An Innovation Incubator Grows in Virginia?

THE OG Incubator from Ridley Scott’s Alien

What might Virginia’s higher ed institutions do in terms of experimenting with distributed, virtual learning? How can the Commonwealth encourage technology-mediated exploration, collaboration, and implementation amongst a wide range of faculty, technologists, and students from its 39 public institutions of higher ed? These are two of the questions I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. In fact, I talk about them to just about anyone who’ll listen. A couple of months ago I asked Joe DeFillipo and Beverly Covington of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), whom I’ve been working closely with on OpenVa for the last 18 months, what Virginia is doing at the statewide level in terms of fostering collaboration amongst its public universities and colleges. The question seemed worth pursuing, so we organized a discussion about that very idea a few weeks later.

Click below to take the jump….

Preparing for that discussion I was batting around  ideas with Brian Lamb and Grant Potter when I was up in Nova Scotia in June. I asked how they wpuld approach such a statewide initiative. And as luck would have it, both Brian and Grant have worked in higher ed in British Columbia since the late 90s early 00s and had a lot to share about the experiments along these line happening within the province over the past fifteen years. Brian Worked at TechBC during its short life (what a fascinating experiment it was), and both Brian and Grant were familiar with BCcampus given they’ve been working at universities within the province for years. After talking with them for a while about these province-level experiments, we agreed it made sense to talk at greater length with Paul Stacey, who was on the ground floor of both as they got up and running.

And given it seems that SCHEV remains interested in continuing such a discussion—which remains a very pleasant surprise for me—early last week Paul Stacey and Brian Lamb were gracious enough to join a call with folks from SCHEV to give us a better sense of what TechBC and BCcampus were/are, and how an experiment in the Commonwealth might benefit from understanding their separate and related histories. I can’t thank Paul enough for patiently taking us through both the history of these entities, including their different and similar missions, all the while providing a very thorough framework for Virginia to model itself on.

I took some notes during the meeting as a way to quickly outline TechBC and BCcampus, but also as a way to understand what elements the Commonwealth might pick and choose from to create its own, unique and relevant version for our particular needs.


The Technical University of British Columbia was a pretty fascinating experiment wherein the province created a specialized university that was focused on creating students that met the needs of a growing tech industry in BC. What’s more, those companies were looking for more than just programmers, they were looking for thinkers who had a broad understanding of the technology, as well as the media/design and the business elements of the field. To meet this need they came up with a shared first year curriculum called Tech1 that all students had to take which exposed them to each of these three areas.

In this regard, the university itself was experimental, encouraging a wide variety of online delivery mechanisms based on the particular subject matter. Course content was framed in one credit modules that allowed students (and faculty and instructional designers) to experiment more widely across the three focus areas, and even remix between the areas giving students more options and possibilities. It was also a new university that provided no tenure and required its faculty to experiment with their teaching methods. Often promoting a creative, applied method that pushed the curriculum to have realtime applications in the business/tech world. And from what I understood, the interaction between the Media/Arts, Business, and IT focus areas were pretty fluid, and the entire school started to reflect a more dynamic, interactive environment where experimentation, exploration, and collaboration were part of the culture.


Due to financial and political pressures TechBC was merged with Simon Fraser University, and the absorption of an experimental university within an established one squelched much of its experimental energy. That said, around the time of TechBC’s closure another provincial post-secondary education agency in British Columbia was established: BCcampus. What is it? Well I’ll let their about page answer that:

BCcampus is a publicly funded organization that uses information technology to connect the expertise, programs, and resources of all B.C. post-secondary institutions under a collaborative service delivery framework. We provide valued services to institutions, ensuring B.C. learners, educators, and administrators get the best, most effective technologies and services for their learning and teaching needs.  We provide an ICT infrastructure for student data exchange, shared services, online learning and distance education, communities of practice and online resources for educators.

This approach is interesting in that it tries to pool resources to enable seamless sharing of student data (i.e., a federated application process, transferring credits, transcripts, etc.), curriculum services (i.e., much of BC’s groundbreaking open education work with Open Education Resources), and shared services (i.e. province-wide contracts with vendor services as well as access to open source applications). What is compelling about BCcampus is how a model like this enables the province to scale resources to all its secondary institutions. What’s more, the laborious work of establishing credit agreements between schools in the region had been worked out well before BCcampus was established so they didn’t have to get muddled down in the negotiations between schools over which credit hours will transfer and which won’t. Rather, they could focus on creating open educational resources to make those courses that much more accessible for all.

The only thing in the neighborhood of this in Virginia is the recently established 4-VA project, but it’s hard to get a sense of its broader impact statewide. This project invested millions of dollars on teleconferencing centers at four large, research campuses (UVA, VA Tech, GMU, and JMU), exactly how this helps the other 35 institutions in the Commonwealth is not yet clear? It also has no clear vision along the line of sharing resources that can be created and distributed asynchronously at a statewide level. Virginia needs a project that begins to not only incubate ideas and possibilities, which is what the proposal shared below focuses on, but it also needs to deal with its ability to frame a broader vision for creating and distributing open educational resources statewide. I tend to see the incubator as an initial step is this direction.

