Time to Bust The Myth of the Slow University and the Fast Edtech Company

This article was originally posted on 5/9/2017 on Inside Higher Ed

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Since Josh Kim stayed home this year, I feel obliged to share some thoughts from the ASU-GSV Summit in Salt Lake City. As the Summit rounds third and heads into its final day, I’m eager to attempt two things. I’m compelled to highlight and dispel a myth that I believe is limiting the collective potential of the wide range of actors seeking positive change in higher education: the myth that universities are slow to embrace change and edtech companies are always agile. I’m also inspired to share a quick and playful guide to establishing university-edtech partnerships that exceed expectations. To achieve the latter requires some digression about the difference between partnerships and vendor relationships.

Let me bring you to the conference for a moment and specifically to a panel session that I participated in on Monday morning. The panel centered on how different academic innovation leaders are responding to unprecedented levels of change and tech-driven disruption. The conference organizers provocatively titled our session, “Change Agents or Kamikaze Pilots? Can Higher Ed innovators survive the ongoing wave of market disruption?”

Like you, my first reaction to the title was to roll my eyes. Are we doing this again? Haven’t we sufficiently exhausted the disruption lexicon and all its awkward metaphors? Couldn’t we approach change, which is constant, with more level-headed observation. When the Green Bay Packers started the 2014 football season with a disappointing record of 1-2, there was panic across the Packer fan base. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers responded, “Five letters here just for everybody out there in Packer-land: R-E-L-A-X”. It might be time to share the same advice across the higher education sector. This doesn’t mean put your head down and ignore the world around you. I am suggesting that universities are well equipped to navigate change.

In a conference event with far more edtech company representatives and investors than higher education leaders, I suspect just about everyone in our audience heard change agent as the obvious positive choice and kamikaze, with all its World War II imagery, as the more dire and inevitable destiny of university leaders trying to keep up with Silicon Valley. To borrow from The Princess Bride and the great Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

It turns out that kamikaze translates to ‘divine-wind’. The Japanese survived multiple invasion attempts by Genghis Khan’s grandson in the thirteenth century. Both invasion attempts were thwarted by typhoons that the Japanese believed to be sent as protection by the gods. They called these winds kamikaze. I didn’t choose this metaphor for higher education but I can certainly find relevance in the idea that universities are creating new strategies that shift the current in more favorable directions. Afterall, strategic decision-making in higher education looks and feels far more like sailing a ship toward a destination than laying out a precise turn by turn driving (road)map.

The question of change agent or kamikaze, the way it was intended, reflects a harmful and pervasive belief that runs through this conference year over year, and across a higher education sector now populated with a diverse range of organizational actors and influencers. It’s time to dispel the myth of the slow university and the fast startup. At best it’s not accurate. More alarmingly, this perception is standing in the way of universities and edtech companies establishing the best kinds of relationships and fully realizing potential. This should matter equally to diverse university communities and edtech founders, employees, and investors. To paraphrase Mark Maples in his keynote comments at the Summit this morning, we are operating in world shaped by Moore’s Law and Metcalf’s Law. There is an opportunity to bring abundance to the world if we don’t get in the way of our own progress.

It turns out our understanding of each other matters a great deal if we seek to create a future where everyone can participate. Tapping into our collective exponential potential is only possible if we establish partnerships that meet or exceed our expectations. Good news, there’s a way to do this.

Given the traditional role of universities in our society, many are quick to assume that universities always operate slowly and that edtech startups always operate with great agility. “Always” is a funny word. Is one organization always slow and the other always fast or is it more complicated? To follow this stereotyping logic would be to assert that the university is always methodical and the startup always impulsive. This too is flawed and distorts a reality where we are all on a continuum of managing the explore-exploit tradeoff. Simply put, we explore by collecting information and exploit when we leverage that information to take action. Some think about this in terms of the speed with which we move from insight to application. Different organizations manage this tradeoff differently. What we often forget is that organizations also manage this tradeoff differently depending on the context.

When we gather at events like the ASU-GSV Summit I’m reminded of our flawed assumptions about each other. One entrepreneur gave a pitch and suggested that we are facing a global listening epidemic. This may be true in the current typhoon of university-edtech ecosystem as well. Research universities are communities bound together by a commitment to the discovery of what’s next. There is nothing slow about the incredible, and sustained, pace of innovation that has come from our great universities. At the same time, startups are introducing a breathtaking range of approaches to areas like AR, big data, blockchain, and adaptive learning, to name a few. Many of these organizations take great pride and care in their approaches to designing new products.

If we aren’t careful, we are subject to folly when assuming how the other handles the explore-exploit dilemma. We have more in common than we think and the stereotypes often do us a disservice. In reality, whether we know it or not, we are all participating in a massively distributed change management exercise to reshape the future of education. Change agent responsibilities are distributed and the collective action across this distributed network of actors is providing the divine wind that propels us forward.

New campus units like U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation, and others represented on the panel in Salt Lake City, are bringing this more complicated story to the surface. How do we optimize the explore-exploit tradeoff in order to drive academic R&D at the speed of Moore’s Law without deviating from an essentially evidenced-based culture fundamental to a vibrant research community. The best edtech players are leveraging information at breakneck speed without shortchanging proven methods for information collection. Together, we’re sharing complementary perspectives and strategies for navigating the explore-exploit tradeoff. When do we know enough to act? What should we observe when we do? Repeat.

The myth of the slow moving university and the fast start up is dangerously oversimplified and deeply flawed. We are assuming that we need to choose between ‘look then leap’ and the scientific method. I would argue that we are forcing an unnecessary compromise. A true partnership will bring organizational strengths together in a way that can’t be accomplished through more transaction oriented vendor relationships.

After the panel session and through the rest of the conference, talented individuals representing some of the world’s best edtech startups would ask me how they can establish a relationship with the University of Michigan and similar institutions. My playful but sincere reply: do you fancy yourself a partner or a vendor?

In my view, there are fundamental differences. If I were to establish an edtech startup or evaluate a new investment, this would be a primary inquiry in my due diligence.

Unfortunately, as with “luxury” apartments, and “gourmet” coffee, there is nothing stopping a vendor from euphemistically repositioning itself as a university “partner”. But ‘partnership’ should mean something. We’re in this together. We have a shared view of what ‘this’ is. Our interests and values are sufficiently aligned. We’re comfortable with the level of transparency. Data flows are seamless. There is real opportunity to co-create a roadmap. We’re in sync most of the time and have reasonable methods for thinking through disagreements. Risk is shared appropriately. We understand what each of us bring to the partnership. We have a shared view of how to manage tension in the explore-exploit tradeoff.

Anyone who has attended the ASU-GSV Summit this year or in the past knows that three days are filled with many rapid-fire conversations. With more time, I might have followed my playful question (partner or vendor), with a few questions to help determine what kind of university relationship an edtech company wants to have. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with establishing a vendor relationship. That said, there may be a lot wrong with establishing a vendor relationship when the edtech company and the institution think they are establishing a partnership.

Here are three non-exhaustive and playful questions for edtech companies to consider in looking at current relationships with universities and in exploring new relationships designed to meet or exceed expectations.

Question 1: Too Many Notes? Are our values and interests aligned?

Research universities are flush with expertise. Really deep expertise. In my humble opinion, these institutions are essential to a functioning democracy. In fairness to its critics, universities have work to do to make this rich expertise more readily accessible to the public and to reassert the vital importance of universities to society. Further, while universities are highly differentiated, you wouldn’t know it from our mission statements and campus tours. There is work to do to make complex adaptive systems more readily understood.

