A Support Model for Research Administration in DEI

Mike Daniel, Director of Policy and Operations

DEI’s approach to academic innovation is both scholarly and practical. We believe in the vital importance of research around digital education and learning analytics, and strive to enable our faculty partners to lead cutting edge research. As a result, DEI contributes to faculty research in a variety of ways. In addition to helping design, produce, and develop instruments for future research through both its Digital Innovation Greenhouse and Academic Innovation Fund, DEI is also the home of the Learning, Education, & Design Lab, which serves as source of potential collaboration, ideation, and dissemination of digital education and learning analytics-related research.

In order to help foster impactful future research while maintaining high levels of integrity related to current faculty, staff, and student scholarship in this area, DEI has developed a variety of internal administrative capabilities related to research that span the gamut of the sponsored project life cycle.  Through this approach, DEI provides a variety of research administration support resources in partnership with central and unit-level colleagues in an effort to help facilitate success in faculty-led DEI research programs. Our aim is to provide clear coordination and effective problem solving in helping faculty to build successful research collaborations with other institutions and engagement with external organizations. Our expertise is rooted in wide knowledge of the digital learning and learning analytics landscape.

DEI’s expertise in this area can help supplement existing research administrative resources located in a faculty member or student’s “home” unit when it relates to research projects connected to digital education innovation (including learning analytics) in some manner, including helping already existing central and “home” unit administrative colleagues carry out key pre-award and post-award-related tasks on behalf of and in collaboration with faculty-led research teams. Our team works with central and unit-level research administration to help interpret regulations, guidelines, funding trends and other information, and tie this information to the broader University’s research mission.  Through this enabling support, it is our goal to help make faculty-led research proposals more competitive for funding (both to internal grant mechanisms and external sponsors).  As an additional source of support in this area beyond what is available in their home units, faculty are encouraged to approach DEI staff early on in the proposal process and connect DEI contacts to their appropriate local support staff as appropriate.

For more information on DEI’s current capabilities in this area, please reference our  Research Administration Support Services.


The Global Learner Experience: A DEI Design Jam

Adam Levick, Market Research and Analytics Analyst
Onawa Gardiner, Marketing Specialist

One of the amazing advantages we have working at DEI is being surrounded by highly motivated students attending one of U-M’s many top ranked programs and eager to help shape the future of education at U-M and abroad. On February 5 we invited students from across U-M to join us in partnership with the Student Organization for Computer-Human Interaction (SOCHI) to dive into the question:

How do we provide learners around the world with an online experience where they can easily identify and enroll in U-M learning opportunities (including MOOCs)?


Three people discussing in front of a whiteboardThe core of a design jam is to give students the opportunity to explore a real world design problem from a user-centered perspective and give them the opportunity to brainstorm and create a solution. Three teams of students explored this question, identifying what kinds of needs our system should support and then sketching and wireframing what different solutions might look like. Additionally, student teams delved into how to assess users’ needs, align the varying projects’ core value to U-M learning opportunities and, finally, how to organize the information in order to provide the best experience for the most diverse range of users. Throughout the event DEI staff engaged with students to discuss the broad range of open learning opportunities offered by faculty in partnership with DEI. Engaging with the teams throughout the event also allowed us to answer questions about the kinds of users we serve and the many benefits those users receive through engaging in open learning experiences. In turn this sparked many ideas and designs from the teams.

At the end of the Design Jam each team gave a presentation. Their presentations highlighted how groups of individuals with unique perspectives improve our ability to explore new opportunities in academic innovation. Some key themes that emerged include the benefit of creating pathways through U-M experiences, giving top students the chance to be highlighted, and the value of connecting key skills to opportunities.

The Design Jam showcased how a broad range of learners can collaborate to address challenges in creating cutting edge education technologies while thinking innovatively about the future of the higher education.  Students had the opportunity to partner with new teammates while participating in a directed learning experience with multiple pathways to success.