Anyway, based on conversations here at DTLT with Andy Rush, Martha Burtis and Tim Owens, as well as ongoing discussions with SCHEV, we came up with some ideas for what an innovation incubator here in the Commonwealth might look like. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here that Brian Lamb’s ongoing support and encouragement for taking the work we do statewide over the last eighteen months has remained invaluable to me. In fact, over the last eight years he has quietly been the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor.

Below is a very rough first draft of the idea we submitted to SCHEV a couple of weeks ago. They’re reviewing and reworking it, but in the meantime I figured I would get it out here to give others a sense of what we’re thinking as well as to beg for feedback and ideas from any and all out there who are interested in turning some of what we have been playing with in terms of edtech into statewide experimental policy!

The State of Virginia’s Virtual Incubator for Innovation and Applied Technology

The landscape of higher education is currently inundated with accessible online educational content, massive open online courses (MOOCs), not to mention statewide initiatives to align college credit with prior learning experiences. Meanwhile, institutions like SUNY’s Empire College are attempting to align proper credit from a wide variety of online courses at educational institutions around the New York state system.

There is much to be learned from these developments and experiments, but, given the unique nature of Virginia’s distributed and loosely coupled higher education system, it may be unwise to focus on producing lower-level, undergraduate online courses and broadcasting them to a mass audience in an already overwhelmed market. What’s more, the state already has individual universities like Virginia Tech and University of Virginia experimenting with these models; it seems counter-intuitive to explore this terrain in a way that would compete with these emerging initiatives.

What might prove more compelling, however, is to create a state initiative that brings together select faculty, technologists, and students from around the state into a focused, virtual incubator project, designed to think creatively together about a pre-defined topic for a year. For example, for the 2014-2015 academic year, Virginia’s Virtual Incubator could put out a call to all professors, technologists, and students around Virginia to apply for a year long, focused series of virtual projects dealing with a single issue such as open data, privacy, online education, etc. After seeking applications, a selection committee would be established to choose the 5-10 faculty, 5-10 technologists, and 25-50 students. What’s more, the state would also put out a call to state agencies, city and municipal governments and agencies, and non-profit organizations that need certain projects worked on dealing with the established theme for that year. Part of the Incubator initiative would include grant monies to fund a select number of these proposed projects. Additionally, this program could also solicit applications from private companies which are interested in pursuing projects based on the year’s theme but which do not necessarily have in-house expertise (or the time and money to develop such expertise); these private entities would have access to the same Incubator resources but would be expected to fund their own projects.

After a general introduction, overview, and some general orientation presentations about the year’s theme, this cohort of faculty, technologists, and students would form into teams and select the projects they want to work on for the year. During the remainder of the year they would have focused sessions both online and face-to-face around the state of Virginia where experts and professionals in the year’s theme would be brought in to talk, consult, and generally embed themselves in the process for a predefined time period. For example, we could bring in various researchers and technologists from the federal government to talk about their current approach to making public data accessible and reusable if the focus was on open data for that first year. The various groups (initially, there might be 5 groups each led by one professor and technologist with as many as 5-10 students per group) would be charged with working on a particular project and coming up with a work plan for how they are going to complete the project. By the end of the first year, the projects would have the research, rationale, and project plan established.  At the close of the first year, the most promising 2-3 proposals would be funded for a second year, during which the selected teams would actually build and develop the proposed projects. Agencies or private entities who didn’t end up having their project make the cut to the second year, would still receive all of the research and project planning resources to pursue on their own. As the second year began and the selected projects continued, a new first-year cohort would be established, around a new theme with a new series of faculty, technologists, and students.

The idea here is to create a state-funded think tank around the issues of applying innovative ideas and technology to several technology-based issues that face the state, similar to the Presidential Innovation Fellows program in Washington. What’s more, it should be fairly manageable in terms of resources given that the state already funds many of the professor and technologists it will select for this program through its higher education system. This program would have to provide resources for hire behinds, a director to run the program as well as student fellowships, but the overhead in terms of resources related to space and technology would probably be negligible.

The ideas undergirding this incubator would be to see what is possible when various resources from around the state’s institutions are focused on a specific issue that a number of state agencies and organizations (private and public) are wrestling with, particularly those that are strapped for resources. Such a collaboration among various faculty, students, technologists, and private interests from around the state could provide a framework of innovation that would help the Commonwealth as a whole steward its resources in a more collaborative and innovative approach. What’s more, this incubator project is by no means limited to state agencies. The push for public and private alliances can be strengthened by enabling private companies to help participate in and fund projects they want worked on by donating their expertise and resources to Virginia’s Virtual Incubator project.