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Democratizing and Diversifying Higher Education: A Case Study

Cathy Hearn, Fall & Winter Course Advocate

This is the fourth blog post in a series on the School of Education’s 2018 Winter Cohort initiative. In the first post in this series, Professor Donald Peurach introduced the 2018 Winter Cohort: a learning experience in which University of Michigan graduate students collaborated with online learners from across the globe to complete content from the School of Education’s MicroMasters program in Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement.

In this post, Cathy Hearn takes the 2018 Winter Cohort as case study for the ways in which we can harness educational innovations to further the causes of democratizing and diversifying higher education. Through the 2018 Winter Cohort, the course team strove to provide an accessible, flexible experience, enriched by the perspectives of peers from across an impressive range of national, cultural, and professional settings.

Democratizing Higher Education

The rise of online learning brings with it the prospect of dramatically widening access to education. When this education is designed and delivered by a team at a world-class university, we are talking not only about access, but also about quality. Online education from institutions like the University of Michigan has the potential to provide equal access to a high-quality educational experience to anybody with internet access and a smartphone or computer, where in the past, access to such resources was hindered by barriers of a financial, geographic, social-cultural, or other nature.

Students seated around a long row of tables with professor Don Peurach standing at the front of room looking at a projection screen with seven individuals on webcams.Approximately 11% of the University of Michigan student population are foreign nationals (2015); by contrast, our 2018 Winter Cohort learners came from across five continents. While we did not collect financial data, this geographic range—coupled with the fact that online learners could take the course for free or at a low cost—likely meant our class was more socioeconomically diverse than most at the University of Michigan. Further, our course provided learners across the globe with an opportunity to access knowledge, advanced largely in well-resourced American research institutions, and adapt this learning in support of their local settings.

In my view, two important priorities across all higher education teaching should be: (1) the inclusion of students taking non-traditional pathways, such as those working full-time or those with children, and (2) the support of learners with diverse learning preferences, including those with learning disabilities. As expected, the majority of our off-campus learners outside of Ann Arbor held jobs alongside their studies, and many spoke of families and other commitments. We also found a significant segment of our Ann Arbor-based learners were also working in addition to their studies. Potentially, they were attracted by the fact that we held class sessions for Ann Arbor-based learners triweekly, and a start time of 5 p.m.

Learners were keen to share the ways in which they used our online resources in ways that better suited their lifestyles and learning preferences: from creative use of technology to visualize their learning, to downloading lectures so they could listen to course content like a podcast during a busy commute. When asked how they viewed the experience, learners characterized it in a variety of ways. They reported that the cohort experience was:

  • “very flexible and highly practice-based,”
  • like “learning with a group of colleagues who had worked together for years,”
  • like “working in a network learning hub,” and
  • like “creating a professional team of change warriors.”

One of the strengths of this learning experience was that learners felt the agency to shape their experience into a form that matched their preferences and aspirations.

The Value of Diversity

Opening up our classroom to learners from across the world meant opening up our learners to a diversity of perspectives that served to nuance, challenge, and enrich the learning experience. While diversity manifested itself in a variety of ways, it ultimately amounted to a richness of thought and perspective that would have proved difficult to replicate in a fully residential environment.

A diverse group of students standing in a classroom and smiling at the camera.While many of the master’s students at the School of Education are early-career professionals, most with experience in K-12 settings, we found a tremendous diversity of professional experience—both in terms of sector and years served—among our online learners. Our learners benefited from the expertise of professionals working across a variety of sectors and roles, including: vocational and adult educators, policy professionals, educational technology entrepreneurs, and seasoned teachers and administrators from K-12 settings. In interviews and surveys, learners consistently spoke to the benefits of these diverse perspectives, for instance:

“I valued the different professional backgrounds of my team members. Being able to connect with individuals from different areas, with different educational backgrounds and professional experiences, was particularly valuable.”

