I brought together a learning and innovation team of approximately 20 to collaborate with NYU schools, sites, and academic departments. The face-to-face, hybrid, and online curricula we develop are informed by evidence-based research. To the extent possible, the courses fulfill the instructional potential of NYU as a global and local university. The curricula and the way in which faculty and students share it is native to 21st-century information and collaboration technologies.

One of our early projects was an urban marine environmental studies course that addressed all three needs together. A NYU marine biologist in Abu Dhabi (John Burt), a NYU environmental biologist in New York (Mary Killilea), and members of NYU's learning innovation group developed it jointly. In the course, students go out into the city in which they are studying and collect data on the built aquatic and coastal environments (figure 1).

figure 1

Figure 1. "Where the City Meets the Sea" students

Students work together across two or more NYU sites with videoconferencing-enabled classrooms. The students collect data in the field using tablets and other tools, analyze it in computer labs, combine it with other data sets on maps with GIS software, and present it together using a variety of multimedia and web-based tools.

"One of the things that is really exciting to me and the students in the class is the ability to be teaching a class simultaneously and experiencing a class simultaneously on two campuses. I was surprised by how easy it was to feel like it was one class."
—Mary Killilea, Professor, Biology, NYU

NYU has now offered this course about a dozen times in the following configurations and locations: New York-Abu Dhabi, New York-Abu Dhabi-London, New York-London, Abu Dhabi-Shanghai, and as a single-site course in Sydney. Other students and faculty have used the hardware, software, data sets, and online training materials first brought together for this course in a dozen unrelated courses ranging from Irish Studies, Linguistics, and Ethics to Street Art, Business, and much more. The number grows each semester.

Supporting Faculty Step-by-Step

These new efforts can challenge faculty and academic departments. For this reason, we take small steps. This is almost always an evolving process. Rarely do we try to create in one go a course that is multi-site, computationally current, and delivered with new media and collaboration technologies. Faculty members provide the curriculum and vision, and they must be comfortable with the course environment. NYU's learning and innovation group represents the skilled trades. We measure, build, plumb, wire, paint, and support the courses in ways that faculty members could not easily do on their own. Still, most efforts start by simply helping faculty experiment with a different way of delivering instructional content or a different type of assignment.

To approach 21st century computational thinking, faculty members and technical staff talk about the type of information or data students will create or collect. We discuss the ways students will analyze and then present this information. We also consider how students may collaborate. For all of this — collection, analysis, presentation, and collaboration — we review the hardware and software available today to complete the tasks. This is often a delicate conversation. We work not to overwhelm faculty members by dwelling on how much and how fast these things are changing.

"Creating video content is usually a big adjustment for faculty members, and so in addition to the nitty-gritty of recording footage and editing, I spend quite a lot of time working with faculty members and the instructional technologists here to help determine how we can best approach creating content that's pedagogically effective and really enriches the students' learning experience."
—Hugh Mackey, Video Producer and Editor, Learning and Innovation, NYU

NYU's learning and innovation department consists of talented, highly educated, and broadly experienced instructional technologists, programmers, and systems administrators, as well as videographers, animators, GIS specialists, and others. They coordinate with IT and library staff across NYU to insure that students and faculty can share the resources, platforms, and data repositories across courses, departments, schools, and locations. So, for instance, the training materials, databases, data collection tools, and such can serve many courses at all NYU sites. This helps us ensure that the approach can scale to hundreds of courses. Just as important, the data and other materials the students, faculty, librarians, and others gather, analyze, and present in one specific class become resources shared by many classes across the university.

The Power of New Technologies

Numerous technologies essential to students' learning look nothing like the marine environmental studies course. For example, when at Amherst College I put together a team similar to the one at NYU. One of this team's collaborations was with an art historian teaching students about medieval French cathedrals. He began to use a simulation tool in his classes that let students create their own cathedrals as three-dimensional objects in the context of a landscape (figure 2).

figure 2

Figure 2. Simulation tool

Professor Joel Upton, Art History, Amherst College, explained the effects of using a simulation tool in his class:

"The whole teacher-student relationship has been changed…. Instead of simply receiving my learning and taking it, they are engaged in my own involvement with the problem…. It has changed the character of the class 100%."

This video [] describes a Unity 3D-based tool in which students build their own cathedrals. At about the 2:50 mark in the video, the professor begins to describe his realization that during 40 years of teaching he had accepted students' verbal and writing skills in place of actual visual understanding. By having his students use the tool, he came to appreciate that the two frequently do not overlap. This account, while uplifting in its description of a problem solved, can also be devastating when considering the students of the past 40 years or those in classes without this technological opportunity.

In a project with Professor John Di Bartolo, Engineering, NYU, he discussed working with an animator to create materials for a physics course:

"Already it has changed my teaching because the amount of thought that has gone into creating these [animations].... So already I'm approaching these topics differently. The link between what I am teaching in the classroom and that much-needed visual that I often don't have with my students was a dream come true."

These two examples show the transformative nature of new technologies. They lie at the resource-intensive end of the spectrum of our work with faculty, however. Most of our efforts focus on helping individual faculty rethink an existing course without using a lecture or even a classroom as a defining feature. Having options is liberating. With our range of experiences and skills we can create a new kind of course in ways that focus on learning more than on delivery. One or two semesters later, the same faculty member will often want a transformative course. Ours is an evolving process.

What the Academic Innovation Desk Needs

Over the past decade, certain organizational themes have emerged. To succeed at colleges and universities, instructional technology needs to:

  • Focus on learning above all else (e.g. not on new revenue)
  • Have academic strategic leadership
  • Possess tactical skills for navigating complex university organizations
  • Include technical development and support experience

With a new wave of web services on the horizon (the Internet of Things, for example) and the application of data analytics to learning also imminent, a desk with at least these four features will be important.


Building your own desk is enormously fun. But an institution will have greater success by involving others from the outset. At the very least, others need to know that you are building a desk! In a complex organization like a university, you need top-down as well as bottom-up buy-in.

You cannot count on the quality of the courses and evidence of student learning to speak for themselves. It is essential to create great learning materials. But so, too, is marketing and promoting the work. When changing long-established practices and competing for resources to do so, you need a well-honed sales pitch to persuade your campus of your new academic innovation's value.