New Opportunities for Learning at Scale, Agile Curriculum Design and Two-Way Public Engagement in 2018

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

To the University of Michigan community:

Welcome back to campus and to another year filled with possibilities and opportunities to celebrate our past, question our present, and position for the future. At the Office of Academic Innovation we returned from winter break energized by the many opportunities we see for long-term mission-aligned growth. Through launching a rich and interconnected set of experiments, and through campus-wide conversation, we closed 2017 knowing that in order to realize our preferred future, we need to create a vision of it.

That vision focuses on learning first, yet technology and analytics can open and expand the reach and the quality of experience for our diverse communities of learners. Academic innovation is really about embracing an academic R&D mindset. We have an opportunity to turn our research mindset on ourselves. If we embrace experimentation, we’ll ask better and better questions about what works for whom. In so doing, we’ll expand the very definition of the Michigan community by further expanding our reach and creating more inclusive environments within. Ultimately, we’ll help U-M blur the distinction between scholarship and teaching and learning.

Over the past year the Office of Academic Innovation has refined its vision and articulated a preferred future for U-M. In this preferred future, we see new possibilities to redefine the role of the great public research university in the higher education landscape and many opportunities to positively impact pre-college learning, residential learning, global and lifelong learning, and public engagement. Our preferred future for U-M includes:

  • An open model for pre-college learning and preparation that broadens access and enhances participation
  • A personalized, rigorous, and inclusive model for residential learning grounded in learning analytics and experimentation
  • A flexible and networked model for global and lifelong learning that embraces the evolution of a more permeable university
  • A participatory and inclusive model for public engagement that accelerates the construction and sharing of new knowledge through public dialogue.

There is much to be excited about in the year ahead. Here are a few highlights in support of these areas of focus:

An open model for pre-college learning and preparation that broadens access and enhances participation

We are designing new courses for pre-college learners, including a MOOC on Computational Thinking, a unique collaboration between faculty from the College of Engineering and the School of Education. We have partnered with the Center for Educational Outreach to lead the Digital Tools and Youth Outreach community of practice, and we are partnering with the Wolverine Pathways program to provide Teach-Outs to middle and high school students.


A personalized, rigorous, and inclusive model for residential learning grounded in learning analytics and experimentation

We are developing new hybrid degree options to create new pathways for learners. Across campus, we see more courses “going gameful” than before, providing new opportunities for residential learners and new opportunities for research. We are offering visiting fellowships for doctoral graduate students who wish to conduct research and development in the area of academic innovation over the summer. We are expanding the use of tools created at U-M, like PolicyMaker, Gradecraft, ECoach, Problem Roulette and ART 2.0, to enhance learning in a wide range of environments across campus.


A flexible and networked model for global and lifelong learning that embraces the evolution of a more permeable university

We are currently building new MOOCs and specializations in areas like statistics, applied data science, and programming, and are exploring opportunities to create agile learning experiences to prepare learners for the future of work. We are expanding our global classroom through our newly created Mentor Academy, and we are expanding access to one of our MicroMasters programs by creating new sessions open to practicing educators, graduate students, faculty members, and reformers across the US and around the world. Through “Writing Jams” we are enhancing the accessibility of course content for global and lifelong learners.


A participatory and inclusive model for public engagement that accelerates the construction and sharing of new knowledge through public dialogue

We are reimagining public engagement. We have reached more than 50,000 public learner participants in our Teach-Out series and we plan to expand this series in 2018 with a Teach-Out launching every two weeks throughout the year. Anytime a member of the public wants to join a conversation about a timely topic of widespread interest, they have an opportunity to do so at Michigan.

Starting next month, we will launch a three-part Teach-Out focused on free speech (in higher education, sports, and journalism) as part of U-M’s campuswide series of events and activities to examine the intersection of free speech and inclusion. Through the Teach-Out series, we hope to extend the reach of this dialogue and invite in diverse perspectives from around the world.

We will create and host Teach-Outs on social justice, AR/VR, privacy, opioids, and universal basic income, all of which connect public learners to U-M’s institutional strategic priorities in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion; augmented and virtual reality; data science; precision health; and poverty solutions. We plan to build on the success of the Teach-Out series in 2018 and create new opportunities for two-way public engagement.


