How Residential Students and Global Learners Play a Role in Enhancing the MOOC Experience

Cinzia Smothers, Community Engagement Manager

Stephanie Haley, Engagement & Iteration Manager

We often receive feedback from learners about how smoothly their MOOC learning experience ran. Since this is in large part due to our Course Advocates, we wanted to share some context on what their role is here in the Office of Academic Innovation.

Course Advocates (CAs) and Course Development Assistants (CDAs) are assigned to assist Faculty Members who work with us to design, produce, and offer a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

CDAs and CAs have very similar and, in many respects, overlapping roles. The work of a CDA takes place primarily during the development of the MOOC leading up to the point of the course launch. Some activities that CDAs might be involved with are assignment creation, assisting with course building, graphic design tasks, and more. The work of a CA begins slightly before the MOOC launches and continues through the management and maintenance of the MOOC Discussion Forums, as well as through the course review process for future iterations. It is also not uncommon – and is even encouraged, when practical – for a CDA to transition into the CA role for a designated MOOC.

Our team of CAs and CDAs currently consists of about 60 individuals with rich and diverse backgrounds and interests. Most CAs and CDAs are current U-M students (undergraduate as well as graduate), but there is also a subset of enthusiastic former MOOC learners who have joined the CAs/CDAs’ ranks, often by direct invitation of the respective faculty member.

Sophie, who holds a Master of Science degree in Web Applications Development and a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical/Computer Engineering, and who is the CA for Introduction to Data Science in Python and Applied Plotting, Charting & Data Representation in Python, became interested in MOOCs to stay involved in the Computer Vision sector. Reflecting on her experience as a CA, she said, “I enjoy helping learners troubleshoot problems with their assignments, it gives me a sense of empowerment and wellbeing.”

Blair, who is a doctoral candidate in the School of Education and the CA for Leading Ambitious Teaching & Learning, became a CA to gain a deeper understanding about various perspectives on systemic approaches to improving teaching and learning and also to learn more about MOOCs and innovative ways to increase access to educational opportunities. Reflecting on her experience so far, Blair said, “I like the opportunity to learn with and support a large group of learners in diverse contexts tackling the challenging issue of leading ambitious teaching and learning. I enjoy supporting the learners’ discussions about the course content because everyone brings such unique perspectives to the material and often these discussions push my own thinking.”

Isabella, CA for Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age and Inspiring and Motivating Individuals, said, “I first got involved with CA work by helping to develop one of U-M’s courses, and now I enjoy being able to be a part of the course community and making sure students from all over are excited about the material and having a fun time taking our courses.”

Sometimes, CAs might take on slightly different responsibilities, depending on specific circumstances and the CA’s interests, aptitudes, and background. Because of this variety of responsibilities and backgrounds, and with the goal of developing appropriate and responsive workflows, we initiated a process of examining CAs’ relevant work-related needs. For example, Kayla Carucci, a graduate student who will start her PhD program at the U-M School of Information this fall, has been working at the Digital Education and Innovation Lab over the summer months to conduct a contextual analysis of the CA/CDA workflow (more to come on this soon!).

To learn more about the CDA/CA role here at Academic Innovation, check out this snapshot of the role and its responsibilities.

U-M students who would like to apply to this position are encouraged to submit their resume through the Student Employment Office website.

Spotlight on the Simulations Community of Practice

Sarah Moncada, Academic Innovation Initiative Project Coordinator

The Simulations Community of Practice is an interdisciplinary group of U-M staff and faculty who meet regularly to discuss the development and implementation of simulation-based teaching tools. Participants explore the benefits and challenges of simulation activities, as well as share experiences and resources.

This community of practice developed out of an open, informal conversation on simulation pedagogies hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation in March 2017. The conversation generated an abundance of questions, concerns and recommendations about the use of simulations in teaching, and participants expressed interested in having ongoing, more in-depth discussions. Since then, the group has met several times to examine a range of topics, including simulation types, facilitation best practices, learning goals and debrief techniques.

Meetings will continue in the 2017-2018 academic year. The Simulations Community of Practice is kicking off the semester with a session on Wednesday, September 27 from 1 – 2 p.m. at the Office of Academic Innovation (8th Floor, Hatcher Graduate Library South). At this gathering, participants will discuss the special considerations needed for planning, facilitating and debriefing simulation activities that involve sensitive topics or contexts.

We welcome all instructors and staff who create and/or facilitate simulation activities for the classroom, or who are interested in doing so, to join our group. Please email me, Sarah Moncada (, if you would like to be added to the email list.

