UMW’s Innovation isn’t Technical, it’s Narrative

When someone as sharp as Leslie Madsen-Brooks writes an article about the state of innovation in higher education and points to UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning  Technologies (a.k.a DTLT) as the example, I can’t help but feel pretty good about my life (as I imagine other DTLTers might). I mean quotes like the following reinforce the constant boasting I do in the office to anyone who will listen 🙂

Those who have been paying attention only to partnerships among Silicon Valley companies and the Ivies may be surprised that the beating heart of a tremendous amount of academic technology innovation is a small state university in Fredericksburg, Virginia. At theUniversity of Mary Washington, the Division of Teaching and Learning Technology has launched at least four amazing initiatives [UMW Blogs, ds106, Domain of One’s Own, and the ThinkLab] that should be replicated widely because it’s clear to even casual observers that they advance teaching and learning in myriad ways.


The innovations and—yes, I’ll say it—disruptions, emerging from UMW exemplify some of the best practices in developing communities of learners, fostering collaboration, encouraging writing and reflection and developing curiosity about the world.


In an age when universities are pushing faculty ever harder to develop monetizable intellectual property, it’s refreshing to see faculty doubling down on using relatively inexpensive technologies to improve student learning. UMW is a case in point: it’s a modestly funded, small state university that, thanks to all the active minds (and periodic strategic hires) at DTLT and on the faculty, has become a major hub of innovation in higher education.

I’m verklempt! 🙂  It’s awesome to see the innovative work happening at UMW  for almost a decade now  get recognized more broadly. Leslie’s framing her brilliant article around our work is the highest of compliments, and it really means a lot coming from someone who has been doing this work from  both a support staff and faculty position for a long time now. People often ask “What’s in the water at UMW?” or “What are you all smoking?!” And while I don’t have a stock answer to that, I can say this: the simple process of openly narrating the work we do on our blogs has almost everything to do with our success. In other words, our willingness to regularly document the work we do, shared it openly, and even featured the work of others happening around the community has been what ultimately has made UMW’s DTLT that much better (and we are that much better). When you think about it, we’re not that different from a ton of other ed tech shops around the world: we support faculty, we run an LMS, we experiment with web-based tools, we pretend to understand what new media means, etc. For me, the one real difference is we have taken the time to narrate that process openly, which usually results in promoting the work happening around campus and injecting a little fun into the process (Andy Rush and I talk about this very thing all the time).

What’s most interesting to me about this formula is that it isn’t technical, it’s all cultural. Rather than squawking about MOOCs and the inescapable educational apocalypse, we went ahead and built our own networked online course (the ever irreverent ds106) that was very much inspired by the OG MOOCs, but was designed for our particular campus culture. Why aren’t more people doing this? Why are so many people wasting endless time writing about “MOOCs and the Latest Form of Autodidactic Rock Climbing Walls” rather then actually promoting the real work happening on the ground at their campuses. And I am not trying to be critical here because I have been to enough campuses the last four or five years to know there is a ton of awesome stuff happening at so many of them, it just so happens very few people are actually narrating it. The MOOC narrative has taken over, and we are all the poorer for it. Homegrown innovation on a university or college campus is not really all that complicated, it starts with the commitment to regularly tell the story about where you are and what you are doing rather than hanging to a bill of goods you are being sold about where you should be. Anyway, thanks Leslie, your article ruled, and it really made a bad month a little better. Big fan!

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7 Responses to UMW’s Innovation isn’t Technical, it’s Narrative

  1. dkernohan says:

    Fantastic post Jim + completely agree. Have shared this internally at Jisc. There’s so much great, innovative, stuff going on at Universities all over the world and we need to share the DTLT model of just taking about it.

  2. Luke says:

    Her last sentence is the kicker: $6.95 a month or $2m to who knows where? $50,000 to develop a course? We do it for the cost of some sandwiches and coffee.

  3. Leslie M-B says:

    Thanks for this, Jim. And thanks again for all the great work you and the other DTLT folks do–and UMW’s faculty as well.

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