Academic Innovation at the Foot of the Cathedral

Duke chapel at sunset

Matthew Rascoff, our outgoing Associate Vice Provost for Digital Education and Innovation, reflects on four years at Learning Innovation and Duke.


The pandemic year clouds my memories of “before times” on campus but I still clearly recall the awe and inspiration I felt on arriving at Duke on February 8, 2017. I took this picture that morning upon entering Rubenstein Library, just before I climbed the stairs for the first time, on my way up to my office on the second floor. 

The entry foyer of Rubenstein.

My four years at Duke have been immensely rewarding, personally and professionally. I made wonderful, lasting friendships in this community, especially with Shawn Miller, my trusted partner in leadership. Both of my children were born in Duke Hospitals and learned to walk and ride a bike on East Campus. Now, on my last day at Duke, I reflect with gratitude and appreciation for my team, the meaningful work we did, and the collaborators with whom we did it. 

The Learning Innovation team combines commitment and quirkiness, collegiality and entrepreneurialism, and a spirit of supportive service with a desire to improve and change. I arrived in the enviable position of trying to make a good group even better. Amazing new colleagues joined up with our experienced crew as we took on this challenge together. 

Our dual mission was to “help Duke students learn more, and to help more people learn from Duke”. To achieve it we envisioned an arc of learning that “begins with prospective students, peaks with the on-campus student experience, and supports alumni throughout their lives.” 

Like a Gothic cathedral, no single architect – indeed no single generation – can fully realize a grand educational vision. We built some components, and leave more to be done by those who succeed us.

Planning on the horizon of decades and centuries is simultaneously one of the benefits of working in a great institution like Duke, and one of the duties of academic innovation – to ensure Duke thrives in the long term, and that its future improves upon its past.

  • We expanded Duke’s co-curricular learning ecosystem with Coursera for Duke, which has offered skills and enrichment to 10,000 students, staff, and alums and become a model for how to integrate online learning into traditional institutions.
  • We advanced the frontier of open source education technology and offered new approaches for how humans and technology can interact to support learning through Kits (in partnership with OIT), Muser (in partnership with Prof. Sheila Patek), and WALTer (in partnership with the IRB).
  • Together with Duke Alumni Engagement and Development we co-designed a model of lifelong learning that merges coaching, peer learning, and professional development and has broad implications for the projection of our learning community past commencement. 
  • Of course, if all our projects had succeeded it would indicate we weren’t reaching high enough. Failure is part of the process of innovation. Some of the ideas we pursued that didn’t turn out as hoped include NextEd Labs, GitPaper, Classroom Mode, PreMedFlex, and Blue Bridge.
Bird's eye view of Duke campus.

Gothic cathedrals were the products of thousands of skilled artisans coming together for a common purpose. I am particularly proud of the networks of colleagues we brought together to achieve shared goals.

We built partnerships across Duke’s schools through the Digital Learning Strategy Group and by providing strategic advice and support. The Learning Innovation Advisory Council invited alums into the conversation about the future of education at Duke. And under the leadership of Provost Sally Kornbluth and, successively, Profs. Bruce Jentleson and Emma Rasiel, the Provost’s Advisory Council on Online Education (ACOE) was reinvigorated as a constructive faculty forum for sharing knowledge and gathering feedback. 

Some of the most meaningful projects were the ones we did in collaboration with partners. 

  • Amidst the depths of the Syrian refugee crisis we partnered with Kiron to offer open courses and mentoring to refugee learners worldwide – and create a global service learning opportunity for Duke students to spend a summer working at Kiron’s headquarters in Berlin.
  • The Duke Kunshan University Learning Innovation Fellowship, co-created with Noah Pickus, Haiyan Zhou (seconded from our team), and DKU leadership, supported the founding faculty with a year of professional development to help design and launch their courses – and seeded an ongoing program overseen by DKU’s Center for Teaching Learning in partnership with Learning Innovation. 
  • The Bass Digital Education Fellowship was the product of our collaboration with the Graduate School to prepare the next generation of faculty and learning designers with technical and pedagogical skills. The program has already shaped the career paths of Duke PhD graduates, and I am sure will only grow with the demand for digital capabilities.
  • Open source infuses not just our technology strategy, but our worldview. This blog and our regularly-updated Year in Progress catalogue all our work for everyone to see. The NextEd Festival of Learning, highlighted in successive years by addresses from James DeVaney and Tim Renick was a platform for sharing knowledge and experience in the local community. The HAIL network and the writing retreat we hosted were a platform for sharing nationally, and formed part of the basis for a 2020 ethnography of our movement, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, by our friends and counterparts Josh Kim and Eddie Maloney. Transparency and openness are essential values for academia, and essential enablers of mission-driven innovation. 
Duke chapel at sunset.

We are still processing the implications of the past year of pandemic response. One thing of which I am certain is the shared pride in our work to support academic continuity. 

Never before has the team been called upon to do work so essential of Duke. And not just Duke: In February 2020 we collaborated with the DKU Center for Teaching and Learning to help Duke Kunshan move to remote teaching, an experience whose lessons they brought back to Durham and quickly shared with the wider higher education community. Then in March 2020, as the pandemic reached the U.S. and the Duke campus closed, we led the Keep Teaching effort and provided resources, workshops and information to faculty via the Keep Teaching website and newsletter.

In preparation for the Fall 2020 semester the team supported faculty in redesigning their courses for “flexible teaching”. This meant starting with online course design as the foundation, with options for face-to-face interaction when possible. The goals were to increase the resilience of course designs and to improve student learning by applying the lessons of Spring. We drew a distinction with “emergency remote teaching,” which was predicated on the opposite vector: face-to-face courses that went online. 

For the largest undergraduate courses we assigned staff to provide direct support to faculty. To scale support to the whole faculty, we built the Flexible Teaching website; offered group workshops; office hours; email support; the Course Design Planner (a self-paced guide for faculty working on their own or in cohorts); and a weekly newsletter. 

The impact of this work was felt by faculty across Duke and DKU. The team had more than triple the faculty interactions of a typical year. Our online resources were accessed at more than triple the normal usage. But these numbers belie the true impact of our team in the pandemic, which comes across more saliently in the many messages of thanks we have received from faculty:

“I love Learning Innovation. Incredible resource.”

“Another big, heartfelt thank you to Duke Learning Innovation for all of their support this semester. I have them to thank for the fact that my 160-person course has been a success.”

“A HUGE thank you…. [Your] department was critical in my having a successful semester.”

“Thank you for all of your support. It was a tremendous help and confidence builder!”

“I was especially glad to see how proactive Duke was about helping us adapt our teaching! I think this summer and this semester are the times I’ve felt most engaged with my teaching and most supported by Duke and my colleagues!”

East campus after a rainy fall day at sunset.

With vaccines now available and the end of the pandemic in sight, we have launched a new initiative to Carry the Innovation Forward. Our goal is to foster a reflective process that helps our community take stock of the past year, synthesize the lessons, and turn them into ideas for building a more equitable, just, and resilient university of the future.

We don’t yet know what good might come out of the experiences of the pandemic but the Learning Innovation team will be there with you, our colleagues, as always, in figuring it out.