Here is a brief overview of the group’s activities to date:

Initial Gathering at Innovation Hour

Three individuals in discussion at a high table with other small group discussions in the background.Faculty and staff from a range of units, including Public Policy, Nursing, Medicine, Education, Information, Engineering, ITS and Academic Innovation, convened for an informal conversation about simulation activities and pedagogies. Participants gained a sense of the tremendous range of simulations that take place at U-M, from the use of chicken skin as a simulation for cutaneous surgery to a customized digital platform for simulating multi-role government policy decisions.

Despite the diversity of activities, disciplines and technologies, attendees agreed on what drives their use of simulations. Several noted the value of simulations as safe spaces where students can make and learn from mistakes. Students can experiment with their decisions and approaches in hands-on environments. Learners’ active engagement–especially when combined with post-simulation debrief or reflection activities–leads to a deeper understanding of systems, processes and skills.

There was also consensus among practitioners about the challenges of education-based simulation activities. Many commented on the special difficulties of evaluating student learning in these instructional contexts, as well as the challenge of managing the open-endedness or variability inherent to many simulations. Attendees expressed a desire to develop a greater understanding of simulation-related tools and activities from other disciplines, noting that U-M simulation designers and facilitators ought to come together to discuss best practices and necessary skills for conducting simulations responsibly and effectively.

Community of Practice: First Steps

Several individuals seated around a large conference room table.At the first meeting of the Community of Practice, attendees began by compiling a list of simulation activities that take place at U-M. Again there was a wide range, from small-group lean manufacturing paper-cutting simulations in the College of Engineering to large-scale empathy-building poverty simulations hosted by the Sociology Department and the School of Public Health.

In an attempt to assign these activities to categories or types, it became clear that individuals from different fields use different terminology to describe simulations and have contrasting understandings of what constitutes a simulation. The group then discussed distinctions, posing questions to each other such as, “What differentiates a simulation from a case study?” and “Do simulations always involve role-playing?” Several agreed that simulations involve collective decision-making of some kind, and that there must be a variable outcome–participants’ decisions within the simulation will change the experience and results.

Demo of PolicyMaker

Elisabeth Gerber standing in front of a computer lab pointing to a projector screen.At the community’s June gathering, Dr. Elisabeth Gerber , Jack L. Walker, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy in the Ford School of Public Policy, facilitated a demo of PolicyMaker, a digital platform for creating and implementing customized, interactive role-playing simulations. Gerber walked through the different functionalities of the tool from an instructor perspective, including how to create and manage a simulation scenario, assign roles to participants, and navigate within the platform.

Attendees of the demo were assigned participant roles within one of Gerber’s public policy scenarios to get a feel for how students might use the tool in an educational context. PolicyMaker is designed to facilitate and enhance an in-person simulation experience. The platform contains profile pages for students to learn about their roles, messaging  functions to communicate with other participants, calendars and voting tools to organize actions and decisions within the simulation, and a “news feed” to view outcomes and updates. All these features support the engaged, face-to-face interactions that take place in the classroom during a simulation.

The demo closed with a conversation about the potential use cases for PolicyMaker and the flexibility of the tool to work with a variety of scenarios and learning goals. Gerber encouraged participants to think about how the digital platform might operate in different academic domains and contexts. For more details, check out Michigan Daily reporter Nisa Khan’s feature on the PolicyMaker demo session.

Learning Goals and Debrief Techniques

Rachel Niemer pointing to a hand-drawn diagram on a whiteboard.By the final meeting of the summer, the Simulations Community of Practice had grown to include representatives from U-M Libraries, the LSA National Center for Institutional Diversity, the Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Ross School of Business, as well as faculty and staff from U-M’s Dearborn campus and Michigan State University.

The meeting opened with acknowledgement that a well-facilitated debrief session is the most instructive part of a simulation. It is important for students to have an opportunity to review, discuss, and reflect upon the simulation experience after it is over. In order to design effective debrief activities, facilitators must have a grasp of their learning goals and expectations for the simulation.

Dr. Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab, noted that learning goals for simulations can vary widely. For example, the learning goals of a healthcare simulation, in which medical students are acting as doctors and performing simulated versions of tasks they will carry out in their professional lives are quite different from those of a poverty simulation, participants are intentionally placed in unfamiliar positions and situations as they navigate low-income challenges. These simulations would therefore require different debrief activities.

Others in attendance agreed, adding that it is important to identify whether the simulation has learning goals related to mastery learning and skill development or whether the primary focus is on empathy-building or social experience. In mastery-based healthcare simulations, the debrief may need to be immediate and action-oriented, whereas with empathy-building social simulations the participants may need time to “cool down” and process before an open-ended debrief conversation about participants’ reactions and key takeaways.