Some say universities are very good at understanding their supply side: what do we know and how to we exploit this knowledge to push the boundaries of discovery? And less expert in understanding the demand side: what do learners need now and next to thrive in a changing global economy? Enter a wide range of edtech problem solvers and market makers. In many cases, new entrants to the higher education space have brought urgency to questions about how universities can and should serve lifelong learners facing a rapidly changing future of work.

Here our values are aligned around developing learner centric models, transforming the future of higher education, and finding models to personalize learning at scale. We all want to build a future where everyone can participate whether our primary motivations hinge on learning outcomes or market inclusion. But the devil is in the details. Are we in sync on priorities, pace, and trade-offs between scale and quality? Is there sufficient understanding of a university’s intellectual diversity? Have we reconciled the long-term incentives of universities with the pressures felt by organizations with quarterly expectations?

Actor Todd Louiso’s character (Chad the nanny), in the movie Jerry Maguire provides a good illustration of the fears that are shared by more than a few in higher ed. In recommending a jazz cassette to a lovestruck Maguire, Chad the nanny couldn’t stifle a cynical digression, “This…is Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Stockholm. 1963. Two masters of freedom, playing in a time before their art was corrupted by a zillion cocktail lounge performers who destroyed the legacy of the only American art-form – jazz.”

Perhaps many of us in college towns find ourselves responding to rapid change with soapbox soliloquy and assuming the role of overprotective custodian of university tradition. It’s not quite right or fair to believe that the values of edtech companies are always at odds with our own, or to succumb to a fear of cocktail lounge lectures as our inevitable academic dystopia. But in fairness to our colleagues, many edtech companies have fallen short in developing a full understanding of the values and interests that drive university communities bound together by a commitment to discovery.

It is true that universities have incredible opportunities to expand reach and improve connection and that many opportunities are perishable. But the requisite experimentation must be in accordance with our values and strengths. Some institutions have to step forward before we can point to best practices. How else do best practices emerge?
Strong partnerships, unlike more transactional vendor relationships, require deep understanding of values. Just as universities seek to understand new kinds of edtech partners, new edtech partners should seek to understand the complexity of universities that are at one and the same time powerfully conservative embodiments of cultural heritage and massively disruptive creators of new ideas, technologies and forms of expression. When thinking about pace we can’t think in binary terms. Edtech partners aren’t always fast and universities slow. It depends and sometimes we reverse roles. But only in a strong partnership do we have the mechanisms to maintain focus in our collaboration and flexibility to allow our respective strengths come to the surface in the form of benefits to learners and society.

All too often universities find themselves in conflict with edtech companies who push for simplicity and scalability without fully understanding why universities hold tight to a certain way of doing things. For edtechs, this must feel like entrenched bureaucracy. For institutions, we hear “sirens of a zillion cocktail lounge performers.” Neither is quite right, but good partners find a way to understand different perspectives and approaches to managing the explore-exploit tradeoff and develop a shared view with shared benefits.

The ways in which this tends to go wrong is perhaps depicted best in one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. There are partnerships that will help universities to broaden their communities through creative pedagogical, technical, and programmatic innovation. Unfortunately, sometimes our negotiations with edtech companies feel more like Mozart’s exchange with the Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus after hearing Mozart’s new opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio. The prodigious Mozart, eager to share his latest work with the Emperor, is soon mystified by the seemingly thoughtless call for simplicity.

EMPEROR: You have shown us something quite new tonight.

MOZART: So then you like it? You really like it, Your Majesty?

EMPEROR: Of course I do. It’s very good. Of course now and then – just now and then – it gets a touch elaborate.

MOZART: What do you mean, Sire?

EMPEROR: Well, I mean occasionally it seems to have, how shall one say? [he stops in difficulty; turning to Orsini-Rosenberg] How shall one say, Director?

ORSINI-ROSENBERG: Too many notes, Your Majesty?

EMPEROR: Exactly. Very well put. Too many notes.

MOZART: I don’t understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required. Neither more nor less.

EMPEROR: My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening. I think I’m right in saying that, aren’t I, Court Composer?

SALIERI: Yes! yes! er, on the whole, yes, Majesty.

MOZART: But this is absurd!

EMPEROR: My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.

MOZART: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

EMPEROR: Well. There it is.

Well. There it is. Not much of a resolution when two parties are clearly not seeing eye to eye. One party seeking excellence while the other seeks simplicity.

Anyone familiar with the biopic understands that Mozart was brilliant and also that he struggled mightily to accept feedback from those around him. Sound familiar? It’s hard to live in the depths of a discipline and at the edge of discovery and feel good about feedback unsupported by significant evidence. “Cut a few and it will be perfect” is insulting to those who set the bar in their fields. Yet clearly institutions have room to improve in terms of taking in new kinds of feedback to enrich the ways we reach and meet the needs of increasingly diverse lifelong learning communities.

As edtech companies approach universities to establish new partnerships, they need to understand the transparency required to consider such relationships. Part of this transparency is demonstrated through active listening and developing fit-for-purpose mechanisms to share new insights with established institutions. There are likely opportunities where institutions could simplify models and programs in order to make learning experiences more accessible and inclusive. Edtech companies are tapping into new sources of data and have an opportunity to enrich our view of the world. Building trust around methods for data collection and exploitation of new information is essential to driving meaningful change.

Question 2: It’s all just the same notes, right? Does it matter who does what?

In higher education’s current mode of experimentation and disruption, it’s cliche to ding the lecture for it’s imperfections. As an advocate for active learning and with responsibility to foster a culture of innovation in learning at my own institution, I would hardly argue that lectures are either infallible or fit for every purpose. Yet, anyone privileged to learn from and with a great instructor has a mental repository of specific lessons, lectures, and labs that form many of life’s eureka moments.

One lecture filed away in my own repository was delivered by Professor Tim Fort who, at the time, was leading an ethics discussion at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. A captivating storyteller, Fort was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame before joining the faculty at Michigan. Anyone reading the previous sentence with an ounce of interest in college sports just immediately shifted mentally to the gridiron. In order to illustrate an idea about culture and identity in organizations, one that has stuck with me ever since, Fort went to the playing field as well to make his point. “The Michigan-Notre Dame game is the best college football rivalry in the country,” he began.

My sport enthusiast readers are now distracted by equally subjective counter arguments to this claim. Stick with me for a bit. Conveniently, much of this story was captured in Fort’s book[1] written a few years after he delivered the lecture. After grabbing our attention with football (it was fall in Ann Arbor after all), he went on:

“…beyond the historical excellence of the programs’ traditions, there is little doubt that the schools have the two best college (fight) songs. It’s worth attending the game just to listen to the bands play all day long. The schools have a neat tradition of first playing the other’s song before playing its own. When they play the other’s song, they follow the first two characteristics of being an Honest Broker. They abide by the rules. They play the right notes, the right time signature, right rhythm – they do everything “right”. There is something to be said for that. They also build a sense of respect for politely playing the song. The fans whose song was just played aren’t going to boo their own song and the fans whose band just played aren’t going to boo their own band. So there is polite applause and there is something to be said for that too. But when they play their own song, it takes on an entirely different character because it is played with passion, pride, and identity. At that point, it transcends the particulars of the written music and takes on a profoundly inspiring transcendent character.”

