Designing Better Online Courses by Understanding Learners

Adam Levick, Data Scientist

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer

Stephanie Haley, Engagement & Iteration Manager

*Academic Innovation presented a related case study at CHI 2017: “The Persona Party: Using Personas to Design for Learning at Scale”*


Think back to the last time you stayed in someone else’s house/apartment without them there to host you. When you went to make yourself something to eat, you probably realized you had no idea where to find the right food! Sure, you had a general idea that perishable food would be in the refrigerator, but when it comes to finding specific items, especially a less frequently used kitchen tool, you became a drawer-pulling, cupboard-slamming machine! At your house it would have been obvious; the potato masher clearly goes behind the third pot on the right, but your friend hangs it above the sink! In the end, navigating and using your friend’s house was a big challenge. But you accepted it, because it was designed by them, for them.

This common situation, becoming lost in someone else’s design, illustrates one of the major reasons why the building of “personas” has become so prevalent and popular in the design world. It is also why we choose to apply them to digital tools and explore their use in online learning environments. As user experience professionals, our community acknowledges the value of utilizing personas for online learning contexts, but because this approach  is under-explored, we also recognize the need to adapt this methodology to create our own novel approaches.

Personas offer realistic portraits of users at critical junctions in the design process, and have been doing so since the 90s when they were first implemented in their modern form. A persona contains information such as a user’s name, identity, behaviors, and motivations, as well as provides insight about what is important to them and how they experience similar technologies in everyday life. However, instead of representing one individual, a persona represents common traits of different audience segments, helping designers to make/prioritize decisions. This information is based on real data, often interviews and surveys of the target audience. When multiple personas are created for a project, one is often chosen as the primary persona, helping the design team to streamline goals and avoid self-referential design (designing for one’s own needs). Building a kitchen layout with a specific persona, with specific needs, in mind would have avoided the challenges illustrated earlier. It may sound counterintuitive, but case studies have shown that designing with a primary persona in mind improves the experience for all users.


Time lapse of persona being drawn on a wipe boardPersonas for Learning Tools at DIG

At the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, personas have always been a key part of the design process for the digital tools the lab helps scale. Mike Wojan, UX Designer, describes the role personas play:

“We often create personas of students and faculty that come into the office to give us feedback on our projects. This helps us stay in tune with users on campus so we know we’re developing tools that solve the right problems. Creating something that’s attractive and intuitive to the design team doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve delivered a product that meets the unique requirements of your end users. The best way to put ourselves in our users’ shoes is to create visual reminders of who they are and what’s important to them in the application. This way we can ask questions like, “what would Alex need from this part of the interface?,” or “how can we best serve Jane with this functionality? These processes have helped drive adoption and positive feedback across all of our DIG tools.”

Personas, along with other user-centered design methodologies, help drive positive feedback and adoption for many DIG tools. If you’re interested in why personas are so ubiquitous in the tech industry, this blog post outlines quantitative examples of their success.


Adapting to MOOCs

We’ve gathered a list of some of the unique challenges that arise in the design of online learning environments:

  • Learners enter Massive Online Open Courses with a more diverse range of goals (career, enrichment, community, co-enrollment) than in traditional courses
  • By necessity, much of the course design and creation needs to be done prior to a learner even starting to engage with materials and their peers
  • Because content is pre-recorded, the instructor is not able to make changes “on the fly” or adapt materials to the emerging needs of learners
  • Course instructors and staff likely base decisions on the kinds of learners that they have seen in their own face-to-face courses or, at worst, on their own personal preferences

We believe that integrating personas into the design process, both throughout the design of a course and during its iteration, has great potential to improve learner experience and outcomes. In the fall of 2016, we began running “Persona Parties” to introduce personas into our MOOC design process with the goal of being more intentional in our approach to creating learner-centered experiences in our courses. Personas Parties are collaborative sessions in which staff with various areas of expertise have developed the following types of personas:

  • Aspirational  – based on the goals of the course creator
  • Assumptive – based on generalizable data from those assumed most likely to participate
  • Data-Informed – based on data from the course or similar past courses


Personas in Practice

Group of individuals listening to a presentation projected on a screenThe first “Persona Party” we ran centered on creating personas for use in future iterations of the Finance for Everyone: Smart Tools for Decision Making MOOC. Stephanie Haley and Mike Wojan provided a b
rief introduction on personas and their traditional usage in the design process to the 19 team members who participated in the workshop. These participants were divided into four groups, each with at least one member with experience creating personas. The groups were provided with demographic data from pre-course surveys from both iterations of the MOOC, a persona design template, and background information about the instructor’s intended audience. Each group was instructed to create two personas that could inform the next iteration of the MOOC. The four participant groups created between 1-3 personas each, with 9 personas created in total. At a later design session, we shared these personas with the course instructor, Gautam Kaul, who selected “Joe Westfield” as the primary persona for future iterations of the course. Gautam later reflected:

A persona named Joe Westfield describing his demoghraphics, motivations, content knowledge, and technology use.“I liked Joe because he has no background in finance but has the right (and real) motivation for learning – managing his money and saving for an investment (education) in his children….To my mind, motivation is the key to learning.”  

