After 2021: What the end of Project 2021 means for UT’s innovation centers


Savana Dunning

What was initially supposed to be a five-year plan to rethink education at UT has officially been abandoned. But, its goals remain. 

Project 2021 was launched in 2016 to revamp undergraduate education by producing more online classes, researching innovative teaching techniques and adding experiential learning to degree curricula, among other things. To do this, the project utilized pre-existing resources, such as the Faculty Innovation Center, UT’s Extended Campus and the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services Development Studio. It also created a central administration unit to oversee the project’s progress. 

After the $16 million project fell through in June 2018, UT got rid of the administrative team, the only leg of the project UT has cut. The different pieces of the project — the innovation center, online course production and degree innovation — have just been decentralized, allowing each resource to work more closely with faculty to meet their differing needs. 

“Project 2021 was one administrative approach,” UT provost Maurie McInnis said. “The project did a really good job of articulating some of our goals of where we want to end up, but what we realized is there was a more cost-efficient approach administratively to accomplish these goals … and that would be how we dissolved that administrative layer.”

One goal that UT has continued work toward is providing more experiential learning in its degree curricula, McInnis said. Launched this January, the Experiential Learning Initiative is a pilot program housed by the Faculty Innovation Center that seeks to accomplish Project 2021’s goal of providing students with real life situations that develop problem solving skills related to their field. The program provides stipends and feedback through a faculty task force to course developers who implement experiential learning in their curricula.


“It’s a real strength of UT that we had a bold ambition and defined it, and the minute that we saw that this didn’t seem to be an approach that was proving to be effective, we were willing to say, ‘Ok, we’re going to stop doing it that way, and now we’re going to try it another way,’” McInnis said. 

Molly Hatcher, Faculty Innovation Center program coordinator, said the center is continuing work on many different projects alongside the Experiential Learning Initiative,
including projects to connect instructors and students with international partners and teaching preparation for graduate students.

“One of our greatest gains during the Project 2021-era was the opportunity to work with units in thinking through potential changes to their curricula to better support their students,” Hatcher said in an email. “We remain dedicated to a mission of partnering with UT instructors, staff and students to create an environment focused on teaching for student learning and success, and we are proud of the strides we continue to make in that direction.”

The production of live online courses, a focus of Project 2021, saw a large increase during the project, from 26 in the 2015-2016 academic session to 90 for the 2018-2019 session. Marla Gilliland, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services director of course development, said the end of Project 2021 has not slowed down the production of online courses. More than 29 online courses are planned for this summer.

“We enjoyed a productive collaboration with the other elements of Project 2021 when it was active and will continue to produce courses that provide quality teaching and accessibility for UT students,” Gilliland said in an email.