In other words, Notre Dame’s marching band is perfectly capable of playing the greatest fight song of all, “The Victors”, but we don’t truly experience the music until Michigan’s band brings the performance to the next level. This has me thinking about who does what when edtech companies and universities seek to establish new partnerships. Do we take the time to answer this simple question: who does what? Moreover, does the implied division of responsibility and degree of collaboration yield the best outcomes for our learners and other university constituents?

This is not a commentary on the unbundling of the OPM model. That topic has been covered sufficiently elsewhere. Plus, it’s inevitable that it will unbundle and rebundle again (and repeat) in a continuous tug-of-war between the pull to better address university needs and the relentless quest for stickier ecosystems.

It is a question of who is best suited to do what in the context of mission-based activity. In making decisions on behalf of a university community, when and where is an institution willing to let go of some control? All of it? When and where should you hold on tight? Letting go of a technical platform seems reasonable as long as one feels comfortable with the flow and ownership of data and that the institution has a role in co-creating the roadmap. But what about the relationship with students? As we determine different and shared responsibilities for attracting learners and guiding their experiences, are institutions comfortable with an outside organization making the case to a prospective learner that your institution is the right choice? Back up a bit. What about helping the learner understand the choices he or she has the opportunity to make? Is the institution comfortable with the ways in which an outside organization will represent the institution’s values and interests? Is the institution comfortable with the ways in which the edtech company is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the institution?

This feels different to me and is an important consideration in a space that suffers from the tendency to bundle services. This is about passion, pride, and identity. We’re all playing the same notes to the same songs, right? There is a reason the University of Michigan engages current U-M students to facilitate walking tours on campus for new prospective students. It’s not about the script. Almost anyone could deliver the script with precision. Like Notre Dame’s marching band playing the Victors, an actor delivering the campus tour would receive polite applause. But only someone with passion and pride for U-M and an experience-based understanding of our institutional identity will be able to transcend the particulars of the script.

Why should this be any different when we move beyond campus tours to helping prospective learners around the globe to understand new digital and hybrid academic programs? Sharing responsibility for the development of enabling infrastructure is one thing. Designing a student experience and helping a learner navigate a set of choices is something entirely different all together. Who shapes and guides a lifelong learning pathway is worth serious discussion. At Michigan, as we unbundle our own curriculum from the traditional disciplines and rebundle around the problems, events, and phenomena most important to society, we dramatically increase student choice. We balance agency with new forms of guidance. It’s complicated. An agent with a script, and even armed with rich data sets, would struggle mightily to communicate the character of the institution and the totality of the opportunities it may provide to a learner with specific needs.

In fairness to a large number of edtech companies who continue to see opportunity when entering the higher education space, some of this is on us. Universities have been slow to recognize how little we have communicated the differences between institutions. The good news is that there is a great deal of differentiation across the higher education landscape. And universities are in the best position to share what it means to engage with a particular community of learners.

Question 3: Does this collection of notes match the scene? Are we able to select the notes we want to play?

On the same day as our panel session in Salt Lake City, the Golden State Warriors were visiting the Utah Jazz for game four of their NBA playoff series. Many grown adults turned into wide-eyed children when Steph Curry walked through the lobby of the conference venue which also provided lodgings for the visiting team. We’re all human at the end of the day. Well, except Steph Curry, apparently.

Now imagine for a moment that you are watching a professional basketball game in a modern day arena and instead of listening to the Final Countdown, Thunderstruck, or Jump Around during stoppages in play, the stadium DJ was serving up a nice dose of November Rain, Wild Horses, or In the Air Tonight. Each of these songs just triggered flashbacks for this author. Nonetheless, each of these songs would also be incredibly awkward in the context of a NBA basketball game.

I lost track of the number of conversations that I had with conference attendees where an edtech representative summarized a pitch by saying, “really, we’re the Uber for education,” “the Netflix for education,” or “the Airbnb for education.”

Gang, I get it. We want to make things simple. But I need you to follow a crossover claim with the following: “Importantly, when we think about successful business models from other industries, we know we can’t just force-fit these models into our complex educational system. There are elements of this model that give us new insights when thinking about change within a unique sector populated by institutions with intricate operating models. And we are keenly aware that there is a critical translational step. We want to design this innovation with you, not for you.”

When I hear “Uber of education” I again queue Inigo Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

As edtech companies consider establishing partnerships versus vendor relationships they should consider whether they understand those aspects of higher education that will stand the test of time and those aspects of higher education that are ripe for change. Don’t impersonate the character Dennis Hope from the movie Almost Famous, a movie set in the early 1970s: “If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age fifty, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.”

Universities are incredibly resilient. This doesn’t mean institutions shouldn’t take today’s market forces seriously. But it does often feel like edtech companies don’t see the value that comes from these complex adaptive systems. R-E-L-A-X.

When universities explore edtech partners we explore whether the model proposed is sufficiently flexible or is it fixed. Will the university have the ability to influence the platform roadmap, shape the learning experience, and extract all (not some) of the data with unfettered access? Institutions like Michigan have incredible intellectual diversity and many areas of strategic focus. This is often hard to digest from the outside. We want to select the notes we will play.

Institutions select vendors for particular services. We create flexible strategic partnerships to enable core strategies. A comprehensive research university needs partners that understand all of our strategic interests, even if they intend to partner around a relatively narrow set of activities. Sometimes we feel like Elwood in The Blues Brothers when speaking to potential edtech partners about how a model maps to our highly diverse mission-driven activities:

Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?

Claire: Oh, we got both kinds. We got country *and* western.

With our partners, we seek a greater understanding of our full catalogue and our broadest aspirations. We seek transparency. We seek harmony through clearly defined shared values and interests. We seek mechanisms to debate future direction and opportunities to leverage our respective strengths and experiences. After all, we are neither slow nor fast all of the time. What we are is focused. Mission-driven institutions have clear north stars. As we move forward together as communities we calibrate speed accordingly. We’re not afraid of a push from good partners but we do expect our partners to be pulled.

Farewell to Ripened Fellows in the Digital Innovation Greenhouse

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

Student Fellows serve as a conduit for energy and creativity supporting new innovation in our Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG). Through these experiences, students work one-on-one with developers, user experience designers, behavioral scientists and data scientists to assist in translating digital engagement tools from innovation to infrastructure.

Several Fellows shared highlights of their work with the DIG team during a special “Student Fellows Showcase” last month. In their own words, Fellows articulated their unique approaches to enhancing digital tools at DIG through design, development, data science and more while also reflecting upon their personal growth throughout their experience.

In celebration of their great work, we would like to highlight a few of our student Fellows who recently graduated or have otherwise ended their fellowship with the DIG team this spring or will end their fellowship at the end of this summer.

Monica ChenMonica Chen

User Experience Design/QA Fellow Since September 2016

Worked on the Following Digital Tools: ECoach, GradeCraft, MWrite, Problem Roulette

What Have You Learned During Your Time with the DIG Team?

