U-M to Launch Digital Teach-Outs on Current Topics

Written by Laurel Thomas, Michigan News

ANN ARBOR—Authoritarian rule and fake news are among the topics for the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series, a new open online opportunity for global learners.

U-M President Mark Schlissel kicked off an Academic Innovation forum March 13 with the announcement of the first four global community learning events on the edX platform, intended to encourage public discourse about relevant issues.

“The University of Michigan Teach-Out Series is precisely the type of idea we hoped would emerge from the creativity of our faculty and staff through our Academic Innovation initiative,” Schlissel said.

The four offerings that will begin on a Friday and run through Sunday night include:

Teach-outs are modeled after the historic U-M teach-ins, which started in 1965 in response to military action in Vietnam. Faculty who had considered taking a stance against President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of troops into the country instead brought together experts for a marathon educational event.

As a result, similar teach-ins were held at 35 other campuses, and years later the model inspired the first Earth Day event, which had its origins at U-M.

Teach-Out SeriesThose who have orchestrated the Michigan Teach-Out Series hope to leverage technology to bring a global audience of learners to U-M.

“The University of Michigan Teach-Out Series can be a model for a new era of engagement between institutions of higher education and the global communities they serve,” said James Hilton, U-M vice provost for academic innovation. “Part of our public mission is to create opportunities for citizens to be informed, because the more informed people are, the more informed debate can be.”

Academic Innovation leaders refer to the teach-outs as digital just-in-time community learning events, designed to take place over a short, fixed period of time.

“These are intended to be relatively small scale experiences which enable a wide variety of global learners to join our campus community in exploring a topic which is timely for all of us,” said Timothy McKay, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and director of the Digital Innovation Greenhouse within the Office of Academic Innovation. “We hope learners across the world will see them as an opportunity for a healthy conversation—a give and take of ideas and information.”

In the fall, Schlissel announced an Academic Innovation Initiative, encouraging faculty to further embrace digital technology, learning analytics and innovation in their work at Michigan and across the world.

This year, the Office of Academic Innovation announced a partnership with Microsoft to deliver online content and three MicroMasters programs on edX in the schools of Information, Education and Social Work. In addition, several faculty innovations have been scaled for campuswide use, and learning analytics—the use of data to inform educational choices—has been employed by students and faculty alike.

Schlissel’s announcement of the Teach-Out Series came at a two-day forum “Academic Innovation Forum on Broadening the University of Michigan Community.” The CEO of edX presented a keynote at the forum that also included a panel discussion and student design jam.

“We are honored to work with University of Michigan to empower our community of global learners to engage with the critical issues and challenges of our time,” said Anant Agarwal, edX CEO and MIT professor. “This online series connects learners with experts, academic theory and current events in real-time, which is made possible by the power of technology.”

James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation said the goal of this program and the ongoing work of his office is to “activate public engagement by bringing U-M to the world while bringing the world to U-M.”

“We’re building on U-M’s longstanding commitment to public engagement and our leadership role as a pioneer in online education to create new opportunities for learners to explore the problems, events and phenomena most important to society,” he said.

“We’re starting to see the benefits of an experimental and collaborative mindset that guided us first to prototype rapidly in a nascent MOOC space, next to open access to U-M through new models like the MicroMasters programs, and now to transform public engagement through the Teach-Out Series.

“We expect the teach-outs to provide new social learning experiences that combine the reach of MOOCs with the focus of well-timed community events to accelerate the creation of opportunities for public engagement in ways that fit naturally with the strengths of a great public research university.”

Arun Agrawal’s teach-out on authoritarian rule will debut the series roughly 52 years after the first teach-in.

“Contemporary political landscapes around the world are in extraordinary flux—from BREXIT, to the upending of conventional politics in the U.S., Philippines and Brazil, to the slower moving shifts in other countries. How are we to make sense of these seemingly overwhelming changes?” said Agrawal, a political scientist at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

“We look forward to engaging online learners in this teach-out. Our historical and comparative lens will inform how societies and citizens have responded to the back and forth of more democratic versus more authoritarian political structures. The almost-daily churn of the current political climate makes our just-in-time approach to the learning experience ever more relevant.”

Michigan X
Office of Academic Innovation

Related stories:
U-M, Microsoft, edX collaborate to enhance K-12 teaching, learning
U-M joins edX to announce three social innovation MicroMasters for online learners

Accessibility and Universal Design – A Q&A with U-M Experts

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

Last fall, accessibility and universal design experts from University of Michigan shared their insight into ways to enhance access to course content for residential students and U-M learners around the world.