Another of the more visible aspects of our course diversity was in national origin and cultural background. Learners noted several advantages to collaborating with others from across the globe, for example:

“The opportunity, in collaboration with colleagues, to consider improvement science from an international comparative perspective.”

As the University of Michigan continues to establish its status as a university with a positive global reach and impact, I hope we continue to recognize the fact that our international learners are valuable contributors to a richer learning environment for all students.

I’m keen to note that while aspects of identity such as race or socioeconomic status are rightly central to many discussions of diversity in higher education, several of our learners chose to disclose their identities to course colleagues in terms of their professional backgrounds or countries of origin. Since our learners were not required to upload profile photos, disclose financial information, of use their names in their edX user identities, racial and socioeconomic aspects were less immediately apparent in the online portion of our class. In this way, we have discussed the possibility that phenomena such as implicit racial, gender or (dis)ability bias were perhaps slightly mitigated by these features.

Reflection

Throughout the 2018 Winter Cohort initiative, our team consistently engaged in critical evaluation and reflection. We recognize with pride that we worked hard to embrace and valorize the incredible diversity that our course attracted. At the same time, the process had us asking important questions of ourselves:

  • Are our course materials too US-centric, or can they be made more relevant for our learners from global contexts? Are there ways that we can empower learners through the creation of such content?
  • How can we make sure that we are accessing learners who could stand to benefit the most from our course? How can we support learners in developing the skills necessary to persist and succeed in a demanding online course?
  • Are there ways that we can ensure that our courses can be easily adapted by learners with different learning preferences or ability statuses?

Online and hybrid courses like ours provide exciting possibilities for welcoming an ever-wider range of learners to a world-class education. Pushing ourselves to ensure our courses welcome, reflect, and embrace this diversity means pushing ourselves to create a stronger learning experience for all participants.


Read these other blog posts from the 2018 Winter Cohort of the University of Michigan’s Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program:

Connect with the School of Education MicroMasters team: @UMLeadEdHub.

Teach-In. Teach-Out. Teach Each Other.

An Open Welcome Letter to the Participants of the 2018 Teach-Out Academy

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation
@devaneygoblue

Dear Teach-Out Academy Participants:

This is an invitation to change the future. You are invited to create positive social impact through teaching and learning. You are invited to discover new ways to foster dialogue by combining scholarly expertise with communities of engaged citizens and thought leaders outside the academy. You are invited to democratize discussions around timely topics of widespread interest. You are invited challenge our collective thinking about where expertise resides and how problems could and should be solved.

We’re thrilled to welcome you to springtime in Ann Arbor for the first ever University of Michigan Teach-Out Academy. We couldn’t be more excited about the first cohort of Teach-Out Academy participants who will join us from Brown University, Davidson College, Emory University, MIT, Stanford University, Texas A&M University, University of Colorado, University of Illinois, University of Notre Dame, and University of Pennsylvania. What a terrific group!

On May 14, this group of ten like-minded institutions will convene to catalyze an emerging mode of public engagement: teach-outs are free and open online learning events intended to activate public concern around timely social issues. Participants from all corners of the world come together to learn, engage, and create change around some of the most pressing issues today. We were inspired by your proposals to create new teach-outs and trust that you will help us build upon this new model and share ideas for reimagining public engagement.

Elyse Aurbach, public engagement lead at the Office of Academic Innovation (AI), provides a great summary of the opportunity ahead of us, “Teach-Outs are uniquely able to harness the intellectual depth and scholarship at the university and to mobilize experts to address a timely topic. But they’re also an opportunity for us to break down the walls of the University and elevate other voices, adding rich breadth and scope of perspectives and ideas to the scholarly conversation.”

U-M created it’s first Teach-Out in March 2017. Yet the story goes much deeper as U-M has a long history of innovation in public engagement and just-in-time learning. It was on my own campus tour as a prospective Michigan student that I first heard the story of the polio vaccine being announced by Thomas Francis Jr. and Jonas Salk in 1955. I’ve heard the story a hundred times since. The U-M community is understandably proud of this moment and also sees it as a critical illustration of the important role that research universities play. But it was only recently that I learned how the announcement was shared.

