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A Love Letter to Learner Engagement

Bryon Maxey, Engagement Manager

It has been my honor and privilege to work with, and support, the unsung heroes of the Learner Engagement team at the Center for Academic Innovation for more than three years. Accordingly, this “Love Letter” is, at best, (1) a woefully inadequate attempt to convey my admiration and continuous thanks to an amazing team, and, perhaps more importantly, (2) to articulate an answer to “What is Learner Engagement at Academic Innovation?” and celebrate this team’s continuous achievements.

The Team

The Learner Engagement team is composed of a dynamic group of University of Michigan students, and staff, from the campus community and well-beyond. Learner Engagement is centered around cultivating communities of learning and directly facilitating learner engagement in many of our online learning experiences. Like the millions of diverse learners from around the globe engaging in these learning experiences, the members of our Learner Engagement team are similarly diverse and global. This diversity is reflected by our team members on campus here in Ann Arbor, as well as our off-campus team members working across the United States, and — further still — members of our team across the globe in South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.


The core roles of the Learner Engagement team are Course Advocates (CAs) and Learner Engagement Assistants (LEAs). CAs and LEAs share closely related responsibilities, and they facilitate learner engagement by:

  • Fielding and responding to questions and logging suggested improvements.
  • Judiciously routing learner questions to faculty.
  • Collaboratively contributing to learner engagement

What distinguishes the roles is the nature and focus of their work. CAs flexibly and remotely facilitate learner engagement from around the world, and their work is centered on the close moderation of one or more courses. LEAs, however, cultivate a learning ecosystem by moderating multiple courses and they collaboratively contribute to learner engagement on campus, and in our center.

Support and leadership for the CAs and LEAs is provided by myself, the Engagement Manager, and our Engagement Management Fellow. Also vital to learner engagement are our volunteer learner contributors who have previously enrolled in, and completed, our learning experiences and have chosen to give back by reengaging new learners; several longtime members of the team began as volunteer learner contributors prior to formally joining the team as CAs.

For the many learners who come into contact with U-M for the first time through online learning experiences, a CA or an LEA is most often their first interaction with someone from the U-M community. Needless to say, CAs and LEAs are critical and on the front lines engaging with learners day-to-day. They are also most attuned to the pulse of each individual course in our broad portfolio of online learning experiences.

Learner Support vs. Learner Engagement

For a picture of day-to-day learner engagement at our center, it is worth considering two types of work regularly performed by CAs, LEAs, and the broader Learner Engagement team. These two types of work: (1) Learner Support and (2) Learner Engagement, are related and equally important, but merit distinction:

Learner Support

  • Reactive, pragmatic, regular maintenance
  • Wide ranging faculty roles
  • Individual or collaborative solutions
  • Frequent and direct learner interaction
  • Ubiquitous in the Academic Innovation portfolio

Examples: Staff grading, peer-review resets, broken link repair, captioning corrections, assessment corrections, autograder problem-solving, platform troubleshooting, etc.

Learner Engagement

  • Proactive, pre-planned, and intentional
  • Clear faculty role, vision and scope
  • Collaboratively designed
  • Dialogic faculty and/or CA or LEA
  • Case-by-case not broadly applicable

Examples: Content-based discussions, open office hours, proactive CA/LEA/faculty discussion forum engagement, asynchronous faculty FAQs, live events, etc.

When considering the types of work outlined above — which is completed every day by CAs and LEAs — and the many learners CAs and LEAs support on a daily basis, the central role of CAs and LEAs becomes all the more clear.

Measuring Engagement and the Future

Highlighting the work of CAs and LEAs, and distinguishing the types of work done by the Learner Engagement team, brings greater understanding and insight into the nature of learner engagement work in online learning experiences. Additionally, highlighting and categorizing this work helps us to contribute to wider conversations in the broad online learning landscape.

As our center continues to innovate and grow, measuring engagement in various forms remains essential for our continuous improvement. Looking forward, it is similarly important to continue to shine a spotlight on the hard work of CAs and LEAs as they collectively uphold and embody our commitment to open, engaged, lifelong, equitable and inclusive learning.

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