Transforming University Students from Consumers to Developers of Online Content

This article was originally posted on 7/12/2017 on the Coursera Blog

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer

What would it look like for university students to be the content creators for a Coursera social impact campaign course? At the University of Michigan, Dr. Michaela Zint, Professor of Environmental Education & Communication in the University’s School for Environment and Sustainability and School of Education, and her students partnered with the Office of Academic Innovation and the University’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning to explore the idea of “an online course by students.” The goal of the initiative was to investigate how students could be transformed from consumers to developers of online content.

Dr. Michaela Zint, a noted proponent of environmental and sustainability education, explains:

“The students in our School for Environment and Sustainability are eager to learn how to educate others about climate change and how to do so effectively. In addition, research tells us that young adults from across the globe are looking for ways to best respond to this major societal challenge. Engaging students in the development of an action-oriented climate change online course therefore seemed like an appropriate way to merge these interests. Facilitating the co-creation of an online course also sounded like a lot more fun than developing an online course on my own. It was!”

Group photo of Dr. Michaela Zint and her students posing with their hands in the air in front of an academic building

Over the course of two semesters, the course team worked together to develop an online course that would become part of Coursera’s Social Impact campaign — Act on Climate: Steps to Individual, Community, and Political Action. A desired outcome of the course was that learners feel empowered to address and respond to climate change as individuals and in partnership with their communities and political leaders.

Dr. Zint’s students were motivated to sign-up for the experience by a variety of factors, including the chance to do something innovative beyond the scope of a regular class, the desire to make a difference and have a far-reaching impact, and the opportunity to learn more about online education.

Priscila Papias, master’s student at the University of Michigan, describes the factors that led to her involvement in the course:

“As someone who has been itching to find a tangible way to impact climate change widely, I quickly jumped on this opportunity to create content for an online course on climate action. In addition to helping fill in gaps in my own knowledge on climate change and climate action, this class gave me the opportunity to learn about what individuals and communities are doing throughout the nation and across the globe to respond to climate change.”

During the first semester, the class focused on topics such as online teaching and learning at scale, learner-centered course design, assessment and evaluation in online courses, universal design principles, and fostering community in online courses.

Dr. Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab within the Office of Academic Innovation, worked closely with Dr. Zint and the students during this first semester:

“We wanted to provide professional development for these future educators and practitioners that would both support the creation of this online course and provide a foundation for their future careers.”

Students seated around a large table with laptops in discussionDuring the second semester, the class concentrated on tasks such as identifying primary and secondary audiences, determining topics for the course, creating a high-level outline, designing assessments and activities for the course, interviewing experts, and locating relevant and timely resources. Through a process of ongoing discussion and iteration, the course team settled on a structure that was used to guide the sequencing of course materials and assessment across the topic modules.

Bryon Maxey, Project Manager within the Office of Academic Innovation, noted the benefits of including students in the course development process:

“In my experience, this approach to online course creation is unique and allowed for truly multi-directional learning, not only for learners who will take the online course, but for the students who were central to course creation process and for the entire course team.”

As a result of the course team’s work throughout two semesters, the course contains a variety of interesting elements, such as a pledge card that online learners are encouraged to complete at the start of the course to express their commitment level, case studies of grassroots organizations, accounts from students that describe their personal experiences with making personal change, and a series of practical recommendations of how online learners can take action at the personal, community, and national (and global) level.

Dr. Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer within the Office of Academic Innovation and member of the course design team, reflects:

“Now that the course elements have been finalized, we can see that there is incredible richness in the resources that the students have put together. What is even more exciting, is that the structure of the course will allow online learners to engage with materials in ways that speak to their personal areas of interest and desired levels of commitment.”

Dr. Michaela Zint,With the course set to launch, the course team is excited to see what the impact of their work will be. Dr. Zint explains:

“My students and I cannot wait so see what our [online] learners think and what impact they will have as individuals, members of their communities, and politically.”

The course’s innovative model was recognized by the University of Michigan’s Campus of the Future initiative and Dr. Zint’s students were invited to participate in a university-wide colloquium on how to reinvent the university in the 21st century.

Act on Climate: Steps to Individual, Community, and Political Action is part of the Social Impact campaign and is receiving new enrollments daily.