Thought partnership through exemplary service

We have made significant progress since establishing the Office of Academic Innovation and have earned the role of thought partner through exemplary service. In order to maintain our momentum and continue to evolve our model for academic R&D, we have reorganized ourselves from a three lab structure to a single-AI model to better meet the needs of our partners across campus and learners in Ann Arbor and around the world.

This new structure simplifies the process of obtaining design-thinking and consultative services for partners across campus. This new model organizes our talented team to further support academic innovation across campus and to address new opportunities for learning at scale, agile curriculum design, and two-way public engagement.

We are in a better position to accelerate pedagogical, programmatic, and business model innovation and long-term mission-aligned growth. We remain a design shop, a makerspace, and an incubator. We continue to be a place to experiment. It is the next step in creating a dynamic model for academic R&D which will immediately allow us to:

  • Build and leverage central and distributed capacity to strengthen large scale initiatives while continuing to launch a set of rich and interconnected experiments.
  • Design and deliver transformational approaches for leveraging academic innovation to shape the future of education at U-M and beyond.
  • Engage the U-M community in communities of practice to address new opportunities for, and constraints that inhibit, growth of academic innovation.
  • Balance sustainable growth and operational efficiency in the Academic Innovation model with positive risk-taking and exploration of new opportunity spaces.

We invite faculty to engage with us around projects that will help us move toward our preferred future. Faculty can attend our events, sign up for one-on-one consultations, join (or suggest) communities of practice, and propose new projects.

We are grateful to all our partners across campus and beyond as we shape the future of higher education and look forward to continued collaboration and experimentation in 2018.


James DeVaney

Celebrating Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement!

Donald Peurach, Associate Professor of Educational Policy, Leadership, and Innovation in the School of Education

This is the second of a series of blog posts celebrating the launch of the Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program. The aim of the program is to catalyze a world-wide community of professionals committed to engaging educational innovation and improvement as a field of study and a domain of practice.

Led by the University of Michigan School of Education, Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement has been developed in collaboration with individuals and organizations with deep experience in innovation and improvement, and with the support of funders aiming to advance innovation and improvement in educational practice and research. Our collaborators and supporters include:

  • The Microsoft Corporation.
  • The Spencer Foundation.
  • The Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan.
  • The Center for Positive Organizations in the University of Michigan’s
  • Ross School of Business.
  • The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
  • LearnDBIR and the University of Colorado-Boulder’s School of Education.
  • The Success for All Foundation.
  • The MIST project: Middle-School Mathematics and the Institutional Setting of Teaching.
  • The National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools.
  • The National Implementation Research Network.
  • Researchers from George Washington University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago Consortium for School Research.
  • And over 30 practicing teachers, school leaders, and system leaders leading educational innovation and improvement in their own contexts.

In the first blog in this series, we introduced a special initiative running from January – April, 2018, in which a cohort of collaborators will participate in the two courses that form the nucleus of Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement:

Existing online resources will be complemented by supplemental instructional guidance, online office hours, guest webinars, and blogging opportunities, all aimed at enriching learners’ experiences and supporting their success through deep engagement with University of Michigan faculty members and learning specialists.

Together, we will be using this experience to explore new approaches to developing foundational understandings of cutting-edge educational theory and practice, new ways of using open-access instructional resources to support place-based professional development, and new ways of collaborating to accelerate the redesign of graduate programs in response to dynamic policy environments.

We have a remarkable group participating in this initiative.

Our 2018 Winter Cohort launched on January 08, 2018, as a team of 103 collaborators: 23 from the University of Michigan and 80 from other parts of the country and the world. Participants range from undergraduate students to senior professors; from early-career teachers to veteran system-level leaders; and from aspiring reformers to senior developers in leading reform enterprises.