Multiple people discussing around a conference table
Design jams and events, like the upcoming AIM Innovator Series talk with Christi Merrill on March 11, continue our commitment to exploring new approaches for the 21st century education as a part of the Academic Innovation at Michigan (AIM) series. We plan to host more events as we engage the U-M community in efforts to transform 200 courses by 2017 and shape the future of learning and redefine public residential education by unlocking new opportunities and enabling personalized, engaged and lifelong learning for the U-M community and learners around the world.

An Interview with Professor Anita Gonzalez on Visualizing Historical Acts

Anita Gonzalez, Professor of Theatre and Drama

Anita Gonzalez, Professor of Theatre and Drama within the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at U-M, is collaborating with DEI to develop the 19th Century Acts Tool: a digital humanities tool that visualizes historical, ephemeral acts through the amalgamation of archival texts in an engaging, online platform. During her recent Academic Innovation at Michigan (AIM) Innovator Series talk, Professor Gonzalez engaged breakout groups in a discussion about ways to encourage student engagement and discovery of historical performances through a nonlinear approach to learning using the 19th Century Acts Tool. Recently, we were able to chat with Professor Gonzalez about her work developing the 19th Century Acts Tool as well as her experience participating in the AIM Innovator Series.

Anita Gonzalez

How does the 19th Century Acts Tool work with or harness the complexity of relating the history of ephemeral acts that are largely remembered through a veil of emotion?

Performances disappear in the moment of their creation. Their emotional impact remains only in the memory of those who were present at the “Show.” Consequently, theatre historians work with ghost artifacts, imagining performance events through scraps and shards of evidence. We rummage through costumes, props, architectural drawings, ticket stubs, reviews, programs and text trying to capture the essence of the ephemeral act. At the heart of any theatrical act is embodied storytelling and a recreation of precious emotions shared between performer and audience. This emotive state, which unites gesture with voice with idea is what we hope to offer a glimpse of in the 19th Century Acts Tool. The tool incorporates images of hands and performing bodies coupled with reconstructions of voices and gestures to give users a sense of how the historical performance might have communicated to audiences.

Can you explain the reasoning as well as consequences for designing the 19th Century Acts Tool to be largely nonlinear? How has digital technology enabled this design?

The tool is designed to be nonlinear because that is how students think. When I teach discussion classes I pose questions to students and watch how they work to respond to complex questions. Generally, they open multiple screens and consult multiple sources at the same time. They search for the answer using Google, YouTube, Instagram and other technologies, which keep them engaged. I find students are used to associative rather than linear thinking. Once they see the sources they begin to make connections across the various media.

I find many of our teaching tools to be exactly opposite. They replicate print books by presenting a photo image coupled with an explanatory text. This approach to learning encourages passive reception of previously organized knowledge. I’m interested in seeing how students construct knowledge when presented with sources or evidence. When they construct knowledge they are more likely to remember it.

So the 19th Century Acts Tool is nonlinear and you can enter into the resource through several portals. Each portal will lead you through a different way of acquiring information. This is important because not only does each student learn better, but I have found that users coming from diverse disciplines also prefer to see different types of information. For example, the musicologist who enters the tool already knows how Mendelssohn’s music sounds. They may be more interested in where the pianist sat or how the actress who performed to the music moved on stage. Another user trained in history might really want to know what a Mendelssohn concerto sounds like.

Of course one consequence of this approach is that if you are looking for a particular item, there is no search tool, so you may have to “play in the interface” a little before you find what you want.

How does the 19th Century Acts Tool enable the recreation of historical performances in order to present diverse performances from multiple lenses?

The prototype of the tool is the African American actor Ira Aldridge, who performed primarily in Europe and Russia. The intent of the project, especially in its second phase, is to enable users to enter data sets from any performer into the interface. Many people think of theater as written text, but the tool privileges non-textual aspects of performance. Because there are many theatrical events, particularly in working class communities, that are not text based the tool allows for inclusion of a broader spectrum of theatrical activities.