I knew that Francis Jr., Salk, and 500 others gathered in the Rackham building on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus to share an incredible public announcement, which followed Salk’s field trials involving more than 1.8 million children. The breakthrough was of course remarkable. But so was our institution’s commitment to knowledge dissemination and public engagement. As many gathered on campus, the announcement was simultaneously broadcasted on closed-circuit to 54,000 physicians watching in movie theaters across the country. In 1955. The world was listening in as Francis Jr. declared the vaccine “safe, effective, and potent”.

Almost exactly 10 years later, on March 24th, 1965, the Teach-In was born in Ann Arbor. In response to President Johnson’s escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, faculty were set to strike. The world was messy. They wanted answers.

Rather than strike, they saw power in their collective knowledge. Faculty and students staged a Teach-In, the first of its kind, that started at 8pm on the 24th and lasted until 8am the next morning. More than 3,000 faculty, students, and community members participated. They sought to activate public concern, and elevate public discourse.

A couple days before the first Teach-In, the Michigan Daily, our student newspaper, ran an article titled “New Faculty Strategy More Constructive, Effective”. It prepared our campus community for a new kind of event. The piece opined, “If the faculty group gets representatives to present both sides of the fence, in debate form in addition to individual speeches, the “teach-in” would attract many people who want to get a clearer idea of what’s going on in Southeast Asia.”

Learners wanted to understand complex problems and knew that true understanding would require diverse perspectives.

As is the case today, there was no shortage of similarly important topics to explore in the later half of the 1960s. Michigan launched more Teach-Ins. Becoming more informed and participating in positive problem solving events turned out to be contagious. Within the same year, 1965, the original Teach-In event sparked a series of similar events on more than 35 campuses across the country. Campuses well beyond Ann Arbor saw power in collective knowledge and sought perspectives and solutions to the problems of the day.

In 1970, we filled our basketball arena for a new Teach-In that became the first Earth Day. Eight-thousand people gathered to elevate public discourse and problem solve around societal issues that matter most. Eight-thousand! There were MOOCs before there were MOOCs!

I talked to several members of the Academic Innovation team about the upcoming Teach-Out Academy. Their collective wisdom is worth sharing as we gear up for the working sessions ahead.

Steve Welsh, the lead learning experience designer for the U-M Teach-Out Series, connects our present efforts to our history of innovation, ”Following the model and spirit of the Teach-Ins, we have an obligation to use the knowledge and expertise we’re fortunate to have on our campus to further the discussion and engage with a broader public. And in 2018, we have the ability to hold that discussion with a global community.”

How then do we engage diverse audience at all levels and provide new gateways to lifelong learning? Sean Patrick, design media lead at the Office of Academic Innovation, calls this the “Milton-Bradley Model: For Ages 8 to 88”. Teach-Outs are an open invitation to all. How do we create meaningful opportunities for learning for communities that reflect the diversity of our society? This as a considerable design challenge but one worth our highest attention.

Like the Teach-In before, we hope institutions around the country (and the globe) will strengthen dialogue around timely topics and facilitate compassionate interactions between participants inside and well beyond academy.

We will gather in Ann Arbor to take a deep dive into the pedagogy and design of Teach-Outs, discuss production processes for just-in-time content, develop calls to action, and explore promotion and engagement strategies. We have designed a workshop for a small, focused cohort of like-minded institutions who seek to construct and disseminate new knowledge through public dialogue.

There is so much we can learn together. Cait Holman, Associate Director for R&D at AI sees opportunity to better understand how people learn and wants, “to understand what critical conversations look like – how people present their arguments, how the ‘other side’ responds, and how people represent processing new information in real time in text.”