Our US-based learners are joining us from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

Our international collaborators are joining us from Afghanistan, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Ireland, Qatar, Russia, Syria, South Africa, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

In addition to engaging completing these courses together, members of the Winter 2018 are organizing into four study groups, with the aim of studying and writing about our experiences in this initiative from the perspectives of:

  • Participants in a path-breaking, trans-institutional, trans-national professional development experience.
  • Practice leaders driving educational innovation and improvement in diverse schools, systems, and nations.
  • Faculty members developing courses and programs focused on educational innovation and improvement.
  • Researchers and designers seeking to advance the use of information technologies in support collaborative learning among educational professional around the world.

As our work proceeds through the Winter and into Spring, we will be blogging from each of these perspectives, with two goals: to enrich understandings of other professionals seeking to advance educational innovation and improvement; and to invite them to join our community.

Thank you for joining us in celebrating Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement, and…

Stay tuned!

A Mentor Academy

Christopher Brooks, Director of Learning Analytics and Research, Office of Academic Innovation and Research Assistant Professor, School of Information

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer

MOOC learners have an insatiable desire for more content, more examples, and more problems to try. This is particularly true in MOOCs where learners are developing new skills, such as creating data visualizations using Python. Learners require multiple opportunities to practice their emerging skills in order to become more proficient in a domain. Instructors and course staff may be hard-pressed to find the time to create the volume of examples and problems that would satisfy the appetite of MOOC learners. Further, because we operate in a global classroom (Kizelcic, Saltarelli, Reich, & Cohen, 2017), instructors want to provide diverse examples and authentically situated problems in an effort to cultivate an inclusive learning environment.

An instructional team from the University of Michigan (U-M) developed a Mentor Academy to address these challenges. Christopher Brooks (Research Assistant Professor at U-M’s School of Information) and Rebecca Quintana (Learning Experience Designer at U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation), along with an educational technology professor, two graduate students, and a community engagement specialist, developed and supported a two-week instructional program to guide mentors in the creation of authentic programming problems. We invited learners who had completed the Introduction to Data Science with Python course to help the course team generate new content, by engaging them in the creation of problems that will be used in future versions of the course. Our program is based on the concept of learner-sourcing, where learners contribute novel content for future learners, while engaging in a meaningful learning experience themselves (Kim, 2015). We wanted to create an apprentice-like experience, where mentors could interact with each other and with university professors and instructors, providing them a “higher touch” experience in which they could both learn and give back. The program included video lectures about how to locate open data sets, how to write authentic problems, instructor-moderated discussions, and live video chats with mentors and instructors.


Python code on the left of the image with a chat window on the right with two students on a webcam and a chat box

Left: The Jupyter notebook environment. Right: Live video chats.


120 mentors participated, joining us from a variety of countries including Brazil, Canada, China, India, and the US. We ran four sessions of the program, and mentors worked in smaller cohorts of about 30. Mentors located local datasets and wrote authentic problems that leveraged these datasets. The problems were written in the Python programming language, using the Jupyter notebook environment. Mentors shared their problems on the programs’ discussion boards, and improved their problems through feedback from fellow mentors and the instructional team. Mentors created a number of high quality problems, equivalent to the ones that the instructor was creating. The problems were diverse and covered a wide range of topics, skill sets, and interests. For example, a mentor from Germany created a problem about beer prices in Germany, while a mentor from the US created a problem about the California wildfires. The problems are going to be deployed in Introduction to Data Science with Python in February 2018 for new learners in the course.

This exploration was just stage one of the Mentor Academy. With the success we have seen here we are planning to turn this into a permanent fixture for us to experiment with how lifelong learners can be lifelong mentors — giving back to global learners while continuing to “level up” their own skills. Plans for 2018 include involving these mentors in new course design (for agile just-in-time review of new course material as it is created), as well as connecting mentors with learners in peer help networks, bringing on-demand collaborative problem solving to data science learning environments.

The Importance of User Feedback at Academic Innovation

Mike Wojan, User Experience Designer

Why feedback is so important to us

At the Office of Academic Innovation, we are committed to creating technologies that make learning more personalized and engaging. Our team consists of uniquely talented researchers, designers, and developers who continue to raise the bar with innovative educational technology tools. But for us to practice what we preach and deliver on our commitment, it’s important to speak with learners regularly and ensure that we’re designing for them – rather than ourselves. Everyone at Academic Innovation appreciates and values the importance of user feedback, so we’ve incorporated it as a fundamental part of our design process.

