ANN ARBOR—As the University of Michigan continues to expand its digital learning portfolio, the Office of Academic Innovation announces a new gateway for one-stop access to online courses and learning experiences created by Michigan faculty and instructional teams.
Called Michigan Online, the portal brings together more than 120 massive open online courses (MOOCs), teach-outs, specializations, MasterTrack certificates, XSeries, MicroMasters and professional certificate programs currently hosted on online platforms Coursera and edX. These learning experiences already have generated nearly 7 million enrollments, reaching learners in more than 190 countries around the world.
“Michigan continues to play a leadership role in shaping how the world learns from and with a great public research university,” said Martin Philbert, U-M provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Michigan Online provides new and important opportunities to broaden access to U-M and enhance participation in our flexible and networked model for global and lifelong learning.”
U-M was a founding partner with Coursera in 2012 and since then that affiliation has produced some 68 MOOCs. Some of these are organized into specializations of multiple courses for those who want a deep dive into a topic.
The partnership expanded five years later to add teach-outs, free and open online learning events designed to bring together people from around the world to learn about and address the biggest topics in society.
More recently, U-M and Coursera announced online master’s degree programs in applied data science from the School of Information and in public health from the School of Public Health, as well as a MasterTrack Certificate in construction engineering and management from the College of Engineering.
In 2015, U-M joined edX as a charter member to offer a portfolio of more than 40 MOOCs and teach-outs, including several series of courses called XSeries, and MicroMasters, a collection of courses that give students a head start on a residential degree.
U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation was established in 2014 to create a culture of innovation in learning. Among its goals is to create opportunities for personal and engaged learning by positively impacting pre-college, residential, and global and lifelong learners, as well as support public engagement at U-M.
“When the first MOOCs were launched, no one knew how they would evolve. And then the amazing U-M faculty embraced the opportunity to experiment with online courses that were aimed at learners from across the lifespan and across the globe. And those experiments continue to be successful,” said James Hilton, U-M vice provost for academic innovation. “The launch of Michigan Online will make it easier for people on and off campus to navigate the rich and growing content that is Michigan.”
In 2016, U-M President Mark Schlissel announced the Academic Innovation Initiative to “leverage networked access to information, new modes of learning and the power of data analytics to strengthen the quality of a Michigan education and enhance our impact on society.”
A short time later, the president announced the Teach-out Series, modeled after the teach-ins U-M pioneered in the 1960s. The just-in-time learning experiences focused on important issues of the day, such as the Vietnam War. The success of the U-M teach-ins sparked a series of similar events on more than 35 campuses across the country. In 1970, a U-M teach-in attracted thousands of participants in the first U.S. Earth Day, and the events continue today.
The relationships with all platform partners remain but the intent is to make the content more available and easier to navigate for a global community of Michigan learners.
“Michigan Online further extends U-M’s ability to provide high quality learning opportunities for learners at all levels,” said James DeVaney, U-M associate vice provost for academic innovation. “Michigan students will have even greater access to university expertise and resources, and learners around the world will discover new opportunities to acquire new skills, access global learning communities and explore new topics, at their own pace.”
Michigan Online offers users a chance to browse an extensive library of online experiences developed by faculty and instructional teams at U-M. Users can look for courses by subject, duration of the course and type (e.g., course or teach-out).
Course and teach-out subjects include biology and life sciences, arts and humanities, social sciences, business and finance, education and teacher training, physical science and engineering, data science, computer science, health and safety, and design. Among the offerings are applied data science, leadership, Python programming, sleep deprivation, and computer user experience and design.
Creators of the learning portal welcome audience feedback on the tool which may be submitted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer
Yuanru Tan, Learning Design and Accessibility Student Fellow
In the context of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), adding a visual description to images that exist within online course materials is one of the most important aspects of creating an accessible learning experience. For example, faculty members may use images within video lectures, such as bar graphs, scatter plots, and photographs. These images can bring a course to life and help make lecture topics even more engaging and understandable. Faculty often describe the images in their lectures verbally, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Learners who are visually impaired may miss important information that is contained within these images. One solution is to provide visual descriptions of images as part of the downloadable files that we make available to learners (e.g., PowerPoint slides). Learners who use screen readers are able to listen to a visual description of images contained within lectures. Additionally, these visual descriptions are available to all learners, thereby creating opportunities for deeper engagement with course content. For example, a learner who is experiencing difficulty interpreting a graph could benefit from a clearly written, high level summary of the big idea behind the graph.
However, course design teams who are tasked with creating and supplying instructional materials for learners face a significant challenge. Writing visual descriptions for images requires not only a lot of time and effort, but also a great deal of subject-specific content knowledge. At the Office of Academic Innovation, course design teams endeavor to include faculty and associated experts in the process of writing visual descriptions throughout the design process. However, sometimes additional effort on the part of Academic Innovation staff is needed to get the job done. Inspired by crowdsourcing approaches that leverage the expertise and time of willing participants, the “All Hands On Deck Alt Text Writing Jam” event series was born.¹
Writing Jam Format
At the writing jams, staff from Academic Innovation and from the University of Michigan (U-M) Library assembled to learn about effective methods for writing high-quality visual descriptions and to get down to the business of writing visual descriptions for U-M MOOCs that contain complex images. Led by Yuanru Tan, Learning Design and Accessibility Student Fellow, participants received instruction on how to write visual descriptions for both simple and complex images, and were given resources and reference materials to make the task easier. Each participant worked through a series of images, creating visual descriptions, and then reviewing the writing of others. To date, Academic Innovation has hosted two writing jams, but our plan is to make this a regularly scheduled event.