“In general, I have always understood the importance of broad perspectives and multiple approaches to a problem, but my time with the DIG team truly exposed me to all of these facets in an optimal way through the simple physical layout of the office space as well as the overlapping nature of the tools DIG has taken on. I’ve gained confidence in the practice of articulating my ideas, presenting my work, and taking apart issues that come up. The people at DIG operate with a lot of transparency, and as a student Fellow I felt comfortable interacting with everyone. I felt empowered and free to explore any interests I developed, whether it was to ask for a task to strengthen a skill I was feeling weak in, or whether it was to occasionally assist with another tool so I could get a feel for other work that was being done. In addition, I have learned to keep consciously trying harder to detach myself from the initial versions of any work I do, because additional meaning and value are found through cycles of iteration. Constant feedback and open channels of communication within the DIG team helped me be more precise and, more importantly, take risks.”

What’s Next For You After Your Fellowship?

“This outstanding fellowship contributed to the extension of my time at Michigan to a full fifth year rather than only the first semester, and its impact continues to benefit me in positive ways. Therefore, when I discovered the summer internship opportunity offered at DIG, I was immediately interested in prolonging my time with the team. I will be staying on through Summer 2017, after which I am considering the possibility of graduate school or full-time work somewhere on the West Coast – where I am from.”

Dana DemskyDana Demsky

Graphic Design Fellow Since January 2016

Worked on the Following Digital Tools: Academic Reporting Tools (ART 2.0), GradeCraft, Policymaker, Student Explorer

What Have You Learned During Your Time with the DIG Team?

“Over the year and a half of my Fellowship, I learned so much about design that I would have never learned in a studio class. I got to collaborate with the other student Fellows and the full-time designers on web platforms that students use across campus. My work here had a real impact on not only DIG itself but the university at large – for example, it is so cool to think that the logo I designed for ART 2.0 is now seen by students everywhere at the University of Michigan.”

What’s Next For You After Your Fellowship?

“I feel confident in my design skills because of what I’ve learned at DIG. After graduation, I see myself as a successful graphic designer for the digital world, working at an innovative marketing agency. I can’t wait to see where the skills I’ve gained at DIG will take me!”

Yidi HongYidi Hong

User Experience Design Fellow Since September 2016

Worked on the Following Digital Tools: Policymaker

What Have You Learned During Your Time with the DIG Team?

“It was my first time to work closely with [Policymaker] and engineers and work on a real project where my design got to be built out. During the tons of meetings with my team, I learned how to present my ideas and justify my design decision, and most importantly, I gained confidence during the process. In terms of design, I learned to think more comprehensively about use cases and pay attention to details in design. I’m also glad that we have easy access to our users, students, and we do value students’ thoughts and feedback. I have the opportunity to talk to students and incorporate their thoughts into our design.”

What’s Next For You After Your Fellowship?

“I’m moving to the Bay Area after graduation. I’ll continue my passion in design, starting at a startup, Tile, as a UX designer.”

Rob TruexRob Truex

Data Science Fellow Since January 2017

Worked on the Following Digital Tools: Academic Reporting Tools (ART 2.0), Transcript of the Future

What Have You Learned During Your Time with the DIG Team?

“During my time at DIG I learned a variety of techniques for unpacking meaning from complex datasets, particularly through data visualization. It also provided me with an opportunity to expand my skills in Python and R through coding collaboratively with my peers. One unexpected lesson I was able to take from DIG is the importance of reaching outside of my comfort zone. I worked on design mockups for the Transcript of the Future project without having any background in UX design, and it was incredibly rewarding.”

What’s Next For You After Your Fellowship?

“I am currently looking for learning analytics positions, as my overarching career goal is to improve education through technology. In addition to my time at DIG, I have worked with digital libraries in order to work toward this goal. Specifically, I hope to use data analytics to improve student access to educational materials.”

*Rob recently accepted a position as a Data Scientist working on the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS) project.

Marisa XhekaMarisa Xheka

Personalization/User Experience Design Fellow Since June 2015

Worked on the Following Digital Tools: ECoach

What Have You Learned During Your Time with the DIG Team?

“In my time at DIG I had the opportunity to work on different aspects of the ECoach project and learn what kind of career I wanted to build for myself. And importantly as I gained confidence in myself, I learned how to take ownership of my work and how to be able to advocate for my ideas. As I’m leaving DIG I know what part of the UX field I want to work in and I have the experiences to prove I can do it.”

What’s Next For You After Your Fellowship?

“I’m going to be working as a UX researcher. I’m currently looking for a full time position on the west coast.”

We would like to wish a fond farewell to all Fellows who have recently departed, or will soon depart, from the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, including the following:

  • Jaee Apte – User Experience Design Fellow
  • Jessa Bartley-Matthews – User Experience Design Fellow
  • Wake Coulter – Graphic Design Fellow
  • Mikaela Gonzales – Content Management Fellow
  • Jianming Sang – Software Development Fellow
  • Pavithra Vetriselvan – Software Development Fellow
  • Denny Walsh – Data Science Fellow
  • Jun Wang – Data Science Fellow

The Office of Academic Innovation offers a variety of fellowship and internship opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students and recent graduates at our Digital Innovation Greenhouse as well as our Digital Education and Innovation Lab. Please visit our Student Opportunities page to learn more and apply!

Enter the Compassionate Public Square for the Information Age

This article was originally posted on 5/1/2017 on Inside Higher Ed

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Like many institutions, the University of Michigan was inspired by the early aspirations of the massive open online course (MOOC) movement to democratize education and, in our case, to advance our mission as a public research university. We thought better of a big toe dip, saw reason for a deeper commitment to experimentation, and dove in head first for a swim. Many pushed for swimmers to pick a stroke and stay in their lanes. We prefer the flexibility of freestyle and open swim.

As with any new space, there is no shortage of uncertainty in the world of MOOCs which has led many institutions, as well as those outside the academy with more casual interest, to move on to other things. We remain critically inspired in Ann Arbor for a number of reasons and here I will briefly offer two explanations. First, we chased mission from the beginning and not revenue. Second, when those inside and outside the academy sought to force a definition upon MOOCs, to assign us to a specific swim lane, we resisted, and persisted. Our values based decision-making and conviction around open experimentation are leading to rewards. We were right to dismiss the notion of the MOOC as a single monolithic. We were wise to pull MOOCs into our overarching approach to mission aligned academic R&D rather than pivot our academic strategy to MOOCs. And we will be careful not to overstate our early successes or forget that we remain in a mode of experimentation.

While I continue to encourage patience to those who care to listen and resist any temptation to prematurely write the history of the MOOC, I do believe we are now entering a period of enlightenment. We are now seeing the MOOC evolve beyond minimum viable product and can point to a sizeable wave of second order experiments that move us closer to a future where anyone committed to lifelong learning and listening can fully participate.

Let me provide a concrete example of today that foreshadows a sharp trajectory toward a new compassionate public square for the information age. While the idea of the compassionate public square should supply you with rich imagery of the open and natural flow of people through shared spaces, the future we are building together is anything but pedestrian.

Teach-Out SeriesLast month U-M launched a new Teach-Out Series. Our multiple motivations for the Series are captured in a recent conversation. While it is early in the life of this latest experiment, I’m confident we are onto something big. But let’s back up for a moment. Rarely does a movement roll out without a hitch. One unfortunate aspect of the rise of the MOOC was the acronym itself and, more precisely, the letter “C”. Framing matters.

There are good reasons to anchor something new in something we think we understand. But in so doing we may also inadvertently limit our collective imagination. By framing MOOCs as a new kind of “course”, we immediately pushed people to think in terms of semesters, credits, and the construct of the somewhat industrialized unit of knowledge exchange and interaction that we call courses.

