Q&A with Matthew Rascoff

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Matthew Rascoff is Duke’s Associate Vice Provost for Digital Education and Innovation. Rascoff began in his role at Duke in January 2017. He was previously Vice President and founder of the Office of Learning Technology and Innovation for the University of North Carolina system, where he worked from 2014–17. We asked Rascoff to share his insights on innovation and change in higher education and on Duke’s strategy.


What are the most important forces and trends in higher education right now? What do those forces mean for Duke?

Matthew Rascoff
Matthew Rascoff, Associate Vice Provost
for Digital Education and Innovation

There are two major forces in higher education today: First is the challenge of lifelong learning. We are all going to need to reskill many more times in our careers. We’re going to switch careers and jobs more frequently. Educational institutions need to support those transitions. Whereas we previously asked colleges and universities to launch us into a career and a meaningful life we now need them to relaunch us multiple times in our lives. In the past you may have had one chance to go back to school, to graduate school. In the future we’re going to need more of those second chances. What does it mean to support those transitions with learning opportunities?

The second force is nearly universal access to knowledge, and the implications for the learning enterprise and how we provide education. How do we take advantage of that abundance? How do we match the supply of knowledge afforded by new technologies with the needs of learners?

Why is digital education and learning innovation important at a university that highly values the on-campus and in-person aspects of its educational experience?

Students invest so much time and effort in applying to Duke. And we invest so much in building each class and crafting our learning community. So why do we disband it at commencement?

As content is disrupted, and knowledge is more widely available, the importance of that community only grows. The value of our education is moving away from content and toward communities, platforms, and the connections students make with one another. The networks we bring together are a source of distinctive value.

What does it mean to pivot a university from being the source of knowledge to being a platform where learning communities come together? We must enable those communities, strengthen them, and reinforce them for learners throughout their lives. For prospective students, that might mean offering an introduction to our learning experiences before they even apply to Duke. It might mean serving our own students more flexibly. And for alumni it means new models of lifelong professional development and enrichment. This is a new conception of the learning opportunities we offer: Graduates may leave Durham, but they never leave Duke’s learning community.

How do you see your role at Duke and the role of “digital education and innovation” fitting into Duke’s new strategic plan?

We have two roles. Our first responsibility is to be a partner with schools and with faculty to build programs and create new opportunities for learning. We are allies and enablers in achieving Duke’s mission “to provide wide ranging educational opportunities, on and beyond our campuses, for traditional students, active professionals and lifelong learners using the power of information technologies”. That means helping to launch new programs, redesign curricula, and co-develop new models of learning. We will share what we learn along the way so we get better with every project we do.

We also have to pay attention to what’s happening in the outside world, and to the demands of the broader community. We must translate those demands into projects and programs that address real needs. We can help move Duke forward.

So those are our twin responsibilities: to be service providers, and to be innovation leaders and changemakers.

What is Duke doing well? What could Duke be doing better?

There is a rich history of innovation at Duke. One thing that stands out in the culture is the awareness that Duke’s excellence was not destiny. In fact many of the leaders who made Duke what it is today are still alive. (Some, like Joel Fleishman, are still teaching!) They created the modern Duke and we have a duty to recreate it.

In terms of learning technology, the classroom iPod project put Duke on the map. The Edge and The Link inspire colleagues around the world seeking to innovate at the intersection of space and learning technology. We have a solid foundation of culture and experience.

Duke students are education hackers in the best sense of the word, and that makes them wonderful partners in learning experimentation. They organize so much of their own educational experiences among programs like Focus, Program II, DukeEngage, DukeImmerse, Bass Connections, the Innovation Co-lab, and more. The Admissions Office calculated that there are 437,989 unique academic combinations of Duke’s 53 majors, 52 minors and 23 certificates. The majority of Duke undergraduates do combine multiple programs, and that, to me, says they are already actively designing their learning experiences.

Our strategy is to put learning first: to build solutions in support of learning. We will not say, “We offer these technologies, you figure out how to make them work for your goals.”

We need to deepen our partnerships with schools, departments, faculty, and students. We share their learning goals and want to help achieve them. Let’s start our conversation with learning outcomes, co-design learning experiences that help achieve them, and then figure out what technologies can support those experiences.

This is a more discipline-specific approach. The methodologies and pedagogies of disciplines are diverse, and we embrace that.

Tell us about the new name for your group.

Learning Innovation is the new name for CIT and Online Duke. This name puts learning first – precisely the move we are trying to make with our strategy. And innovation, while suffering from a bit of overexposure, describes what we’re trying to achieve, which is a transformation that helps Duke achieve its educational mission.

We have a responsibility to change as the world changes around us. The goals of education are eternal but the means by which we achieve them must evolve. That is our mandate.

What are two or three of the coolest new things you see happening in higher ed right now?

One I find exciting is the American Talent Initiative, a consortium of selective colleges that are collaborating to increase socioeconomic diversity on campus and educational attainment among talented low-income students. It’s a compact among leading institutions to increase equity and access, with a national goal of educating 50,000 additional high-achieving, lower-income students by 2025. I’m proud Duke is part of it.

There is also a startup university called Minerva that is very cool. Minerva is a highly selective, regionally accredited, fully online institution in which students travel the world together, living in seven cities over the four-year undergraduate experience. The faculty are distributed all over the world but the students live together and learn online. They’ve designed a curriculum rooted in the science of learning and designed a custom learning platform tailored to the curriculum. Remarkably, Minerva offers global need-blind financial aid: if you’re qualified to attend, no matter where in the world you’re from or how much money you have, they’ll create a financial aid package that makes it possible. So the student body is globally diverse.

Your team is hosting the Duke NextEd Festival starting on October 2. Tell me about this festival and what it’s all about.

The NextEd Festival is our opportunity to build on the momentum that is gathering at Duke. We are inviting the community a series of events in October and early November in which we’ll launch several exciting new initiatives, bring inspiring speakers to campus, and foster a community-wide conversation—that we hope won’t stop—about the opportunities for learning at Duke. We’ll celebrate the launch of our new strategy and share the new name of our team: Learning Innovation.

Duke NextEd Festival
Duke NextEd Festival — cit.duke.edu/nextedfest

One of the events I’m particularly excited about is the talk on October 2 by James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan. He has developed a model called the “Teach-out,” a short, open, online learning experience that brings perspective to a topic in the news. The goal is to bring citizens together in a better informed, more “compassionate public square.”

We’re honored to co-sponsor an October 11 book talk with Cathy Davidson, Duke’s former Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, and author of “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux.”

On October 18 we’ll host Duke’s first demo night for the Durham ed tech community, and, to close out the festival, will present a panel that will reflect on five years of open courses at Duke and what we’ve learned along the way. The festival website has a full list of events at bit.ly/NextEdFest. The community can also follow along and share reflections with the hashtag #DukeNextEd.

Courtney Lockemer

Author: Courtney Lockemer

Courtney was formerly the Communications and Outreach Manager at Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL). She previously held a communications job in Duke’s Office of Information Technology, in which she helped promote innovative projects such as Duke’s iPod First Year Experience. Courtney holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University as well as an M.F.A. in Studio for Interrelated Media from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.