This persona will be a part of the design discussion for future iterations of this course.  


In a second example, instead of going through the persona party process outlined above, we helped students create personas in Act on Climate: Steps to Individual, Community and Political Action, a MOOC that is being designed by Michaela Zint and a group of U-M students from the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. We gave each student in the course a template to guide them in creating an “aspirational” persona, whose characteristics are based on the type of learner that students are hoping to engage. During a class-wide discussion, students shared their personas and clustered them based on common traits. The largest cluster contained personas who were motivated to take action based on the political climate, followed by a cluster of those who were about to undertake a new challenge, such as enrolling in a new university program. Students chose one persona from each cluster, and these personas formed the primary and secondary personas represented by learners named Alex and Iram. Throughout the design sessions, we have observed students spontaneously referring to Alex and Iram when making design decisions. For example, the students are providing MOOC learners with lists of recommendations for personal actions that learners can take. For each recommendation, students have asked “does this recommendation seem like something Alex or Iram could or would want to do?”


With early success in implementing personas in the design process of our Massive Online Open Courses, we look forward to working with our faculty partners to implement this practice in more of our courses in order to create better experiences for our learners.

Adam Levick and Stephanie Haley both hold Master of Science in Information degrees in Human Computer Interaction. Rebecca Quintana holds a Master of Arts in Education and is currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Technologies.


School is a Game: Can We Make It a Good Game?

Academic Innovation Initiative Leads to Rapid Launch of 20 Experimental Projects

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

In September 2016, President Schlissel kicked off a new Academic Innovation Initiative and called for the next stage in the evolution of the University of Michigan’s leadership in higher education. At a series of opening events in the Fall, our community gathered in a range of settings to articulate the many ways in which academic innovation is critical in the pursuit of knowledge, inclusion, and impact. Academic innovation is where creativity, comprehensive excellence and our aspirations for societal impact all come together at the University of Michigan. As we imagine again how the world learns from and with a great public research university, there are many design questions to consider. For example:

  • How can we leverage networked access to information, new modes of learning and the power of data analytics to strengthen the quality of a Michigan education and enhance our impact on society?
  • How might we unbundle the curriculum from disciplines and rebundle around problems, events, and phenomena most important to society?
  • How should we consider pedagogical, technological, and program model innovation in concert, rather than in isolation from one another, and create a new and sustainable model for academic R&D?
  • How should we take what we know about where learning happens – within, outside, and on the periphery of curricula – and adapt our systems and structures to best represent what a learner knows and has experienced?
  • How should we think about changes in our ability to effectively reach learners in a lifelong and lifewide capacity in the context of our mission and institutional values?

The President charged our community to look well into the future – to anticipate changes through globalization, technology, and the future of work – and to recommend new and transformational approaches and recommendations for leveraging academic innovation to further realize our mission. At the same time, he pushed us to further invest the talent and energy of our diverse community in adopting an experimental and collaborative mindset. We must learn by doing. We should 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.

And so we have begun.

Since September, we have launched twenty new projects supported through the Academic Innovation Fund and in partnership with the Office of Academic Innovation. These initiatives and team members are listed below.

  • Act On Climate: Steps to individual, community and political action – School of Natural Resources and Environment – This new MOOC encourages and supports social action to address and respond to climate change.

Michaela Zint, School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a team of students from the School of Natural Resources and Environment, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Ford School of Public Policy and School of Information.

  • Centering (IM)Visible Voices – School of Education – This course highlights the lived experiences of historically marginalized individuals.

Tabbye Chavous, School of Education; Marie Ting, National Center for Institutional Diversity; Laura Sanchez-Parkinson, National Center for Institutional Diversity; Elizabeth James, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; Shelly Connor, Alumni Association.

  • Change agents for climate change: An initiative to transform students from consumers to developers of MOOCs – School of Natural Resources and Environment – This residential opportunity actively engages students in the development of a massive open online course (MOOC) through a seminar designed both to enhance their teaching abilities and to deepen their understanding of climate change.