The discussion was held during an Innovation Hour, a gathering hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation two times per month featuring a different theme each session, and featured the following accessibility experts from across campus:

  • Jane Berliss-Vincent, Assistive Technology Manager at Information Technology Services
  • Jack Bernard, Associate General Counsel and Intermittent Lecturer in Law at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
  • Stephanie Rosen, Associate Librarian and Accessibility Specialist at the University Library
  • Scott Williams, Web Accessibility Coordinator at the Office of Institutional Equity

Stephanie Rosen speaking while sitting down and Jane Berliss-Vincent listening while seated

These experts discussed methods to integrate accessibility and universal design principles into organizational policies, the potential for cost and time savings from constructing accessible environments and the imperative to build inclusive learning experiences for all learners. Read a full recap of the discussion here.

We followed-up with a few of these local experts to gather additional insight into accessibility best practices for faculty, students and staff at U-M:

What are the distinctions between accessibility and universal design?

Jane Berliss-Vincent: Accessibility generally refers to items that are designed to be usable by individuals with disabilities, with or without additions to the standard product configuration. For example, visual impairment exists on a continuum. Some low vision users need hardware or software additions to a computer (“assistive technology”) so that they can access a website, while others won’t need any modifications if the site is thoughtfully designed–e.g., reasonable default print size and color contrast (no yellow text on a lime background, thank you).

Universal design expands this idea to include the needs of a much broader audience. The Center for Universal Design defines it as, “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” On our campus, this might include ensuring usability by disabled individuals, individuals who speak English as an additional language (EAL), individuals with limited prior technology experience, elders, and other contingents.


Why are the areas of accessibility and universal design becoming increasingly important in higher education?

Stephanie Rosen: These areas are becoming increasingly important because with the shift to digital, there comes a new possibility for “born accessible” content, tools, and learning environments. Whereas a print book would have previously been remediated for a student with print disabilities—read aloud to them by a person or, later, scanned and converted to an electronic file then read aloud by a machine—now an electronic book already has the capacity for remediation built into it (as long as it’s built right). Along with the shift to digital, there is a simultaneous shift in content creators. Faculty are now not only curating learning materials (in the old form of the syllabus reading list) but also designing and creating them, or seeing them designed and created by other entities of the University.

The old model of accommodations, where a dedicated office would remediate materials for students with disabilities, is giving way to a model of universal design, where materials are built to work for everyone from the beginning. This is very exciting, but it presents challenges because the expertise of universal design needs to be disseminated among whole new populations of content creators.


What aspects of accessibility and universal design are commonly overlooked or misunderstood? How should schools, colleges, departments and units approach these practices?

Jane Berliss-Vincent: The biggest myth is that accessibility/universal design exists in a vacuum–that it only benefits certain groups. In reality, it benefits a majority of users. For example, there is a proliferation of everyday things that have their roots in designs to accommodate people with disabilities–typewriters, TV captioning, text messaging, even football huddles. When mobile devices came along, the designers incorporated as a standard features that had long been used as assistive technology, such as touch screens, virtual keyboards, Zoom capabilities, word prediction, and so on.

The best approach, then, is to do away with labels–“this is for disabled students, this is for EAL speakers”–and put the focus on what just works well. There’s a lot of stigma around using technology that signals “difference”–my friend Jim Tobias wrote an exquisite short essay on this some years ago, and it’s still true. I’ve worked with students who are reluctant to use assistive technologies or strategies that could save them significant time and effort simply because they don’t want to be perceived as less competent than their peers.

The flip side is that U-M has a license for a software program called Read & Write Gold (the license covers both Windows and Mac) that is on all public Sites machines and that we can also distribute for free to every current student, faculty, or staff member. It was designed and is marketed as a kind of Swiss Army Knife of features for individuals with learning disabilities, but many of these features have universal appeal. The two most unusual are a homonym checker that helps you make sure you’re correctly using confusable words like “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” and a set of virtual markers that let you highlight text and then easily extract it to a Word file–the Windows version will also insert any bibligraphic information. Who wouldn’t want those? Any current operating system is also stuffed with assistive features, some of which are not necessarily identified as such. A personal favorite is the Windows setting that lets you change all the system icons so they open with one click instead of two. Much easier on all index fingers, and invaluable to anyone who can’t remember, never learned, or doesn’t want to bother knowing when double clicking is necessary.

Stephanie Rosen: The most common and most harmful misunderstanding about digital accessibility is that it is a matter of compliance that can be managed as a last minute checklist. Unfortunately, this resembles the way that accessibility is managed in architecture, as Jos Boys point out in Doing Disability Differently. Checking for accessibility compliance at the last minute can easily result in unnecessary delays and expenses — and can in the best of cases only result in a compliant resource. Alternatively, when accessibility and universal design are considered up front as design constraints, they may spark creativity and innovation that result in real advances in design possibilities for users.