Five years into the MOOC experiment, the Teach-Out may help us truly break free. We are allowing ourselves to think less about taking experiences online and more about what is only possible when we remove many constraints of time and space. Forget replicating the college campus online. It’s a losing proposition. What we have in front of us is an opportunity to do something completely different. This is what many of us imagined the MOOC would be in the first place. With the Teach-Out, we combine the global reach of MOOCs with just-in-time teaching and learning. Accidents in history and an urge to define a new product for the market tethered MOOCs to the credit hour economy. The credit hour economy may not be long for this world and I would argue, even more vigorously, that we are ready to break free from a single definition of the MOOC.

The Teach-Out speaks to our sensibilities at Michigan in that there is vast opportunity to turn our research mindset on ourselves and reimagine lifelong and lifewide learning, residential communities committed to discovery, and public engagement in an information age. We began to think in less constrained ways five years ago. Through experimentation, it is now more obvious that we can think boldly about the ways we engage with the world.

Reflecting on our history and in consideration of our institution’s future, U-M’s President, Mark Schlissel, sees in the Teach-Out series an opportunity for even more impactful public engagement, “Throughout our 200-year history, the University of Michigan has excelled in research and teaching, leading the academy with our broad portfolio of scholarly work. To extend our leadership during our third century, I want to help us disseminate our work and share our expertise in a more conspicuous, and public, manner. One opportunity to do so is through our new U-M Teach-Out Series, which leverages academic innovation to reimagine public engagement for the century ahead. Efforts like these will advance our mission as a public university by better connecting U-M’s broad intellectual power to areas of society where research and understanding can make a difference in lives and communities. There is no shortage of problems that demand our attention and our rigor. And the more we can use our work and expertise to influence decision-makers at all levels, the better our world will be.”

Institutions like ours have long been committed to public engagement. Town-gown success stories and challenges abound. Research universities are especially adept at supporting their campus communities bound together by a commitment to discovery. Over time, we’ve made important strides to make great universities more open to the world and to rethink what it means to be a part of a university’s community. As a result, our constituencies have grown. This growth has been important but by future standards it may appear relatively flat. With MOOCs and Teach-Outs we may be on the verge of a hockey stick moment. The sudden, sharp, and upward shift of data points will require entirely new measures of public engagement and societal impact.

The cacophony of voices currently questioning the impact and relevance of public universities may soon find harmony through massive public engagement that leads to massive societal impact. We think the creation of the Teach-Out model will ultimately be viewed as an inflection point in this important story.

Enter the compassionate public square for the information era. Town-gown relationships will remain critically important but it’s time to think bigger. Like physical world public spaces with flows of people, culture, and mercantile exchange, which are often neglected when trends shift, our virtual public squares with flows of ideas need constant attention.

Only with focused attention will we create a compassionate public square that is virtuous, vibrant, and vital. How do we reverse digital polarization? How do we support a free-flowing exchange of ideas? How to we accelerate the flow of insight to application? How do we ensure that our open spaces are in fact inclusive? What might we borrow from physical spaces that bring us together and the minds of Olmsted and Jacobs and the rest? How should universities participate in the sharing economy? How should we think about the ideas of selectivity and openness as we discover new opportunities to engage with the world? These are questions we seek to explore as we reimagine public engagement and our potential for societal impact.

A vigorous debate has emerged around safe spaces and speech on and around college campuses. There are important questions to address and I’m confident that strong institutions will explore them carefully. In parallel, we can continue to build the environment we know we need. A compassionate space is virtuous, vibrant, and vital. Because the public square we are building is part virtual, it can also be vast. The potential is immense if we build it carefully. To paraphrase Sara Armstrong, a very talented colleague from U-M’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT), to build a community carefully is not to walk gingerly past controversial topics, but rather to commit ourselves to build a community that is full of care.

It is difficult for me to know what your safe space looks like and for you to understand mine. To do this well is to embrace a massive and distributed listening exercise. And we should. But on the way to understanding each other in the long run we can immediately dial up compassion in the short run. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, tells us that empathy isn’t enough anymore. More specifically, the capacity for empathy that concerns Bloom is the capacity to put yourself in the shoes of others. In making his case against empathy, he makes a compelling argument for rational compassion.

My potentially dangerous oversimplification of this view in the context of the opportunities ahead for universities goes something like this. Compassion is more inclusive than empathy, more immediately actionable than a call for safe spaces, and is more uniformly applied toward alleviating suffering whereas empathy can be used for good or evil. Or in our university context, a compassionate space that is virtuous, vibrant, vital, and vast, can only serve to elevate public discourse, not distort.

The result is splendid. The compassionate public square creates conditions that demand understanding. The citizen who participates is not only engaged and informed, but equipped with compassion. In our moment in history where instantaneous global connections among people with differing views are commonplace – a moment that could be tragically short-lived if we do not create the conditions for pluralism to thrive – I challenge you to come up something more essential than a compassionate humanity.

The Teach-Out model presents new opportunity. It is born of the teach-ins of the 1960s and the MOOCs of the early 21st century. The time elapsed between origin story chapters is at once an eternity in Silicon Valley and a blink of an eye in the long view of the academy. A positive story of strange bedfellows will someday replace “this will never work” with “of course it did”.

We seek a future where everyone participates. Today everyone can’t. Our institutions have mastered models for discovery as evidenced by a broad and impressive portfolio of research and scholarly work. The fact that many still ask if selectivity and openness are mutually exclusive means there is work to do in maximizing the impact of our institutions on society. I suspect it is in our lifetimes when we cease to acknowledge the tensions between these terms as we move much closer to a future where everyone can participate.

The Teach-Out model is a concrete contribution to the compassionate public square for the information age. U-M will continue to expand this work by unbundling our expertise from the disciplines and rebundling around the problems, events, and phenomena most important to society. We will invite other great institutions to join us in this effort. And we will expand a community of engaged citizens that seeks to understand each other and the world around us.

The compassionate public square for the information age is anything but pedestrian.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Understanding Learners Through Visualization

Kara Foley, MOOC Assessment Fellow, University of Michigan Ross MBA and M.A. Educational Studies

Eejain Huang, Data Visualization Fellow, Combined Program in Education and Psychology, Statistics

Filip Jankovic, Research Assistant & Data Science Course Coordinator, MSE Industrial and Operations Engineering

Why Data Visualization?

In the virtual world, learners’ background and needs are assumed and indistinct, creating one of the biggest challenges for massive online courses: finding out who the learners are.

Here at the Digital Education and Innovation Lab (DEIL), we have devoted a lot of time and resources into developing effective initiatives to transform education. As an essential element in this process, collecting and interpreting learner feedback is at both the beginning and end of every MOOC course.

Screen shot of dataThree surveys were designed with iteration, assessment, research and marketing needs in mind. However, useful information is often hidden from decision makers because of the considerable amount of data gathered from these surveys.

To better explore this large amount of survey data, understand our learners and adapt courses according to their needs and feedback, DEIL created the DEIL Data Team to tackle these issues.

Data visualization was chosen as an ideal approach to interpret big data based on several reasons. First, data visualization can serve as a summarization, a guidance, a metaphor and eventually a gateway to understanding data. Second, data visualization can convey learning analytics in a digestible, actionable format for the audience. Like the old proverb says, “sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Who We Are and Our Journey

Our team has three members from diverse backgrounds who have contributed different expertise. Eejain Huang is a Ph.D. candidate working in Combined Program in Education and Psychology as well as a masters degree in statistics. Filip Jankovic is a U-M graduate with a Master of Science and Engineering degree in Industrial and Operations Engineering and is currently working with Dr. Christopher Brooks on the Applied Data Science with Python Coursera Specialization. Kara Foley is a recent graduate and has obtained her Master of Business Administration degree and Master of Arts degree in Educational Studies.