Michaela Zint, School of Natural Resources and Environment; Rachel Niemer, Office of Academic Innovation; Tazin Daniels, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.

  • Community Organizing for Social Justice in Diverse Democracy – School of Social Work – This MOOC examines strategies of community organizing for social justice in a diverse democratic society.

Barry Checkoway, School of Social Work.

  • Governing Sustainability – School of Natural Resources and Environment – This online course examines sustainability governance strategies of real-world decision makers.

Arun Agrawal, School of Natural Resources and Environment.

  • Introduction to Interprofessional Education and Practice – School of Social Work and U-M Center for Interprofessional Education – This module provides knowledge and resources for Interprofessional Education in order to improve health for all.

Laura Smith, U-M Flint Physical Therapy; Mary Ruffolo, School of Social Work.

  • Leading Change: Go Beyond Gamification with Gameful Learning – This new MOOC gives school leaders and teachers tools to support gameful learning environments that foster personalized and engaged learning.

Barry Fishman, School of Education and School of Information; Rachel Niemer, Office of Academic Innovation.

  • Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age – College of Literature, Science, and the Arts – This new MOOC teaches basic concepts of statistics, probability theory, the scientific method, psychology and microeconomics as they relate to everyday decisions and judgments.

Richard E. Nisbett, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

  • Policymaker – Ford School of Public Policy – This customized, hands-on, role-playing simulation platform allows educators to create and implement interactive learning opportunities for students.

Elisabeth R. Gerber, Ford School of Public Policy.

  • Problem Roulette – College of Literature, Science, and the Arts – This web-based practice tool provides students with access to a large library of past exam problems.

August (Gus) Evrard, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

  • Public Library Management – School of Information – These digital courses provide a pathway for library professionals to expand their toolkit of management strategies.

Kristin Fontichiaro, School of Information; Lionel Robert, School of Information; Larry Neal, Clinton-Macomb Public Library; Josie Parker, Ann Arbor District Library.

  • Starting a Social Enterprise – Ross School of Business – This new MOOC guides learners to explore if, when and how to launch a social enterprise.

Michael Gordon, Ross School of Business

  • Storytelling for Social Change – School of Music, Theatre & Dance – This new MOOC highlights how theatre can motivate social change and activism.

Anita Gonzalez, School of Music, Theatre & Dance

  • Transformational Leadership: Leading for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion – School of Education – This new MOOC shares new approaches to leadership in higher education in the context of equity, diversity and inclusion.

John Burkhardt, School of Education; Betty Overton, School of Education; Noe Ortega, School of Education; Amy Fulton, School of Education; Rosario Torres, School of Education.

  • Using Digital Modules to Holistically Prepare Students for Sustainable Community Engagement – School of Social Work, School of Information, and the University Library – These modules help learners effectively and respectfully engage in, work alongside, and transition from a community-based initiative.

Mary Ruffolo, School of Social Work; Kelly Kowatch, School of Information; Kathleen Lopez, School of Social Work; Carrie Luke, University Library.

  • Web Applications for Everybody – School of Information – This series of courses introduces and teaches learners how to build dynamic database-backed websites.

Charles Severance, School of Information.

  • Wireless Indoor Location Device (WILD) Learning System – College of Engineering – This system enables a new form of computer-supported collaborative learning where students are actively involved in a simulated world. It will provide a unique platform for kinesthetic learning that will allow students to become active participants in complex systems.

Perry Samson, College of Engineering and School of Information; Mark Moldwin, College of Engineering; Lauro Ojeda, College of Engineering; Stephanie Teasley, School of Information.

  • Social Work: Practice, Policy and Research MicroMasters – School of Social Work – This MicroMasters equips learners with a framework to understand social work core theories and practices.

Mary Ruffolo, School of Social Work; Barbara Hiltz, School of Social Work; Katie Richards-Schuster, School of Social Work; Jamie Mitchell, School of Social Work; Brian Perron, School of Social Work.

  • User Experience (UX) Research and Design MicroMasters – School of Information – This MicroMasters provides learners with the knowledge and skills to research and design products that users will love.

Mark Newman, School of Information; Clifford Lampe, School of Information; Pedrag Klasnja, School of Information; Lija Hogan, School of Information.

  • Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters – School of Education – This MicroMasters provides learners with the knowledge base and core skills to advance educational instruction through educational policy, reform and practice.

Don Peurach, School of Education; Elizabeth Moje, School of Education; Deborah Loewenberg Ball, School of Education; Nell Duke, School of Education; Liz Kolb, School of Education; Gretchen Spreitzer, Ross School of Business.