Taking Stock and Looking Ahead: The Academic Innovation Initiative

Sarah Moncada, Academic Innovation Initiative Project Coordinator

In September 2016 President Mark Schlissel and former Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Martha Pollack charged the Office of Academic Innovation with stewarding the Academic Innovation Initiative. The Initiative is a year-long effort to discuss, design and pilot strategies that will support the University of Michigan’s continued leadership within the evolving landscape of higher education.

President Schlissel speaking while standing at a podium

How should the university adapt to continue to deliver academic excellence and social impact in a digital era where there is vast opportunity to reach new learners, create new opportunities for learning, and better meet increasingly diverse learner needs? To address this challenge, the President and Provost outlined the following goals for the Academic Innovation Initiative:

  • Launch a set of rich and interconnected experiments to explore the future of education at the University of Michigan, on and off campus, in formal and informal environments
  • Assess the constraints that inhibit academic innovation and explore ways to overcome them
  • Propose designs for structures and systems that enable ongoing academic innovation across the U-M
  • Recommend investments and solutions by which the designs can be realized and made available to the entire U-M community
  • Propose a transformational approach for leveraging academic innovation to shape the future of education and further realize our mission

Over the past several months the Office of Academic Innovation has worked closely with the Academic Innovation Initiative Faculty Steering Committee to tackle these goals. Below, members of the Steering Committee reflect on the accomplishments of the Initiative thus far, identify current challenges and share next steps for future academic innovation at Michigan.

Accomplishments of the Initiative

When asked what they believe have been the most significant accomplishments of the Academic Innovation Initiative to date, several Steering Committee members called attention to projects that “think outside the box” of traditional university offerings.

Teach-Out SeriesFor example, Dr. Agrawal believes the U-M Teach-Out Series to be a significant achievement of the initiative. Teach-Outs are short, weekend-long, open online learning experiences on contemporary issues. He helped create and facilitate the first U-M Teach-Out on Democratic to Authoritarian Rule. Dr. Agrawal values the flexibility and reach of the format. He observes, “The Teach-Outs allow faculty and learners to engage in ways that are usually not possible with a short lead-time, or because people with an interest in a particular topic are distributed very widely. With the Teach-Outs we can bring them into a common space to learn from each other and to engage with different experts. This is an interesting and important mechanism for the university to reach out and to engage with the public.”

Other Steering Committee members identified ways initiative-related efforts have helped shape the residential experience. Dr. Fishman pointed to the increased use of gameful learning principles on campus. More U-M instructors have begun using GradeCraft, a digital platform co-created by Dr. Fishman and Caitlin Holman, Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Information and Lead Software Developer at the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, that facilitates gameful course design. GradeCraft recently launched for commercial use by K-12 schools and universities.

In courses using GradeCraft, learners build their grade up from zero and have increased autonomy in the types of assignments they complete to achieve their desired course grade. Students are able to view their progress and feedback at any time, and there is flexibility to take risks and explore challenging activities without the fear of ruining one’s course grade. Beyond these core features of GradeCraft, Dr. Fishman thinks of gameful learning as a framework for profound change of the residential learning environment, “My real vision for gameful learning is that it’s a whole different way of thinking about the relationship between learners and content, between learners and goals–a different way of thinking about how we mark learning, regulate learning and promote learners.”

Many members of the Steering Committee believe the community-building work of the Initiative to be another significant accomplishment. Dr. Gerber notes, “To me, nurturing a culture of innovation is important. And you do that really through the experiments and through talking to people about constraints and what their ideas are. We have a couple of big signature projects, but then just being the place that is pushing the university to think about innovation differently–I think that’s really important.”

As one piece of this community-building effort, the Office of Academic Innovation hosts bi-weekly “Innovation Hours,” informal gatherings featuring a different theme each session. Innovation Hours have helped promote a culture of innovation by bringing diverse constituents together around shared interests. Some have even inspired ongoing communities of practice, where participants meet regularly to go more in depth on a particular topic. Dr. Gerber, for example, facilitates the Simulations Community of Practice, an interdisciplinary group that meets regularly to discuss the development and implementation of simulation-based teaching tools.

Challenges to Consider

Faculty members also reflected on challenges to address as the work of the Academic Innovation Initiative continues. Many cited the need to cultivate deeper connections between U-M’s campuses and disciplines. The Ann Arbor campus alone has 19 schools and colleges–each with its own organizational structures, priorities and resources. It is a challenge to break down the silos to connect constituents across campus(es) who are searching for solutions to similar pedagogical problems.