Our usability testing process

As a UX Designer with a background in Human-Computer Interaction, engaging with learners has been the most exciting part of my role at Academic Innovation. I feel fortunate that my primary responsibility at work is doing what I love: sitting down with customers to understand their needs and translating those requirements into interface designs. I’m also grateful to have such driven coworkers that help me do it. Amy Homkes-Hayes, our Lead Innovation Advocate, worked with me over the past semester on ramping up our usability testing procedures and creating new strategies for reaching our learners. I also mentored several of our interns on planning and facilitating user interviews.

We recently set a new goal for each of our core projects to receive at least one round of user feedback per semester. Project Leads come to me with a list of features or ideas they’d like to test and I put together a plan for getting that information in front of students. Depending on what we’re testing, we can employ focus groups, A/B tests, one-on-one user interviews, and moderated task analysis. Even on weeks that we don’t schedule usability tests, I try to collect feedback on my designs by posting them on the office refrigerator for colleagues to respond to.

A printed photo of two proposed mobile designs posted to a refrigerator door with sticky notes and a pen asking individuals to select a preferred design

Conducting an informal A/B test on the office refrigerator. I presented two possible designs for a Problem Roulette interface and asked my coworkers to vote for their favorite via sticky note ballot.


So how do we get our users to participate?

We defined a new multi-faceted incentive strategy this term, which includes gift cards for individual tests and entries into a drawing at the end of the term for larger prizes. As a new addition to our suite of testing procedures this term, we also partnered with a School of Information course about user research, SI 422, where students were given the option to participate in a usability test for class credit. We also created a new form of usability “pop-up” testing, during which we set up an A/B testing table on campus and reward students for a few minutes of their time as they’re passing by.

A pile of sunflower seeds on a clipboard on top of a table between two empty glass jugs with students walking by

A campus pop-up test for ECoach where students chose their favorite design by casting votes with sunflower seeds (playing off our department’s metaphor as a greenhouse for innovation).


Our Innovation Advocacy intern Ning Wang led the pop-up testing effort and found the experience very rewarding. “Working on various projects at (Academic Innovation) allows me to acquire several different skills along the way, from planning the content for usability evaluations to actually conducting the tests themselves. There are times that I doubt if I can really do it, but my mentor and (Academic Innovation) coworkers offered me the guidance, necessary tools, and most importantly, the trust and freedom to let me take the initiative.”

A table covered by an Academic Innovation tablecloth with a laptop on other materials on top and an Academic Innovation banner standing next to the table

A pop-up test in the Student Union for the ART 2.0 project. We asked students to experiment with the new Major Metrics functionality and share ideas about ways we could improve the feature.


We tested several new applications over the past 4 months, including a tool for researching majors in ART 2.0, the tailored content inside ECoach, and a group study feature for Problem Roulette. In total, we spoke to 48 students in individual usability sessions and over 70 individuals at our campus pop-up tests. After each round, we summarize our research findings and present them back to the project teams. The next step is to prioritize the takeaways and decide which new features or improvements to tackle in the project’s next development cycle. Sometimes we receive suggestions that are quick wins and we can implement those right away. Students regularly impress us with brilliant ideas and solutions that demonstrate the immediate value of user testing for all of our tools.

Students seated around a table in small groups looking at laptop screens in the Academic Innovation office

Students from SI 422 participate in an interactive focus group to evaluate Problem Roulette’s new group study feature. They enjoyed getting early access to this beta feature not yet released to campus.


Goals for 2018

Moving into the Winter 2018 semester, we aim to continue growing and diversifying our usability testing program. We’ll be partnering with Information Technology Services (ITS) and Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) on improving the accessibility of our products and expanding our community of participants to include more students with disabilities. If you’re interested in learning more, please feel free to email me directly ( And of course, if you’d like to participate in one of our usability tests, you can register via this short sign up form.