The Future of Engagement: Using Contextual Inquiry to Enhance the Course Advocate Role

Kayla Carucci, Community Engagement Intern

Why Contextual Inquiry?

At the Digital Education and Innovation Lab (DEIL), Course Advocates (CAs) play an integral part in managing online courses. Last month, we defined the role and responsibilities of CAs . One of our Learning Experience Designers described them as “the frontline for any problems that could surface after course launch.”

Initially the Lab employed only a handful of CAs, but today there are more than 50! While DEIL has experienced rapid growth throughout the past five years, the Course Advocate position has remained relatively unchanged. As a result, two DEIL employees suggested using contextual inquiry to provide recommendations on how to make the CA position more effective. But why use contextual inquiry?

Multicolored sticky notes placed in a hierarchy on a whiteboardBest-known for its use of the affinity diagram–more fondly known as an affinity wall by students and faculty at UMSI–contextual inquiry is a user-centered design method that utilizes inductive reasoning to organize, interpret and consolidate large quantities of information regarding complex systems and problems. By combining elements of ethnographic interviews and participant observation, this method produces rich qualitative data about daily work practices, culture and environment.


Selecting and Interviewing Participants

Before jumping in, I sat down with key stakeholders to clarify the goals and expectations for this project. Specifically, I was asked to focus on the training process for Course Advocates as well as how to increase their engagement levels. After selecting a group of 10 employees to interview, I began to research and observe the inner workings of DEIL in order to inform my own understanding of how the Lab typically operates.

The individuals selected for interviews contribute across the life-cycle of course development and included operations staff, Program/Project managers, Learning Experience Designers, faculty champions and Course Advocates. I wrote a unique set of questions for each employee, with the intention of learning about their job responsibilities and previous interactions with CAs.

To allow for candid discussion, each interview was held in a private location and all participants were invited to converse with me as if I knew absolutely nothing about DEIL. After each session, I studied my interview notes in order to distill key data points and generate follow-up questions; in total, around 500 key data points was transferred to individual post-it notes to be used during the wall building process.


Wall Building

A stack of yellow sticky notesInitially, affinity notes were sorted into large groups on whiteboards if they appeared to be related. They were reorganized numerous times until small hangings of one to five notes began to emerge. When a note did not fit into one of these hangings, they were added to a discard pile.

Eventually, the small clusters evolved to identify a total of 15 pressure points. These points formed six main findings and two additional areas for further exploration. When my affinity wall was complete, it spanned three 36” x 24” whiteboards and only 119 yellow notes remained.



My key findings were spread across four different themes–communication, productivity, engagement, and recruitment/hiring. In a final report, I outlined 11 recommendations which provided both short and long term solutions.

While some of my proposed recommendations were long term in scope, before my internship ended, I had the pleasure of enacting three smaller recommendations: renaming the initial on-boarding process “Orientation” and focusing on expectations and responsibilities; creating an internal-only course for new CAs to explore and learn their course platform; and creating a Slack channel for the course advocates to share knowledge and learn from one another.

I am hopeful the Digital Education and Innovation Lab will continue to implement my recommendations over the next year–I encourage you to keep an eye out for them!

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