What’s Next?

The Simulations Community of Practice will be starting the school year with the September 27 discussion of special considerations for simulations involving sensitive topics or contexts.

Additional meetings this fall will focus on topics such as ways to effectively describe expectations to students and consideration of participants’ social identities when assigning roles and facilitating role-playing simulations. Be sure to check out our events page for details about upcoming gatherings of the Simulations Community of Practice.

U-M Experts to Help Public Understand Hurricanes through Online Teach-Out

Written by Laurel Thomas Gnagey, Michigan News

As Florida assesses the damage from Hurricane Irma, Texas continues to rebuild from Harvey and meteorologists keep their eyes on Jose, University of Michigan experts in weather events and their aftermath offer the public a new teach-out called “Hurricanes: What’s Next.”

The timely educational opportunity for learners across the globe will be led by Perry Samson, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, professor of information and founder of the Weather Underground. It will address the basics of hurricanes, forecasting, monitoring, preparation, damage and response to the powerful storms.

“A Teach-Out now on ‘Hurricanes: What’s Next’ is timely given the impacts of hurricanes Harvey and Irma this year,” Samson said. “The approach is to present the facts in hurricane formation, forecasting, preparation and response, in the hope of generating a larger discussion on how to respond to natural disasters.

“While controversial, this is also an important time to discuss if or how a warming ocean may influence the frequency and intensity of tropical storms in the future.”

Others participating include Richard Rood, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, and environment and sustainability; Chris Ruf, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science; Jeff Masters of Weather Underground; and U-M students.

They will address questions including:

  • What drives a hurricane?
  • How accurate are hurricane models?
  • How do authorities prepare for hurricanes and, when destructive events like hurricanes Harvey and Irma happen, how do we respond?
  • Is this hurricane season a fluke, or should we start planning for more/similar storms?
  • Teach-outs are short, just-in-time learning opportunities that allow people across the world to engage with experts on various topics of national and international interest.

They are modeled after the teach-ins of the 1960s, which physically brought people to campus for a short-term, intensive educational experience on a timely topic. Teach-outs take advantage of current technology to engage learners. Delivered online, faculty and staff from U-M offer information through videos and interactive discussions.

This teach-out will be the first offered on the Coursera online platform.

“Through the U-M Teach-Out series, we are reimagining public engagement in the information age and creating the compassionate public square for just-in-time knowledge sharing and the exchange of new ideas within a global learning community.” said James DeVaney, U-M associate vice provost for academic innovation.

“We invite the world to join U-M experts in a global discussion about hurricanes as we seek clearer understanding of the present, greater preparedness for the future and better ideas for individual, community and government action.”

DeVaney said the free teach-outs, open to anyone, are part of U-M’s commitment to public engagement and global knowledge creation and sharing.

New Library Management MOOC Series Fills Educational Gap

Written by Laurel Thomas Gnagey, Michigan News

A new massive-open online course (MOOC) series offered by the University of Michigan will provide advanced training in management to public librarians, many of whom say they have to learn most of those skills on the job.

The Public Library Management series is among 11 Professional Certificate programs being announced today by online platform Professional Certificate programs are a series of on-demand, self-paced, online courses designed to build or advance critical skills for a specific career.

“U-M is well on its way to creating a flexible and networked model for global and lifelong learning,” said James DeVaney, U-M associate vice provost for academic innovation. “This new certificate program provides a truly unique opportunity for learners around the world to engage with U-M experts and each other in order to develop the critical management skills needed to understand and address the needs of their local communities.”

The first in the sequence of eight courses in the Public Library Management series began in May 2017. The courses cover identifying community needs, diversity and inclusion, personnel management, budget and finance, infrastructure management, strategic planning, grant writing and crowdfunding, and marketing and public relations.

“Public libraries are among our most valuable public institutions. They play a vital role in our democracy, serving as community centers and resources of trusted information that is accessible to all,” said U-M School of Information Dean Thomas Finholt. “As one of the first ALA-accredited programs in the nation, the U-M School of Information has played a leading role in the education of professional librarians for over 90 years.

“Through this new Professional Certificate online program in public library management, we look forward to sharing our practical expertise on the many essential aspects of running a successful public library, whether in a major city, small town or rural community.”

The series of MOOCs is led by Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical associate professor of information, who said the Office of Academic Innovation and School of Information took this focus for its first Professional Certificate program because of a gap in current library education.