How does the Steering Committee plan to address this challenge? Dr. Gonzalez recommends studying the successes of innovative, discipline-specific teaching models and then exploring ways they might be useful or scalable in other domains. She pointed to the immersive, apprentice-based learning systems employed in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance as an example.

Similarly, Dr. Kaul agrees that “each school has something to offer” and suggests a systematic data-gathering effort to survey the teaching challenges and creative solutions of each of the campus units. Increased awareness of what other units are doing would encourage interdisciplinary collaboration as people discover shared problems and identify useful approaches from other areas.

Dr. Alcock recommends using digital tools to further connections between the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses, “It would be very cool to have classes taught on all three campuses and have the students interact. It could be online partly. That is something that has always interested me, to continue this three-way campus.”

Another constraint involves the entrenched practices and incentive structures of the separate units, which often discourage collaboration, pedagogical risk-taking and/or extensive change. In considering this challenge, Dr. Millunchick notes faculty incentives like titles and resources really matter– instructors might have great interest in developing a new pedagogical tool or trying a creative approach in their teaching but feels such work might not be valued or supported in their home departments. Titles like “Academic Innovation Fellow” signal prestige and significance, Dr. Millunchick suggests, while targeted resources and support help offset the burden of other professional obligations.

Dr. Gross believes a way to encourage innovation might involve offering more low-stakes ways for instructors to get involved with this work. She reflects on some of the Office’s existing projects and tools. “What could hook faculty into this, so they can start growing their skills stealthily, so they can start experiencing these things incrementally? I want the programs to be bold, but I want there to be a way for faculty to take small steps to start moving in this direction. So making sure ladders are built for each of these tools that we make.”

Many Steering Committee members lament the restrictive nature of the credit-hour system and the academic calendar, noting how difficult it is to create a radically different learning experience when it must still somehow fit neatly into the semester schedule and academic transcript. Dr. LaVaque-Manty asks, “How do we free faculty and students from worrying about the structural constraints of the curriculum?”

Dr. Stalburg, for example, wonders if the General Studies major might be reimagined as a prestigious means of handcrafting a self-directed, competency-based degree program. Dr. Gross suggests a summer institute that could serve as a safe space for academic exploration and risk-taking. Dr. Gonzalez envisions a small-scale experiment in which a cohort of faculty and students are released from typical requirements and supported by the university to participate in project-based learning experiences. Regardless of what this future project might look like, many agree with Dr. Fishman when he says, “I would love to see us move rapidly beyond the idea of credit-hours and grades to create constraint-freeing spaces.”

Next Steps

So what is next for the Academic Innovation Initiative? In an effort to continue pursuing the goals of the President’s charge, here are some activities and projects the Steering Committee members and the Office of Academic Innovation have on the horizon:

  • Traveling Innovation Hours – Instead of hosting bi-weekly themed conversations in the Office of Academic Innovation Spaces in Hatcher and 500 E. Washington this fall, Academic Innovation staff will host Innovation Hours in different regions of the Ann Arbor campus to hear from departmental communities about pedagogical challenges and creative solutions in their home units.
  • Intend to Attend – Dr. LaVaque-Manty, Dr. McKay and Dr. Millunchick, in collaboration with the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, are developing an M-Cubed project entitled Intend to Attend, which will use digital tools to build opportunities for college admissions support and guidance about the college experience for pre-college learners.
  • Foundational Course Initiative – Dr. McKay, the REBUILD team and CRLT will pilot its program of collaborative course design that provides instructional, technological, assessment and student support resources to teaching teams of foundational courses.
  • Expansion of the U-M Teach-Out Series – The next round of Teach-Outs is slated for early fall 2017 and will include offerings on the evolution of the Internet and its impact on society, civil rights and liberties in the contemporary era, privacy and identity in the face of Big Data and the modern epidemic of sleep deprivation. Instructional teams are invited to submit proposals for the third round of the U-M Teach-Out Series by September 27.
  • Academic Innovation Initiative Summit – The Office of Academic Innovation will host a series of events and activities in fall 2017 to celebrate the progress of the Initiative and foster dialogue on important questions related to higher education. Mark your calendars for November 14, 2017, when we will host an inclusive, interactive, day-long summit to close the initial year-long push and to collaboratively design the future of academic innovation at Michigan. Check our events page for updates and further details as the fall term approaches