In addition to these new initiatives, many other initiatives underway prior to September have captured further momentum with the launch of the new Initiative. We invite the campus community to continue to engage in this important activity by sharing an idea, participating in an event, or proposing a new initiative.

The Academic Innovation Initiative: What are Faculty Excited about this Term?

Sarah Moncada, Academic Innovation Initiative Project Coordinator

The Academic Innovation Initiative continues “full steam ahead” in 2017 as the university celebrates its bicentennial year. The Initiative’s faculty steering committee has been working to design projects and structures that enable ongoing academic innovation across the university.

In recent months, faculty design groups have hosted informal data-gathering and planning sessions with student, faculty, staff and community collaborators. Design groups convened conversations on the Transcript of the Future, Accessibility, Lifelong Learning Opportunities, Communities of Practice and Extracurricular Learning Experiences, with the goal of collecting feedback on the design of larger events and experiments.

The steering committee members are excited now to launch new projects based on the community input they gathered in the Fall. Here is what some of the faculty are focusing on this term:


Barry FishmanDr. Barry Fishman
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Education and Information in the School of Information and School of Education

Dr. Barry Fishman believes a large benefit of the initiative is that it will encourage more instructors to think about academic innovation and to experiment with new practices in their classrooms. He offers an example: “I’d like to see increasing numbers of faculty on campus consider the ideas behind gameful learning and think about how they can create learning environments that are more intrinsically engaging for learners.”

In May 2017, Fishman will co- facilitate a workshop on micro-credentials with Dr. Stephanie Teasley, Research Professor in the School of Information. The workshop will explore the use of digital badges and other alternative credentials as evidence for college admission. Fishman asks: “How might we expand access to a Michigan education using nontraditional measures of college readiness?”


Elisabeth GerberDr. Elisabeth R. Gerber
Jack L. Walker, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy in the Ford School of Public Policy

One of Dr. Elisabeth Gerber’s high-priority goals is to create opportunities for alumni and other outside stakeholders to engage with current residential students. She believes that when students and alumni work together on a project, both groups benefit from exposure to different perspectives and expertise. Such collaborations offer students valuable networking opportunities, and they allow alumni to meaningfully reconnect with their alma mater.

Gerber is co-designing an event where representatives from across the university will brainstorm additional ways for students to experience transformation and purpose in the classroom.


Anita GonzalezDr. Anita Gonzalez
Professor of Theatre and Drama within the School of Music, Theatre and Dance

Dr. Anita Gonzalez would like the initiative to generate interest in academic innovation with additional members of the U-M community, beyond the “usual players,” and she hopes this year’s events and activities will reach new faculty constituents.

For Gonzalez, a key goal of the initiative is to expand the university’s outreach to learners in rural Michigan and ethnically diverse communities within the state. She believes in a hybrid approach—with the growing number of online educational offerings, face-to-face connections are still important in reaching underrepresented populations and facilitating their access to the university’s resources.

Gonzalez is thrilled to develop her MOOC, “Storytelling for Social Change”, which introduces the power of storytelling and performance as mechanisms for promoting community dialogue and sharing cultural heritages.


Gautam KaulDr. Gautam Kaul
Fred M. Taylor Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Finance in the Ross School of Business

Dr. Gautam Kaul is working with the Fostering Broad and Enduring Participation Design Group to build and launch a program for alumni education and engagement. They will gather community input for the project at a Fall 2017 design jam event during which diverse teams will work together to develop new ideas for alumni learning experiences.

Kaul believes online learning opportunities can facilitate more meaningful and sustained alumni engagement: “My passion, and most of my current work, is to use MOOCs to reimagine and change residential education. I feel that enables me to propose and create programs that can also serve our alumni.”


Tim McKayDr. Tim McKay
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy and Education in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

As the Initiative moves forward, Dr. Tim McKay reminds us that academic innovation is difficult to achieve: “Not only do we have to create successful, effective new things, but we have to do it in a system built with a conservative focus on sustaining the old things.”

He believes the Initiative’s steering committee must create three or four really substantial experimental opportunities by the end of this year-long effort. He adds, “These will be spaces, places, and organizational structures that actively encourage students, faculty, and staff to help us recreate the research university for the 21st century.”

McKay is particularly excited about the Initiative’s collaboration with the Office of the Registrar to reimagine the academic transcript: “It is time to explore completely new, very different ways of representing the college experience.”

The faculty steering committee welcomes collaborators as they help design the best academic environment for the third century of the University of Michigan.

There are many ways to get involved with the Academic Innovation Initiative:

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