A Conversation with Jeff Grabill, Director of Michigan State University’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, and Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.

This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space.

It’s natural to think — “It must be an edtech thing” — when you first hear about Michigan State University’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology. But, as the Hub’s Director, Jeff Grabill, shares: “What surprises people is how little of our work focuses on, or leads, with technologies.”

The Hub’s mission is to help MSU reinvent itself as a learning institution. The mechanisms that Jeff’s team employs to collaborate with the school and faculty for this reinvention take many forms, including, yes, technology, but also strategies like organizational design and classroom learning methodologies.

Jeff Grabill, Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, at Michigan State University.
Jeff Grabill, Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, at Michigan State University.

Origins of the Hub

Now in its third year, the Hub was formed as part of MSU’s student success initiative. Student success initiatives — which focus on student retention and graduation rates — are a hot topic in higher education right now. As Jeff shared, that’s because of low graduation rates at institutions across the board: “Only about half of students graduate in six years, which is the federal standard. At Michigan State, our graduation rate just got to 80%, which is good. But we still have some persistence issues, and we still have some gaps for students of color and first-generation students.”

The Hub is helping the university transform itself and the student experience by partnering with faculty and departments within the university on critical projects. In the three years since they formed, Jeff’s been working on building the Hub’s project portfolio. The need for innovative thinking and transformation could be endless at such a large state school.

Therefore, Jeff has concentrated on finding projects that will have a considerable impact: “We partner with our colleagues that we think have impact because they touch a core operating system of the institution, or they impact large numbers of students. Or, they’re compelling enough as a model that it’s worth doing because the model can be shared around campus for others to replicate.”

Jeff at work at the Hub.
Jeff at work at the Hub.

Innovation is a Four Letter Word

One of the fascinating threads throughout our conversation was how innovation is perceived in higher education today. “Innovation in higher education is kind of a dirty word,” Jeff said. Because of that, the Hub’s team approaches things from a different angle. And, that angle is definitely not about bringing cookie-cutter start-up culture and innovation cliches to East Lansing. “We think about innovation not as a bright and shiny thing or from Silicon Valley, but as a sustainable change in behavior or practice.”

“We to think about innovation not as a bright and shiny thing or from Silicon Valley, but as a sustainable change in behavior or practice.”

Phrases like “disruptive innovation” can be off-putting for faculty and may distract from the less flashy ways that meaningful change happens at universities: “There are certain things that we do at MSU and in higher education that deserve to be disrupted. We look for those things, but maybe in more mundane ways. We’re very interested in things that may not be seen as disruptive, but really will have a substantial change in how students experience the institution.”

At the Hub, it’s not about innovation or technology for the sake of turning things on their head or keeping up. Change is something that authentically benefits MSU students. That might be as deceptively simple as redesigning the student orientation or the first-year experience.

Faculty at a gathering at the Hub.
Faculty at a gathering at the Hub.

The Benefits of Slowness

We dug a little deeper into why innovation and talks of disruption may meet with skepticism on campus. First, Jeff talked about “cultural fatigue.” The faculty has seen it before. They’ve witnessed both good and bad ideas come and go. They’ve been involved with design consultants who have tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to facilitate design thinking or innovation at the university.

More intriguingly, Jeff thinks there is an upside to the fact that universities are often slow-moving. There is a “virtue” in this slowness, which stands in stark contrast to our current obsession with speed. That’s part of why their insider’s approach to innovation is working at the Hub. They know the culture and how it operates. It’s about being open, rather than resistant, to how faculty work and think. Sometimes important change takes time, and often for good reason.

“Slowness is both a virtue and a vice of higher education.”

“If you’re going to get involved in the innovation business in higher education, you have to know what you’re talking about. You have to be able to marshal a fair amount of evidence to help faculty learn to trust you and listen and participate in the process,” Jeff said. “Slowness is both a virtue and a vice of higher education. We can be very slow. But one of the virtues of being slow is we tend not to jump on bandwagons very quickly. And faculty know that sometimes going slow means that they make the right decision.”