Members of the Academic Innovation Faculty Steering Committee:

  • Arun Agrawal, Samuel Trask Dana Professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment
  • Sue Alcock, John H. D’Arms Collegiate and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Classical Archaeology and Classics in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Special Counsel for Institutional Outreach and Engagement in the Office of the President
  • Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Education and Information in the School of Information and School of Education
  • Elisabeth Gerber, Jack L. Walker, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy in the Ford School of Public Policy
  • Anita Gonzalez, Professor of Theatre and Drama within the School of Music, Theatre and Dance
  • Melissa Gross, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Biomechanics in the School of Kinesiology
  • Gautam Kaul, Fred M. Taylor Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Finance in the Ross School of Business
  • Mika LaVaque-Manty, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Political Science in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
  • David Mendez, Professor of Health Management and Policy in the School of Public Health
  • Joanna Millunchick, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Material Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering
  • Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Principal Investigator for the Digital Innovation Greenhouse
  • Caren Stalburg, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the Medical School

Civil Rights, Elusive Sleep, Technology are Next Teach-Out Topics

Four new Teach-Outs in August and September will focus on technological advances that have changed the way we live, civil rights and civil liberties in the current political environment, and sleep deprivation.

Expanding the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series

This article was originally posted on 5/31/2017 on the edX Partner Portal

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

In September 2016, University of Michigan’s President Mark Schlissel charged the Office of Academic Innovation and the U-M community to launch a set of rich and interconnected experiments to explore the future of education at the University of Michigan. One of many ideas that surfaced through the President’s Academic Innovation Initiative was the U-M Teach-Out Series which was conceptualized in January and February and launched in March 2017.

University of Michigan Teach-Out SeriesWith the Teach-Out, we combine the global reach of MOOCs with a model designed to explore new approaches to just-in-time teaching and learning. Yet the Teach-Out is very much connected to the ongoing Michigan saga. Teach-outs are modeled after the historic U-M teach-ins, which started fifty-two years earlier in March of 1965 in response to military action in Vietnam. Faculty considering how to best respond to President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of troops into the country created a marathon educational event designed to activate public concern and elevate public discourse. Within a year, teach-ins were conducted at 35 other college campuses, and a few years later the model inspired the first Earth Day.

Throughout U-M’s 200-year history, we’ve leveraged academic innovation to expand our community and realize our public mission. MOOCs have provided new ways to think about how to best disseminate our broad portfolio of scholarly work with the world and how to connect our intellectual power with lifelong learners and decision-makers across society. MOOCs have helped to reframe several important conversations around teaching and learning, knowledge dissemination, openness, and inclusive learning environments, to name a few. We see significant room for further innovation as we continue to embrace compassion, openness, personalization, and inclusivity in higher education.

We believe the Teach-Out will accelerate our ability to bring new individuals and communities into unprecedentedly open and inclusive learning environments and offers a concrete contribution to the design of the compassionate public square for the information age. Through the Teach-Out model we will continue to explore opportunities to make the great public research university even more open in the future. We will unbundle our expertise from the disciplines and rebundle around problems that demand our attention. 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.

We held our first four Teach-Outs between March 31st and May 14th and have released a new call for proposals to solicit ideas from instructional teams to create opportunities for learners around the world to come together with our campus community in conversation on topics of widespread interest. We have seen significant support for this model across disciplines and expect the next wave to reflect an even broader range of academic expertise and experience with learning technologies.

As with all pilots, we’re thinking actively about measures of success. We’re looking at relatively simple metrics like reach and participation, learner satisfaction, and change in understanding. We’re collecting different kinds of information as well. We are exploring the extent to which different Teach-Out approaches help us to effectively share our broad portfolio of scholarly of work. We’re looking at faculty involvement and the benefits and challenges of team instruction and multidisciplinary teaching teams. We’re thinking about different ways to measure our ability to connect U-M’s broad intellectual power to the problems most import to society. We’re looking at engagement from other institutions and our ability to attract new communities of learners. We’re exploring ways to capture whether learners are exposed to new ideas and perspectives. We’re interested in the relevance of the Teach-Out model to decision-makers at all levels of society. And we’re capturing the different ways that these global community learning events can become resources for different learners in different learning environments.