How can faculty design online courses or adjust their residential courses to follow accessibility/universal design best practices and standards?

Stephanie Rosen: In the classroom, faculty can look to resources already available on campus such as the SSD Office’s 10 Instructional Accessibility Tips, the CRLT Resources on Inclusive Teaching, and workshops regularly provided by the CRLT and by the Library.

In the online space, faculty can create more accessible syllabus documents by learning from the Accessible Syllabus project and using the SALSA tool, and can make Canvas content more accessible by following General Accessibility Design Guidelines.


Are there any tools available to help faculty, students and staff make their content more accessible to learners?

Jane Berliss-Vincent: A few years ago, several of us put together a set of Instructional Accessibility Tips that represents a variety of needs. Scott Williams’ website is a gem, and he also runs the Web Accessibility Working Group, which has monthly meetings and a listserv. Scott, Stephanie, myself, and the staff of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities are always happy to be resources around any questions that U-M community members might have.

Stephanie Rosen: I mentioned that accessibility is too often “checked off” at the end of a project, but there are many “checker” tools that are useful at any stage of a project:

Beyond checkers, there are also tools that support the creation of more accessible content, such as:

There are new tools and projects all the time. I recommend following the #a11y (short for accessibility) hashtag on Twitter to keep up with developments, and paying attention to what people are doing in the academic field of Disability Studies. This field helps us understand our own ideas about disability (where our ideas come from, how they’re changing, how they affect different bodies) and, most importantly, gives voice to the knowledge produced by people with disabilities, who are constantly creating innovative ways to be in a world not designed for them.


Scott Williams also shared a list of resources faculty, staff and students may find helpful when constructing accessible learning environments and user experiences:

Join us during the next Innovation Hour! View our list of upcoming events to learn about future Innovation Hour discussions.

Students Discuss Educational Pathways at U-M

Eric Joyce, Marketing Specialist

Students want to build relationships, engage in hands-on experiences and gain real-world skills.

How do we know? We asked.

Earlier this year, the Office of Academic Innovation welcomed students to share their stories in order to help faculty learn about the range of educational pathways students have taken throughout their journeys at the University of Michigan.

This exchange was held during a recent “Innovation Hour,” a gathering hosted twice a month by Academic Innovation featuring a different theme each session. As a component of the Academic Innovation Initiative, members of the “Exploring Innovation in the Residential Experience” faculty-led design group asked two focus groups, each consisting of 3-4 students from a variety of schools and colleges, to reflect upon their learning experiences outside of the classroom. A major goal was to identify ways of scaling meaningful learning experiences at the University while making pathways to these experiences accessible to a wider range of students.

When asked about their single most meaningful learning experience at the University, students identified a variety of extracurricular activities including design clinics, academic research, performance groups, capstone programs, internships, club sports and serving as peer mentors. Reflecting on these experiences, students stressed the importance of engaging in communities of diverse students with differing backgrounds. Dr. Mika LaVaque-Manty, Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of Political Science, said the building of networks, communities and relationships was an important theme shared by the students.

Another theme echoed by many of the students surrounded the importance of internships and other practical learning experiences outside of the classroom to help them competitively enter the workforce. Students expressed a desire to follow their passions and direct their own educational pathways toward obtaining these skills instead of following the steps required to achieve a certain letter grade.

Faculty members listening and listening to discussionDr. Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Education and Information, said students in the focus groups challenged the value of grading.

“The purpose of the grade was something that had to be checked off as pathways to move forward, instead of the actual goal,” he said.

Other students said they desired opportunities to explore what they want to achieve during their time at Michigan as well as the freedom to take risks.

“I want to be able to fail in an environment where failing is ok,” one student said. “If I fail, I realize it’s something that’s not for me. I learned something about myself by doing that.”

“What students prioritize is what they get the most out of,” another student said. “Students will gravitate toward what’s important to them.”

John Diehl, Business Systems Analyst at ITS Teaching and Learning, encouraged the faculty group to facilitate opportunities to help students identify their personal goals at the University by taking ownership of their educational experiences.

“We can find more ways to provide students more opportunities to work on projects like this, work on goals like this, toward their education,” he said.

When asked how they thought the University expressed its values, one student responded that the faculty who are hired and receive tenure as well as the research and professional projects conducted by faculty are significant reflections of the values of the institution.

“That connection between the students and professors is where I see the University’s values most,” the student said.

Join us during the next Innovation Hour! View our list of upcoming events to learn about future Innovation Hour discussions.