Eejain Huang, Filip Jankovic and Kara Foley in discussion while sitting around a table with laptops in front of large screen with a visualization of the globeKara was hired as a MOOC Assessment Fellow in January 2016 to evaluate which data visualization tool(s) would both be feasible to implement and highly automated. With input from additional faculty and staff across the University, we opted to reformat and clean the data using R and construct the visualizations in Tableau. Kara created initial prototypes of dashboards, and saw the challenges of data manipulation and advanced visualization design that needed to be addressed by a larger team with additional skills.

Eejain then began her full-time role in the summer of 2016 to clean the data and reshape it into a format that could be used to create Tableau visualizations. Much work had been spent on optimizing data structures to accelerate processing time, cleaning text responses with regular expressions and creating unique identifiers to link different surveys.

Finally, when the data was ready for creating and refining the visualizations using Tableau, Eejain created the Tableau dashboard. Filip joined our team in August of 2016 bringing with him his expertise in data science guiding best practices for visualization design. Filip helped ensure the visualizations represented the data accurately and effectively – an essential step when creating dashboards that allow decision makers to make well-informed decisions.

As dashboard revisions were made, we shared the visualizations with faculty and staff for their feedback. This involved hosting multiple meetings with different teams within the Office of Academic Innovation, and also conducting individual interviews with people who have specialized expertise in different steps of shaping a MOOC course including Dr. Christopher Brooks, Laura Elgas, Dr. Gautam Kaul, Noni Korf, David Lawrence-Lupton and Dr. Donald Peurach. Through this process we have learned about main priorities, key data points of interest and potential implications of this data.

What Did We Find and Some Insights

Currently, we are still experimenting on different ways to represent data and are seeking the best ways to distribute our findings. However, even at this transitioning stage, we think our findings may serve as an insightful guide for understanding learners and transforming MOOCs.

Illustration of a visualization

Although we recognize that our sample size is a small percentage of our learners, we discovered some trends that instructors may find useful for course design. While the majority of our respondents come from the United States and self-identified as Caucasian/ European / Russian, learners from developing countries constitute the next largest proportion of respondents. We noticed a difference in gender participation in our MOOCs, and in higher education degree attainment. Gender was a factor as well in self-ratings regarding confidence levels for language and use of technology. Regarding degree levels, these played an important role in influencing learners’ choice about participating in a course, their expectations about the course and their motivation for participating.

When looking at the dashboard, we found that many of the demographics and student feedback changed from course to course. This view can provide important insights to instructors to help them better understand their learners.

In conclusion, our findings showcased how diverse our learner community is and how different their needs can be. Nationality, ethnicity, gender, educational background and prior experience etc., all contribute to their expectations of, and experience during, the course. Thus, we hope our visualization can help course designers understand who their audience is, what they want, as well as how to make their content more accessible and eventually create a more targeted, personalized and engaged experience for every learner around the globe.

Faculty who are interested in learning more about MOOC survey data may reach out to the Office of Academic Innovation directly at academicinnovation@umich.edu

Reflections on the 2017 Coursera Partners Conference

James Park, Project Manager, Digital Learning Initiatives

Michael Skib, Instructional Media Specialist

James Park and Michael Skib were part of Academic Innovation’s contingent that attended the 2017 Coursera Partners Conference, March 29-31, hosted by the University of Colorado on the CU Boulder Campus. Below, they offer some reflections on their experiences at the conference.


James ParkReactions from James Park, Project Manager, Digital Learning Initiatives:

In collaboration with Stephanie Haley, Rebecca Quintana, and Steve Welsh, I created a poster, titled “How do MOOCs fit within the broader landscape of academic innovations at the University of Michigan?,” which I delivered at the poster session. It illustrates how MOOCs not only illuminate the work of the Digital Education and Innovation Lab (being the primary lab behind the creation of U-M’s MOOCs) but also emphasize the greater interconnectedness of Academic Innovation’s three labs and offer a window into the much broader, more diverse activities undertaken by Academic Innovation as a whole. That opportunity to share ideas and receive feedback, to ask and answer questions, and to learn from other attendees probably defined my conference experience. It also left me with some distinct impressions:

  • James park speaking to two individuals in front of a posterWe at Academic Innovation are deeply engaged in the work of digital teaching and learning not only at its core but, importantly, also at its (ever permeable) boundaries. Our collaboration with Coursera is emblematic of the MOOC work “of the present,” and we are also experimenting with ways that MOOC-type projects and non-MOOCs alike can be further harnessed inside and outside of university walls.
  • We are part of a community whose practices we are learning from as well as influencing.
  • We are extremely fortunate to have strong institutional support, generous resources, and our university leadership’s firm belief in our mission.

Though it was brief, the 2017 Coursera Partners Conference revealed some of the potential pathways forward for Coursera, U-M, and Academic Innovation, and it provided an opportunity for our team to reflect on what we’ve accomplished both on the Coursera platform and in the wider field of digital teaching and learning. And thankfully, a few of us even found a small window of time to enjoy Boulder’s beautiful mountains!


Michael SkibReactions from Michael Skib, Instructional Media Specialist:

As much as anything, I will remember the gorgeous CU Boulder campus. Flanked by the Flatirons in the foothills of the Rockies, the campus was built in the so-called “Tuscan Vernacular Revival” style. Seemingly frozen in time, it radiates a disarming Mediterranean warmth that paired well with Boulder’s expansive, cloudless sky. Perhaps that had something to do with why everybody seemed so happy to be there.

Selfie photo of James Park, Michael Skib and Noni Korf in front of a mountainThe atmosphere throughout the conference was warm and hospitable. Friends and colleagues reunited. Many of the people in this community already know each other — I felt somewhat like an outsider out at first, as my circle of professional acquaintances is more or less limited to the U-M community. Yet people seemed genuinely curious about my work and what I hoped to gain from attending this conference.

I was immediately taken aback by the size of this community. Stuck inside my U-M bubble, it is easy to forget how vast and multifaceted this community is; in attendance were people from more than 100 institutions, from 27 different countries. It seemed that Coursera’s entire staff was there as well, and many were eager to engage in conversation and hear about how we’ve been using their platform, and the things that we hope to see in the future. Despite the overwhelming number of attendees at the conference, I was struck by how much alignment I found between everyone I spoke to; we were all there out of a desire to make education work better, for all.

The first day of the conference featured a keynote presentation by Dr. Daphne Koller, co-founder and former president of Coursera. She took some time to celebrate a few significant milestones; Coursera now hosts more than 2000 courses, and more than 180 specializations. By their count, they’ve reached more than 25 million learners. They also host four fully online degree programs. Despite these successes, they are not content to stay the course, which isn’t entirely surprising. As influential and successful as Coursera has been, the online education space is becoming increasingly competitive. Throughout the conference, Coursera touted several major platform updates that will facilitate curriculum personalization and building career relevant skills. The general mismatch between the skills our workforce has and the skills the job market desires is a problem for many job seekers and for many growing industries. Though this is just one of several challenges higher education faces, it is one I believe Coursera can help to solve.