For example, my own current research centers around African, Irish and working class performances on boats. The written documentation of this kind of performance work is scanty, but with 19th Century Acts, I could enter data about ships into the “venue” section of the tool, add recordings of sea shanties to the “listen” section of the tool and add seaman’s uniforms to the “costumes” section of the tool and come up with a sense of where and how maritime performance transpired. This would not be possible if we depended only upon literary text to define theatrical activity. In that way, 19th Century Acts broadens the scope of documentation about theatrical practices.

What were the key takeaways from your featured Academic at Michigan (AIM) Innovator series talk that focused on discussing historical performances through the 19th Century Acts Tool?

The key take away that I got from AIM was the importance of embodied research. One of the key elements of the performing arts is that the human body physically engages, using voice and body to communicate ideas. As we imagine history, it is a challenge to recreate the body experiencing the text (or song or dance). My breakout group suggested that we might use the tool to encourage an embodied response to the subject matter. What if we included a media clip which asked users to imitate gestures, or included music with instructions to tap on the table to the beats of the song? This would encourage a physical engagement with the tool that moves beyond clicking a button. I’m not sure we can include this type of activity in the current iteration of the tool, but it is an idea that could be incorporated in the future under the “listen” section.

How do you hope this tool will change the way U-M students learn about historical performances?

Students will learn about performers of the 19th Century through their images instead of solely through language. As students surf and click through the pages they will learn about aspects of performers’ lives in a visual way. They will be able to create their own pathways through performance history, selecting events or archival documents that most interest them. Instead of viewing performances as finite completed acts, students will actively engage with snippets of information about performers, and then draw their own conclusions about what happened during the show. One part of the tool aggregates and remixes images of texts, props, and costumes. Another part locates venues and performances. The beauty of this project is that I can’t predict what students will learn because each student will be in charge of their own learning based upon how they move through the tool’s components. I hope students will learn about historical performances by exploring and seeing where their interests’ takes them.

M-Write Joins the Digital Innovation Greenhouse  Portfolio

M-Write has officially become the fifth project housed within the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) portfolio. As the most recent addition to the DIG portfolio within the Office of Digital Education & Innovation (DEI), M-Write is a project that will leverage the resources, guidance and tools available through DIG in order to facilitate and scale up the implementation of writing-to-learn pedagogies, enhancing student learning and individualized feedback for students in large gateway courses on the U-M campus.

M-Write will leverage ECoach, another initiative housed in the DIG Portfolio, in new ways in order to work with user communities across the U-M campus. ECoach will be used by M-Write to provide personalized feedback to students based on automated and peer assessments of their writing, enabling students from diverse disciplines to participate in content-focused writing activities. Additionally, M-Write will incorporate conceptual writing prompts, automated peer review with rubrics and natural language processing.

M-Write joins GradeCraft, ECoach, Student Explorer and Academic Reporting Toolkit 2.0 (ART 2.0) initiatives; structured digital engagement tools that assist in implementing personalized learning at scale in a residential learning environment. ART 2.0 is a data visualization tool that focuses on supporting curricular decisions with evidence to foster more informed decision making. Student Explorer leverages course performance data to render real time updates on course progress in order to facilitate future student success, while ECoach provides personalized feedback and advice to students in large, introductory courses as well as the Honors Program cohort. GradeCraft, also recently added to the DIG portfolio, is a learning management system that supports gameful learning in the classroom. These initiatives highlight a few of the many ways DIG is partnering with faculty innovators to investigate, design and use learning technologies at U-M, as well as how DEI continues its commitment to accelerate digital education and innovation in learning in order to transform 200 courses by 2017.

Anne Gere, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Gertrude Buck Collegiate Professor of Education and English Language and Literature,  Director of the Sweetland Writing Center and Second Vice President of the Modern Language Association partnered with Ginger Shultz, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, to develop and test M-Write in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the College of Engineering. M-Write is the recipient of a $1.8M grant from the Third Century Initiative Transforming Learning for a Third Century (TLTC) program. M-Write will initially serve 5,000 students through the introduction of writing-to-learn pedagogies in large introductory courses on campus with the intent of reaching over 10,000 students over the lifetime of the project.

The Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) consists of software developers, user experience designers, behavioral scientists and multi-disciplinary student fellows who work with user communities to provide resources for homegrown educational software innovations on campus and scale up these digital enterprises to maturity through collaboration across U-M’s digital ecosystem.

Bringing DIG’s Guiding Principles to Life via M-Write

Chris Teplovs, DIG Developer – @cteplovs
Kris Steinhoff, DIG Developer – @ksofa2
Ben Hayward, DIG Developer

Digital Innovation Greenhouse and M-Write Logos
The core development team of the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) within the Office of Digital Education & Innovation (DEI) has been working together for just over half a year. In addition to working on specific initiatives, we have had a chance to reflect on how we accomplish our work. Accordingly, we have published our six Software Development Guiding Principles.

Life in the Digital Innovation Greenhouse is fast-paced: along with working on the development of existing tools within our portfolio, we are continually in the process of bringing new projects into the Greenhouse. M-Write is a recent addition to the Greenhouse’s crop of seedlings and it provides a good opportunity to apply our Guiding Principles to an actual project.

Innovation & Creativity

M-Write weaves together conceptual writing prompts, automated peer review, natural language processing, and personalized feedback. It’s not surprising there are no off-the-shelf products that provide complete solutions to the challenges presented by this complex pedagogical ecosystem. The task of investigating the possible constellations of tools that might be useful for M-Write will be one of the first tasks to be tackled by the DIG team. This will likely involve several brainstorming sessions that start with the prompt “what if we…”.

Understand Our Users & Their Needs

This is a crucial step and one that will occur early in the M-Write project. We will seek input from users — students, instructors and researchers. We are fortunate to have recently been joined by a Lead Behavioral Scientist (Holly Derry) and dedicated User Experience Designer (Mike Wojan) who will lead our User Experience Design Student Fellows to inform design decisions by conducting interviews and focus groups.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

With a clear idea of user requirements and the range of technological possibilities by which we would meet these requirements, our next step will be to partner with Anne Gere and Ginger Shultz, the Principal Investigators of M-Write, to specify which elements would constitute an MVP. A more traditional model of software development requires a full and final specification of a product before a product is built. Our more agile approach for M-Write will allow us to get a prototype out for user testing much earlier. Free technologies, such as Trello cards, support the process of generating the specification for an MVP.

Iterative Approach

By creating an MVP we have something our user community can actually use. Led by Rachel Niemer, our Director of Digital Pedagogy and Learning Communities we will start building up a sustainable user community and using feedback to inform changes. For example, did we get the natural language processing algorithm right? How could we improve the user interface? What challenges do instructors face in using the system?

Distributed Development Workflow

Since there will be several developers working on M-Write, we need ways to work in parallel and move quickly without stepping on each other’s toes. For example, a distributed workflow will help us manage the application’s code. We also use the git source code management system and a flexible workflow to review code changes. We designate a single individual as the “integration manager” and final arbiter for each project’s source code repository. Other contributors issue pull requests.

Automate Processes

Automation helps increase our efficiency, reduce errors, and allows us to iterate more quickly. We’ll focus on automation in several areas: building the application, resolving dependencies, and testing. We use a container-based deployment environment for much of our work in DIG. Docker, Kubernetes, and OpenShift are likely to make up the M-Write deployment ecosystem. Unit and end-to-end tests help to detect new bugs and keep old bugs from reappearing. Automating this testing might be accomplished with continuous integration, although in the initial development phase this will likely be replaced by periodic testing and deployment.


M-Write represents an exciting new project for DIG and DEI, as we continue to unlock personalized, engaged, and lifelong learning for the U-M community and learners around the world. It is an innovative project that seeks to integrate disparate technologies, and provides a powerful demonstration of how the DIG Software Development Guiding Principles can be brought to life.