In the first writing jam, participants completed visual descriptions for 99 images in one hour for courses within three MOOC specializations, Applied Data Science with Python, Web Applications for Everybody, and Leading People and Teams. Participants worked independently before pairing up to review each other’s work. In the second writing jam, participants completed visual descriptions for 65 images in one hour for six courses within the User Experience (UX) Research and Design MicroMasters Program. Participants worked collaboratively, using a paired-writing approach, and drawing on subject matter expertise from all participants. Areas of expertise included web development, UX design, accessibility, learning design, and publishing. See below for an example of a visual description that was written for a screenshot image used within a course within the UX MicroMasters Program.
Feedback from participants regarding the writing jam approach has been overwhelmingly positive. Monica Miklosovic, Iteration Manager at Academic Innovation, reflected , “It was a collaborative experience, at the end of which we had accomplished a meaningful short-term goal.” Ben Howell, Accessibility Specialist within the User Experience Department at the Library Information Technology Department, stated , “The concepts and practice of writing alt-text are challenging for beginners and for experienced accessibility staff. The group activity effectively crowdsourced writing alt-text for [Academic Innovation] courses. It was very helpful to identify, contextualize, and describe various images, infographics, etc.” Molly Maher, Behavioral Scientist at Academic Innovation, commented, “It was great to learn some of the key guidelines for image descriptions, especially through practice.” Stephanie Rosen, Accessibility Specialist at the University of Michigan Library, said, “I was so impressed with the amount of work we were able to do. I think the activities we did are excellent for educating people about alt text and accessibility in general.” Dave Malicke, Operations Lead at Academic Innovation, stated, “I enjoyed the paired writing approach. It was both fun and resulted in higher quality descriptions.”
Participants also had useful suggestions for ways to incorporate the writing jam approach into future activities and events. Ben Howell commented, “I look forward to using this practice where we can with librarians and content creators in the library. We’d also like to participate in more accessibility/design jams in [Academic Innovation].” Dave Malicke reflected, “My number one takeaway is that more of these events are needed in order to build an ever stronger and informed community of accessibility practitioners.”
In 2018, our goal is to host monthly writing jams. These events may focus on specific subject areas (e.g., humanities courses). We intend to invite course design team members including faculty members, instructors, learning experience designers, media specialists, design managers, and mentors, as well as U-M students who are interested in learning how to write visual descriptions. In addition to creating a high number of visual descriptions at our writing jams, we have found this “think aloud” collaborative approach was instrumental in helping Academic Innovation design teams reflect on how to improve our design processes. We learned the process of writing visual descriptions can reveal aspects of images that may be unclear to learners (e.g., an unlabelled y-axis). By adopting the practice of writing visual descriptions early within a design process, there is the potential to improve images (e.g., by labelling the y-axis!) that are included in lecture videos. We see this as an instantiation of the principles of universal design—following good design practices improves the learning experience for all.
Yuanru Tan will present on “Improving MOOC Course Accessibility” at the Web Accessibility Working Group Meeting from 1-2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 9, in the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery Lab. The event is open to all.
¹Alt text is a short word or phrase that describes images that are used in websites. Visually impaired users who use screen readers will hear an alt attribute that describes the image. We use the term “visual descriptions” in this post, because many of the descriptions that are added to our MOOC course materials are much longer than the typical alt text that is used to make web sites accessible for the visually impaired.
Trevor Parnell, Events and Marketing Specialist
Engaging with and giving back to the local community is a part of the value system that helps guide the Office of Academic Innovation. The University of Michigan’s United Way Campaign, along with the United Way’s Holiday Card Making Program, offered up multiple opportunities for Academic Innovation to get involved around the holidays.
According to the organization’s website, www.uwwashtenaw.org, the United Way of Washtenaw County connects people, resources and organizations together to create a thriving community for everyone. Their values include equity, inclusiveness, community, volunteerism, caring and integrity.
As part of the University of Michigan’s United Way Campaign, Academic Innovation organized an internal event to help generate donations, through which the Academic Innovation team was able to raise $400 to donate to United Way.
Additionally, a handful of Academic Innovation team members visited the United Way of Washtenaw County on Friday, November 17 to make holiday cards for homebound senior citizens and adults, veterans, families in shelter as well as local families and children. Reflecting on her experience, Megan Taylor, Research Associate for Academic Innovation, stated, “It was such a joy to volunteer with my co-workers at United Way. I appreciated how my co-workers challenged themselves to really think creatively about how to help spread holiday cheer in their cards.”
“This experience gave me both a fun and meaningful opportunity for camaraderie with my co-workers, the joy of the holidays, and giving back to the community I call home,” said Amy Homkes- Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate for Academic Innovation.
The Office of Academic Innovation is committed to U-M’s United Way Campaign and looks forward to participating again in the future.