The U-M team has thought long and hard about the awesome potential and numerous challenges related to developing high quality short-form learning experiences. Will Potter, a senior academic innovation fellow for digital storytelling puts it this way, “Teach-Outs have built-in restrictions on the amount of material that’s presented, and how quickly it will be produced. You have to think very deliberately about what material makes the cut, how it can be accomplished in a tight timeframe, and why a diverse audience will care. That process really forces you to think differently about your areas of expertise, and in my experience it has also prompted me to reflect upon my research in new ways.”

Lauren Atkins Budde, associate director of design management, sees a creative challenge in designing each new teach-out, “there is a lot of joy in meeting the challenge of creating a comprehensive learning opportunity with very scaled down parameters. I think of it like producing a short film – you have to be much more efficient and thoughtful with the limited time and resources that you have and as a result, you’re often much more creative because you have to be.”

Benjamin Morse, a lead design manager for the Teach-Out Series, reminds us that constructing Teach-Outs is inherently different from other teaching and learning innovations, “This “just-in-time” model lends itself to short timelines and agile design principles. We recognize that each project and each Teach-Out team will be uniquely different and our model has to be flexible enough to bend without breaking, and if it does break, we have to learn how to expand the model to fit that situation.”

We can’t wait to have you with us on campus. The U-M Teach-Out Series is part of our institution’s deep commitment to engage the public in exploring and understanding the problems, events, and phenomena most important to society.

Will Potter, speaks for many of us when he highlights our obligations to innovate in this space, “I teach my journalism students that reporting and research means little if we are unable to communicate what we have learned; we have a responsibility to explain our work in a way that is accessible, and meaningful, to our audiences. I view the Teach-Outs as fulfilling a parallel responsibility for educators.”

Morse paints a picture of what may result from our collaborations together, “I hope the Teach-Out philosophy becomes a ubiquitous model for public engagement in the online learning space. I hope that we create something that others replicate in their own context and iterate on to meet their organizational teaching and learning aspirations. I hope we can help redefine the scope of public engagement within institutions of higher education by providing recognized, viable channels of distribution with opportunities for dialogical interaction.”

We are proud to contribute to U-M’s long history of leadership at the intersection of public engagement and academic innovation. We know that through collaboration with all of you, we are far more likely to create a world where everyone can participate – a compassionate public square for the information age.

This is an official invitation to change the future. Let’s teach-in, teach-out, and teach each other.

Sincerely,
James DeVaney
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan

Bringing Behavioral Science to Teaching and Learning Innovation

Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate
@amynhayes

Holly Derry, Associate Director of Behavioral Science

Carly Thanhouser, Behavioral Scientist

Molly Maher, Behavioral Scientist
@mollycmaher

Behind every good learner is good behavior.

We continue to learn that much of the success students and online learners experience comes from choosing the right behaviors, but that doesn’t make choosing easy. That’s why the Office of Academic Innovation is dedicated to integrating behavioral science principles into teaching and learning. Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate, sat down with Holly Derry, Associate Director of Behavioral Science, to explore how she and her team support Academic Innovation’s portfolio of work including educational technology software, MOOCs, and more.


How you would describe behavioral science at Academic Innovation?

We use Behavioral Science to motivate people or spur behavior change. We draw from a collection of strategies and techniques, which have been studied in lab settings or in the field, and apply them to Academic Innovation’s tools. In our work, for example, we focus on how we want learners to behave to be successful in a course. We look through our behavioral science toolbox for ideas on how to keep learners accessing the material every week, completing assignments on time, or engaging on a deeper level in a discussion board. These are just a few examples of where we apply behavioral science in our work at Academic Innovation.

 

Behavioral science is often used in healthcare settings, but it’s fairly new to edtech. What have you noticed about health behavior change versus behavior change in education?

