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.

The Future of Learning

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

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

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.

Join us during the next Innovation Hour! View our list of upcoming events to learn about future Innovation Hour discussions.