Later that day, after a blizzard of smaller, topical group sessions, I went to a presentation of posters created by about 20 different Coursera partners. Posters were hung in a densely packed atrium along with trays of vanishing hors d’oeuvres. This is when my initial feeling of being outsider began to disappear and give way to curiosity. It was fascinating to catch a glimpse of how other institutions view the digital education space, to converse with people from Stanford, Geneva, Alberta, Hong Kong, and elsewhere about things as broad as what it’s like to work with faculty, and as specific as the technical setup behind the Penn Modern Poetry MOOC’s live streaming office hours. I felt at ease and at home. I felt galvanized by the understanding of how immensely this field has grown in the three years I’ve worked for Academic Innovation. I felt gratitude toward Coursera for bringing us all together, to share and exchange knowledge; one institution operating in isolation cannot bring about the changes we hope to see in higher education.

Health Professions Education Day 2017

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

April 13 marks the third annual Health Professions Education (HPE) Day, an event designed to spark interprofessional collaboration, networking and inspiration for future research and practice supporting educational efforts across the health professions schools at University of Michigan. The Office of Academic Innovation is proud to participate again as an event co-sponsor of HPE Day 2017. The program will include poster and panel sessions, as well as a discussion of best practices in the implementation of interprofessional education from Jeanette Mladenovic, MD, MBA, MACP, Former Executive Vice President and Provost for Oregon Health & Science University.

Crowd of people sitting and listening to a presentation in a ballroomYou can review a full schedule here and register for HPE Day 2017 here.

Later that day, the Department of Health Management and Policy within the U-M School of Public Health will host a panel discussion about The Future of Obamacare: Repeal, Repair or Replace. Dr. Kenneth E. Warner, Avedis Donabedian Distinguished University Professor of Public Health, will moderate a panel discussion about the different policy options for the future of the Affordable Care Act, and the potential impact of changes on the American healthcare system. This panel is held in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the School of Public Health and will also function as part of the upcoming Teach-Out launching May 12.

In addition to the May Teach-Out, Academic Innovation has partnered with many U-M health science schools to bolster new innovations in health education including:

We encourage everyone to take part in this exciting opportunity to learn about, grow and support innovative new ideas within health education. For additional event details, please visit the HPE Day website.

U-M Students Inform Structures, Processes, Products and Tools at U-M and Beyond

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

Students have played an active role in reimagining the transcript of the future, informing product development for edX and brainstorming new functionality for Problem Roulette – and that was just in the last month.

Throughout the month of March, the Office of Academic Innovation hosted three Student Design Jams inviting students to share their insight and expertise in the design and development process. Each design jam is a unique opportunity for students to apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to develop solutions to improve structures, processes, products and tools at the University and beyond. Students participating in these events learn new skills as well as network and partner with their peers.

In the last three weeks, students worked with representatives from the Registrar’s Office to build prototypes that visualize student transcript data in new and useful ways, shared their thoughts on credentialing and social learning with edX and presented their prototypes for new functionality in the exam study tool, Problem Roulette.

Compete or Collaborate? New functionality in Problem Roulette

Working in three separate teams, students collaborated with the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) to discuss, design and present their ideas for new functionality in Problem Roulette, a web-based practice tool that offers random-within-topic access to a large library of past exam-like problems.

Mike Wojan, User Experience Designer at DIG, and Jaee Apte, School of Information graduate student and DIG Fellow, framed the design jam with an overview of DIG, Problem Roulette and the opportunity for students to shape the tool for future learners.

“It’s really important to get in touch with the user community, like you guys, about how we can improve it,” Wojan said.

Apte set the agenda for the event and prompted the open-ended design questions central to the design jam:

  1. Imagine Problem Roulette is being used in a study group. How can you make Problem Roulette a collaborative platform where students work with each other to solve problems? Assume these students may not always be in the same physical space.
  2. Alternatively, how can you make Problem Roulette a competitive platform where students work against each other to solve problems? Assume these students may not always be in the same physical space.

She urged students to consider how new functionality would impact the user experience for students using Problem Roulette both collaboratively and competitively.

“What will a competition look like?,” Apte asked. “Are [Problem Roulette Users] challenging themselves, are they challenging their classmates?”

Students standing in front of a white board in discussion

Working with members of the DIG team, the student teams spent 90 minutes brainstorming, transferring their ideas to sticky notes, drawing wireframes and iterating on their design ideas. After their ideas for collaborative and/or competitive features in Problem Roulette were solidified, teams prepared a brief presentation to showcase their prototypes to their fellow students as well as faculty and staff interested in their design solutions.

Ideas shared by the teams included developing student profiles and collaborative study groups, real-time chat functionality, videos and competitive leaderboards. One group incorporated gamification in their design by representing student progress by various forms of transportation including by foot, bike, car and airplane. In this team’s prototype, “bus stops” represented opportunities for students to help their peers who are “stuck” on various questions in the platform.

“We want to demonstrate a competition in a collaborative way,” one student said.

Three students presenting to a large group in front of a screen with an image titled "PR Tennis"In the spirit of competition, students who developed “Problem Roulette Tennis” were named the “winning” team with their idea to let students accumulate points by “serving” questions to other students. Students who receive a “serve” are challenged to provide the correct answer and counter with a question of their own. Students said this question volley would continue until a player answers incorrectly and a winner is determined.

“We think that if this is a game, it will make students want to practice and study more,” one of the student presenters said.

Interactivity, Social Learning and Digital Credentials in edX

Earlier in the month, students had a chance to work directly with members of the edX product development team to share their perspectives on social learning and digital credentialing.

The design jam took place one day after the Academic Innovation Forum to Broaden the University of Michigan where President Schlissel announced the new Teach-Out Series and Dr. Anant Agarwal, edX CEO, shared a keynote on the digital transformation of higher education.

Iain Kennedy, Vice President of Product Development at edX, shared the five-year history of the online learning platform and its partnership with leading institutions to provide “the best education in the world available to everyone in the world.”

“We looking to get any insights you have,” he said. “These are wide-open questions that are important to solve in order to satisfy our mission:”

  1. How can online education platforms increase interactivity and communication among learners? How can they better facilitate social learning opportunities and/or online learning communities?
  2. How might we record online learning differently? What makes a digital credential – like a badge or certificate – meaningful and useful to a learner? How can we maximize the utility and value of digital credentials?

Students sitting around a table in discussion with edX and Academic Innovation representatives

Students shared their insight directly with representatives from edX and Academic Innovation staff to guide future product development in edX. Prior to these individual discussions, Dr. Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab, said the design jam was an opportunity to bring new voices into the design process for edX.

Transcripts for the Future

How should student transcripts evolve in the digital age? Do transcripts accurately reflect a student’s journey throughout the University?

These were a few of the questions posed at another Student Design Jam lead by Paul Robinson, Associate Vice Provost and University Registrar, and Lisa Emery, Associate Registrar for Faculty and Staff Services, from the U-M Office of the Registrar.

Robinson said he was “passionate about making these documents better” and was looking for student input about ways the to improve traditional, paper transcripts.

“It certainly does not reflect enough, the good work and experiences students have,” he said.

Emery provided an overview and examples of current transcripts at U-M noting its lack of depth in its current form.

“It shows what classes did you take, what grades did you get and what’s your [grade point average],” she said.