We’ve been surprised by the similarities. In health and in education, people are working toward goals. In both contexts, some goals are concrete (think: scores) while others are more conceptual (think: feeling better or studying harder). The actions people take to reach their goals might be different, but the ways to motivate people toward these goals are not.

In addition, a lot of the action in healthcare, and education, happens outside of the classroom, or clinical setting. Both patients and learners need self-regulation skills, sustained motivation, and a sense of belonging to continue their health management or learning independent of physicians or faculty.

 

I hear you talk a lot about how central motivation is to behavioral science. Why?

Anything anyone does is motivated by something. It’s our job to find that something. ECoach, for example, uses both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators to help students succeed in large courses. While tapping into intrinsic motivation may have a longer lasting and more meaningful impact, it’s not always a luxury we can rely on. (How many people are intrinsically motivated to read the textbook?) The extrinsic motivators we have access to (grade feedback, credit, and extra credit) are often better at encouraging students to do something they may not obviously see value in, at first. For example, after students use ECoach’s Exam Playbook, a metacognitive tool that helps them strategize and plan out their use of study resources before and exam, they may become intrinsically motivated to use it again, but we rely on extra credit to encourage them to give it a try.

In the end, we often rely on a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic ways to motivate learners because we know both are valuable in different ways.

 

How do you account for the differences in intrinsic motivation among learners. In other words, how do you determine what motivates them?

This is where personalization comes in. Each person is different, and when possible, it’s best to offer people choices that will fit with their situation, needs, and desires. This might mean giving people choices on whether they get credit or not, which parts of a course they complete, the time they need to complete it, and so on.

We can also go to the other end of the personalization spectrum and present students with messages written for their specific characteristics. All we need is the data. A few of our projects are powered by the Michigan Tailoring System (MTS), tailoring software developed here at the University of Michigan in 2008. Our projects that use MTS can collect data from people and then deliver a tailored experience to match why they’re taking a course, what grade they want to get, how motivated they are to get that grade, and so on. We can really tailor anything we want, and soon (summer 2018), all of Academic Innovation’s tools can incorporate MTS, and tailoring as well.

Many people assume the tailored messages are computer-generated — they’re not. We’re not using robots to do this. All of the tailored communication and interventions we use are carefully crafted by the behavioral science team.

 

How do you guide people toward successful behaviors without telling them what to do?

We respect a learner’s right to make their own choices. We see our role as helping people make informed choices. We don’t tell learners what their goals should be, and we don’t tell them what steps they should take. We may say, “here’s what the research says about the best ways of doing something, and here are recommendations you could follow based on that research,” but then it’s up to each learner what they do next. We never say “you must do this or can’t do that.”

We use behavioral science and tailoring to grab people’s attention, to help them see what’s most relevant to them, and to help them make informed choices. We want to share best practices and help people make decisions that are right for them.

 

What kinds of methods and techniques are you using?

We use methods from many fields, including Public Health, Behavioral Economics, Social Psychology, and User Experience. We rely heavily on Motivational Interviewing (MI), a counseling strategy that has its roots in substance abuse counseling but has expanded into many areas including education. It’s based on the notion that knowledge does not, in and of itself, change behavior. Motivational Interviewing (along with the ability to tailor messages) enables us to find out what motivates people, to build discrepancy between their desired behavior and actual behavior, and to help them more clearly see the path toward behavior change.

We also often use the behavior change recipe from the book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath. They use the analogy of an elephant (motivation), a rider (logic and reason), and a path (the environment). The goal is to motivate the elephant (because otherwise the rider gets exhausted), direct the rider (so a motivated elephant doesn’t walk in circles), and clear the path (so that the two can get to where they need to go). This is exactly what we’re trying to do here in Academic Innovation by applying behavioral science to our suite of tools, experiences, and opportunities.

Using Chart Paper and Sticky Notes to Bring Curriculum Design into Focus

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer
@rebquintana

Large easel pages covered in multi-colored sticky notes adhered to glass walls in the Office of Academic Innovation

Figure 1: Workspace within the Office of Academic Innovation.