This more measured stance also translates to how the Hub approaches their projects and partnerships. Jeff talked about how they spend a fair amount of time in the upfront stages of their project, or what they call the chartering process. “The charter is not that interesting, but the chartering that we do with people is very interesting. That’s where we make sure we get to know each other. We make sure that we’re using the same language, that we have the same understanding of the words we use, and that we have the same goals. Having these fundamentals in place and solid from the get-go has been key to success.”

Jeff Grabill quote

Education Not Transmission

The Hub has several ways to engage with university groups, including assessments and educational technology engagements. But, one of the most “tricky” aspects, according to Jeff, has been the work they do with learning design. Learning design is essentially how classes or courses are taught — i.e., are they interactive lectures, a talk accompanied by a PowerPoint, or purely conversational? In the age of technology and online education, there is an opportunity to rethink how learning happens both in the digital and physical classrooms. And, as Jeff has found, learning design is an emerging discipline: “It’s something that a lot of institutions are inventing.”

One of the recent trends in the so-called disruption of higher education was the arrival of MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. (Think: Khan Academy or EdX.) “When they first started, the proponents thought that they were going to disrupt higher education absolutely.” Yet, the radical dissolution of the university and college model has not happened, despite the explosion of free, or inexpensive, online courses and training.

According to Jeff, that’s because much of the edtech industry has misunderstood how education works as a business. “They want to apply business practices to universities, but education is a business, and it has values. It has a political economy.”

Part of that misunderstanding has been assuming that education is simply the transmission of information. In other words, if you make a lecture available on an online platform, we have made it possible to successfully transmit information between teacher and student. Jeff continued: “They think that the way humans learn is a function of a professor transmitting content via a lecture or a video to a student, and the student will consume that content and learn. That’s not how education works.”

“If that’s really what education is, and that’s how simple it is, then the television really would have transformed everything about how we learn.”

He went on: “If that’s really what education is, then the television would have transformed everything about education and how we learn. The fact is, television hasn’t disrupted anything about education or how we learn. Neither will computers or computer networks if that’s how people understand education and how they understand learning.”

“Learning is complex and humans learn in different ways. Humans often learn best in conversation with each other. This is why the Socratic method has been a persistent method, because it’s a method that’s grounded in conversation and questioning.”

Jeff at work

Relationships and Conversations

Jeff has found that conversations and strong personal relationships have been fundamental to success at the Hub. It’s what he says has allowed them to do meaningful work: “The best work that we do is grounded in effective relationships. Being an internal design group, that’s also advantageous to us because we know our colleagues well.”

They’re building these relationships by, “designing conversations. That’s fundamentally what our design practice is.” By this, Jeff means that, as designers, they facilitate ways for colleagues to talk, think, and decide. They create the circumstances for important debate: “If we’re doing our job well, we design ways for our colleagues to have conversations with each other. Conversations that they wouldn’t have without us. Conversations that they couldn’t have imagined having, conversations which are (and I’m going to use a word that I said is ‘bad’) disruptive, which are creative, which change the context in which they thought they were working. We reframe the conversation, and we reframe the problem for them, and it opens up new possibilities.”

“We reframe the conversation and we reframe the problem for them, and it opens up new possibilities.”

Additionally, it’s important to note — for Jeff, these conversations are about listening, not talking. “Part of designing conversations is making sure that we are expert listeners. One of the areas of expertise that we have to bring to our design practice is listening. Listening is hard, particularly the nuance. Listening to engineering faculty members, for example, is very different from listening to French faculty members. We have to figure out how to listen. And we’re trying to figure that out. The biggest failures come when we don’t listen. And when we fail to appreciate the cultural dynamics of the university fully. They are complex and run deep.”

“The biggest failures come when we don’t listen.”

If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.