“We discovered two things: that many of our alumni called themselves ‘accidental managers’ and that 58 percent of Michigan libraries are small enough that they are not required by the state of Michigan to have any formal degree or university coursework in order to receive state aid,” Fontichiaro said. “That identified a unique niche that we believed we could fill with high-quality courses designed by a team of professors and highly respected practitioners.”

In addition to Fontichiaro, the courses are taught by Lionel Robert, U-M associate professor of information; Josie Parker, U-M School of Information alumna and director of the Ann Arbor District Library; and Larry Neal, U-M alumnus and director of the Clinton-Macomb Public Library and former president of the Public Library Association.

There are more than 400 libraries in Michigan and 119,487 in the United States, according to the American Library Association.

Fontichiaro said those who would benefit from the series include new managers and directors in public libraries, library board members, library students and current librarians who aspire to be managers.

“Current librarians can complete the coursework, develop job-embedded portfolio pieces to show current or future employers that they are ready for more responsibility, and determine if the duties of managers and directors are a good fit for their career interests and trajectory,” she said.

Fontichiaro said that librarians who go through graduate programs, like the one offered at the U-M School of Information, get a chance to build professional networks. Those in small or rural libraries may not have the opportunity to do so. The course structure allows shared ideas among colleagues that could help form those connections.

She said interest is not limited to the U.S. So far, about two-thirds of enrollment comes from international students representing 155 countries.

“We’ve heard from our global community of learners that they are seeking courses to help them advance their careers,” said edX CEO Anant Agarwal, “Professional Certificate programs on edX deliver career-relevant education in a flexible, affordable way, by focusing on the critical skills industry leaders and successful professionals are seeking today.”

With the latest additions, edX now has 23 Professional Certificate programs.

This new offering is one of the latest additions to U-M’s growing portfolio, which includes more than 100 MOOCs, three micromasters programs and the Teach-Out series, among other initiatives.

The Office of Academic Innovation Gives Back to the Ann Arbor Community

Trevor Parnell, Events and Marketing Specialist

The Office of Academic Innovation values innovating, creating new opportunities, and engaging with the local community. Therefore, when the opportunity arose for the Academic Innovation staff to volunteer with Food Gatherers of Ann Arbor, it seemed like a natural fit.

Giving back to the community is an area in which the Academic Innovation team feels strongly. All members of the team were surveyed earlier this year to gauge their interest in volunteering within the Ann Arbor community and the responses were overwhelmingly supportive. “I feel fortunate to be a part of an office that values service and an office that creates opportunities for us to serve together,” said Megan Taylor, Research Associate within the Digital Innovation Greenhouse.

Food Gatherers, Michigan’s first food rescue program, is a not-for-profit organization established in 1988 founded by Zingerman’s Delicatessen. 30 staff members, along with more than 7,000 volunteers help to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste from more than 300 local sources including food retailers, restaurants, and food wholesalers. Volunteer opportunities are very hands-on. Food Gatherers operates a working warehouse, moving an average of 9 tons of food each day as well as a busy kitchen cooking and serving hot meals seven days a week.

Groups of 17 and 8 volunteered on Thursday, July 20 and Tuesday, August 8 respectively. Each group was made up of members of all three Academic Innovation labs: the Digital Education and Innovation Lab (DEIL), the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) and the Gameful Learning Lab (GLL).

During their time at the Food Gatherers warehouse, Academic Innovation staff members packaged dry goods to be shipped out to food pantries and sorted through donated produce. Staff members were also given a tour of the facility and briefed on the history of the organization prior to volunteering. Mike Daniel, Director of Policy and Operations for the Office of Academic Innovation added, “Having an opportunity to learn more about and contribute to the great work being done at Food Gatherers was a memorable experience that I won’t soon forget.”

Multiple men and women of the Academic Innovation team posing humorously while holding volunteer supplies. Mike Wojan, UX Designer within the Digital Innovation Greenhouse had some excellent things to say about his experience. “I was very impressed with the Food Gatherers operation and the great people who work there. It felt good to spend a couple hours giving back to the community in a meaningful, tangible way. Seeing how much food we were able to save and repackage for others in the community was really rewarding.”

The Office of Academic Innovation plans to lend a helping hand to other not-for-profit organizations in the future, especially as the holiday season approaches.

Amy Homkes- Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate for the Digital Innovation Greenhouse summed up the volunteer experience by saying, “What struck me about volunteering at Food Gatherers was the wonderful intersection of giving and getting. We gave our time to a discrete project where real progress was made. We gained an opportunity to build team while enjoying each other’s company.”