Visitors to the Office of Academic Innovation often comment on the notations and diagrams that cover our whiteboards and glass surfaces, or remark on our liberal use of colorful Sticky Notes that are clustered on walls and tables (see Figure 1). Clearly, a lot of creative work happens in our space, and many ideas are captured, improved on, and synthesized using a variety of materials. In this two-part series, I will explore how Academic Innovation project teams have experimented with various representational forms as we develop curricula for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In Part I, I will detail our use of low-fidelity representations to storyboard course design during the design phase, using three recent examples. In Part 2, I will share work that we have been doing in the academic research and development space, and describe our experimentation with two representational formats with the goal of understanding their potential utility for reflecting on design after a MOOC has launched.

Design challenges

MOOCs can be structurally complex, because they contain a wide range of activities and resources that can be arranged in various curriculum sequences. Course elements can communicate instructional content, such as videos, links to external resources, and static pages of text and images. We also use course elements to provide opportunities for learners to interact with content and other learners, using machine-graded quizzes, peer-graded assignments, special widgets, and discussion forums. Once a course is “live,” learners can get a sense of the layout of a course by navigating through its elements, using a menu of icons and textual links.

However, during the design process, project teams may have difficulty grasping the overall shape of a course—including the sequence and arrangements of various course elements—without an aid or tool. In the absence of a bird’s eye view, it can be difficult to comprehend (1) if course elements are mapping to learning goals, (2) if challenge and effort are distributed evenly throughout the course, and (3) if content and activities are varied in ways that are engaging for learners.

Introducing design representations

The scholarly work from the emerging field of learning design is a useful resource, because it considers how learning activities—tasks that learners engage in, in order to make progress on, and meet, learning goals—can be codified and made available for review and critique. Visual representations of curriculum design can be used as a shared referent in the form of design representations. Researchers like Grainne Conole from the University of Leicester have examined the utility of a variety of representational formats, such as mind maps, models, and diagrams, which can bring particular pedagogical dimensions into focus. For instance, Conole explains the “swim-lanes” format is a useful diagram for depicting activity levels that the curriculum designer anticipates will take place (Conole, 2010).

Drawing on the field of learning design, we have used large-format visual representations with course design teams to support and stimulate thinking about curriculum design. We have experimented with different representational formats, all of which essentially portray an abstraction of course elements and sequences. Since the big picture can be particularly hard to grasp at the “fuzzy front end” of the design process (i.e., when project teams are still making decisions about how instruction should be organized and sequenced in the online environment), we have tested using design representations as a mediational tool during design conversations. We found that during design meetings with faculty partners it can be helpful to focus on a shared referent—which can be used to stimulate conversations about target audiences and learning goals—to test ideas about content and activity structure, and to evaluate whether or not the current design gives learners sufficient opportunities to make progress and demonstrate that they have met learning goals. Next, we detail an approach that we have been piloting—using low-fidelity materials to storyboard curriculum design. The idea is that by using low-fidelity materials (e.g., Sticky Notes), design teams can get an “at a glance” view of the current state of a curriculum design, while feeling free to add and subtract elements, and move things around.

Design representations in practice at Academic Innovation

Rebecca Quintana and Brenda Gunderson standing in front of a whiteboard and easel paper page covered in multi-colored sticky notes

Figure 2: Rebecca Quintana and Brenda Gunderson work through the “translation” process of creating a curriculum storyboard for the first course in a series about Statistics.