Three students sitting in discussion with Dr. Tim McKayDr. Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Principal Investigator for DIG , said the student transcript is often thought of as the “permanent record” for a student’s time at the university. He said the the transcript reflects the “story” of student’s experience that is largely focused on a student’s final grades rather than their extracurricular experiences.

He later called grades a “bad measure of learning” and a student’s grade point average is a measure of performance, suggesting transcripts should better reflect the intellectual breadth, disciplinary depth, effort, engagement and range of experiences throughout a student’s time at the University.

“We measure lots of different things, but we choose a very limited subset of those right now,” McKay said.

To help students get started, Dr. Chris Teplovs, Lead Developer for DIG and Adjunct Lecturer at the U-M School of Information, asked students to rethink the layout of a student transcript beyond a chronological list of courses.

“Maybe there’s room for a deeper analysis of your entire course experience,” he said.

He proposed alternatives such as grouping a student’s course history by subject, scaling by performance or organizing courses to assess the disciplinary diversity of a student’s academic history.

Dr. Benjamin Koester, Learning Analytics Research Specialist Senior at the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, also shared an alternative visualization of the student transcript as a timeline highlighting changes in a student’s grade point average.

“The metric isn’t how well did I do at the end, but how much did I improve throughout my time here,” he said.

Students were then asked to brainstorm explore the following design questions:

  1. What kinds of data do students need in order to make informed choices about their enrollment in future courses or programs?
  2. How can course data and student performance be represented differently to optimize for accessibility, relevance, user experience, etc.?
  3. How might we break away from the restrictions of a paper document (i.e., linear, static) to produce an interactive, dynamic visualization of transcript data?

The insights students shared individually within small groups will guide ongoing discussions at the Office of the Registrar to modernize and transform the transcript of the future. In addition, the DIG team will soon pilot new visualizations to reflect student learning in Academic Reporting Tools (ART 2.0), a digital tool to help students, faculty and administration make more informed decisions by presenting U-M course and academic program data in an intuitive visual format.

These valuable insights will shape the design and development process at the both the University of Michigan and edX to better help students review class material, craft a social learning environment for learners around the world and visualize transcript data in new and more useful ways. We encourage students to join us at future Academic Innovation events by checking our event page at ai.umich.edu/events

Fake News to the Future of Obamacare: MOOCs Address Today’s Pressing Issues

This article was originally posted on 3/23/2017 on the edX Blog

Rachel Lapal, Director of Communications, edX

University of Michigan Teach-Out SeriesToday’s social and political climate is provoking strong conversations about American democracy, fact-checking, women’s rights and healthcare access – just to name a few. These moments are opportunities to not only engage, but also to educate and ensure that people everywhere can learn about pertinent current events so that they, too, can form their own points of view and become informed global citizens.

In response, the University of Michigan has launched a new teach-out series of MOOCs modeled after the historic teach-ins staged on Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus over 50 years ago. Over half a century later, many campus leaders and students continue to employ teach-ins to foster conversations on current events. Using technology and the edX platform, U of M can now expand these dialogues to a global audience.

The first four courses in the teach-out series encourage public discourse on today’s most pressing matters. Each course lasts about one week and takes around three to four hours to complete. The upcoming courses include:

  • Democratic to Authoritarian Rule: How does history help us understand today’s political climate? Discover the processes that erode democratic decision-making and structures, and how countries have shifted from democracies to authoritarian societies.
  • Fake News, Facts and Alternative Facts: Increasingly, inaccurate information is shared on social networks and amplified by a growing number of explicitly partisan news outlets. Learn how to distinguish between credible news sources and identify information biases to become a critical consumer of information.
  • Reach Out and RELATE: Communicating and Understanding Scientific Research: Everyone – non-scientists and scientists alike – has some form of expertise, but communicating across a gap in knowledge or experience is challenging. This Teach-Out addresses the challenge by helping participants to develop core communication skills and encouraging more science conversations between individuals and their local, national, and global communities.

These teach-outs provide new social learning experiences that combine the reach of MOOCs, the relevance of civic engagement and the quality of leading academic institutions.

Enroll today!

Education Now – Just-In-Time Teaching and Learning at U-M

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

How can the University of Michigan community develop “just-in-time,” rapid response models for teaching and learning in the online, residential and hybrid spaces?

Earlier this year, faculty and staff explored this topic during a recent “Innovation Hour,” a gathering hosted twice a month by the Office of Academic Innovation featuring a different theme each session. These events are one component of the Academic Innovation Initiative, a charge by the President’s office to to engage in a University-wide conversation to “consider how U-M will lead the way for higher education through the information age and further strengthen our impact on society.”

The discussion surrounded questions about changes to systems and structures to support just-in-time teaching and learning models and ways the University can leverage technology to create timely, interactive learning experiences that deliberately bring outside learners into the experience.

University of Michigan Teach-Out SeriesPart of the answer came quickly, as President Schlissel announced the new University of Michigan Teach-Out Series during the Academic Innovation Forum on Broadening the University of Michigan Community on March 13. Modeled after “Teach-Ins” first introduced by Michigan in 1965, the Teach-Out Series are just-in-time learning opportunities inviting learners from around the world to join a community discussion about a topic of widespread interest. The first of four Teach-Outs examines the shifting political systems in many countries around the world and launches on March 31. More information about the new Teach-Out Series is available at ai.umich.edu/teach-out.

Dr. Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab, framed the discussion during the Innovation Hour by asking how best to enable faculty to experiment with teaching outside of the traditional curricular process.

“What are ways we can create new credit bearing or non-credit bearing experiences that can have the impact we want to see?,” Niemer asked.

Participants identified common barriers to just-in-time residential offerings due to the curricular approval process as well as the physical space and time constraints. The inherent interdisciplinary nature of just-in-time teaching models further compounds these challenges according to the group.

Two groups of faculty and staff sitting in circlesIn response, the group expressed a need to develop teaching models to increase the University’s agility in responding to current issues. This involves a willingness to create impromptu teaching experiences to share the intellectual breadth and depth of the university in an accelerated and timely way.

“There are so many experts at the University in current topics that we really want to share with the world,” said Dr. Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Principal Investigator for the Digital Innovation Greenhouse.

Participants divided into small groups to brainstorm new ideas to build pathways from impromptu teaching experiences into more formalized teaching experiences. One group examined “just-in-time” teaching models in residential courses while another group discussed ways to engage the external community with hybrid models.

Paper handout titled "Just-in-time Teaching and Learning Opportunities"In a conversation about mechanisms to connect to the external community with online and hybrid teaching models, Dr. Melissa Gross Arthur F Thurnau Professor, discussed a current gap in pre-program training for students in graduate-level Kinesiology programs. This lead to the identification of two potential modes of just-in-time teaching: “just-in-time for all of us” and “just-in-time for me.”

McKay defined “just-in-time for all” as learning experiences that examine timely issues important to many individuals, similar to the Teach-Out Series. Alternatively, “just-in-time for me” reflects the individual needs of learners, and might involve preparation for the college experience, or advanced training for an upcoming course or a first job.

“It’s about practicing and preparing yourself for something that you are going to need or do,” he said.

Ideas posed by the faculty innovators and staff included:

  • a buy out of 10 to 25 percent of a graduate student’s time to allow them to explore interdisciplinary campus experiences
  • post-credentialing large events by tying them to other learning experiences
  • integrating just-in-time models as a component of the course preparation process

“If we think about just-in-time teaching as part of course development, it might fit better into our system,” McKay said.

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