In this first example, we created a curriculum storyboard with a team that is developing a series of MOOCs about statistics. The design team is large and includes Dr. Brenda Gunderson, the lead faculty innovator; professors, staff, and graduate students from the College of Literature Science and the Arts (LSA); faculty from the Consulting for Statistics, Computing, and Analytics Research group (CSCAR); a design manager; and a learning experience designer. The design team had jointly contributed to a spreadsheet that listed learning goals, possible topic areas, and possible data sets. During a “check-in” meeting, the design manager, learning experience designer, and lead faculty member worked through a process of translating the information contained within the spreadsheet to a curriculum storyboard (see Figure 2). We developed a system for representing the curriculum plan, using colored sticky notes and icons to represent each element type (e.g., a blue sticky note with an arrow stood for a lecture video). In a subsequent design meeting, the entire design team discussed the storyboard and made adjustments to the flow by adding and rearranging sticky notes.

In a second example, we created a curriculum storyboard for Dr. Katie Richards-Schuster, the lead faculty innovator who is developing the Social Welfare Policies and Services course, the final MOOC in the School of Social Work’s MicroMasters program (see Figure 3). The learning goals, instructional content, activities, and assessments for the course were already well-defined, but before moving into the production phase, the design team wanted to ensure the design made sense in terms of curriculum sequencing (e.g., building on foundational concepts introduced earlier in the course), workload balancing (e.g., creating a regular cadence for learner engagement), and personalized learning (e.g., providing learners with opportunities to investigate topics of personal relevance).

Four easel paper pages adhered to a whiteboard covered in multi-colored sticky notes

Figure 3: A curriculum storyboard of the Social Welfare Policies and Services course.

“I found the process very helpful to ‘see’ the course and its elements. The colored sticky notes also helped as I was conceptualizing types of activities and assignments,” Dr. Katie Richards-Schuster said. “I have continued to go back to these sheets (and pictures from them) as I have built out the course. They continue to help guide my ability to visualize the course and what I hope will be the learner’s experience with it.”

In a third example, we created a curriculum storyboard for use in design meetings that were held virtually (see Figure 4). Most of the design meetings for the Strategic Planning of Public Libraries MOOC were held online using video conferencing tools. Throughout the process, we used a variety of digital communication and coordination strategies, including email, shared documents, and spreadsheets to develop the curriculum for the course. As we were nearing the end of the design process, a learning experience designer and a student intern created a curriculum storyboard of the entire course (based on the digital documentation). We photographed the storyboard and sent the photos to the course’s instructor, Larry Neal, via email. In a subsequent design meeting, we discussed the design of the whole course, focusing on areas that were tagged “to think about” (the neon green Sticky Notes).

A collage of photos of easel paper pages standing upright and laying on a table organized with multi-colored sticky notes

Figure 4: A curriculum storyboard of the Public Library Management: Strategic Planning MOOC.

Jeff Bennett, Design Manager in the Office of Academic Innovation, said, “These colorful visualizations helped streamline a process, by making the course easier to understand for both myself and the faculty member, moving us forward at a critical moment in the design process.”

Neal said, “Working with a visual representation provided both a detailed and broad overview of the entire course. It also provided a simple model for collaboration and understanding the desired outcomes between the course instructor and the MOOC designers.”

As we continue to experiment with curriculum storyboarding in our design processes, we will continue to refine our methods toward a more nuanced understanding of how they work best and how they may be effectively used in the future.

Selected references

  • Conole, G. (2010). An overview of design representations. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Networked Learning (pp. 482-489).

Introducing the “All Hands on Deck Writing Jam” for Visual Descriptions of Images

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer
@rebquintana

Yuanru Tan, Learning Design and Accessibility Student Fellow
@YuanruTan

Background

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.

Yuanru Tan seated at the end of a large conference room tab with a monitor behind her reading "All Hands on Deck, Alt Text Writing Jam @DEIL"

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.

This is a screenshot of a Google search and results. It shows “user expe” typed into the search bar and the autofill results as “user experience,” “user experience design,” “user experience designer salary,” and “user experience researcher.”

Visual description of image: This is a screenshot of a Google search and results. It shows “user expe” typed into the search bar and the autofill results as “user experience,” “user experience design,” “user experience designer salary,” and “user experience researcher.”

 

Feedback

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.