Using Chart Paper and Sticky Notes to Bring Curriculum Design into Focus

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Designer

Large easel pages covered in multi-colored sticky notes adhered to glass walls in the Office of Academic Innovation

Figure 1: Workspace within the Office of Academic Innovation.

Visitors to the Office of Academic Innovation often comment on the notations and diagrams that cover our whiteboards and glass surfaces, or remark on our liberal use of colorful Sticky Notes that are clustered on walls and tables (see Figure 1). Clearly, a lot of creative work happens in our space, and many ideas are captured, improved on, and synthesized using a variety of materials. In this two-part series, I will explore how Academic Innovation project teams have experimented with various representational forms as we develop curricula for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In Part I, I will detail our use of low-fidelity representations to storyboard course design during the design phase, using three recent examples. In Part 2, I will share work that we have been doing in the academic research and development space, and describe our experimentation with two representational formats with the goal of understanding their potential utility for reflecting on design after a MOOC has launched.

Design challenges

MOOCs can be structurally complex, because they contain a wide range of activities and resources that can be arranged in various curriculum sequences. Course elements can communicate instructional content, such as videos, links to external resources, and static pages of text and images. We also use course elements to provide opportunities for learners to interact with content and other learners, using machine-graded quizzes, peer-graded assignments, special widgets, and discussion forums. Once a course is “live,” learners can get a sense of the layout of a course by navigating through its elements, using a menu of icons and textual links.

However, during the design process, project teams may have difficulty grasping the overall shape of a course—including the sequence and arrangements of various course elements—without an aid or tool. In the absence of a bird’s eye view, it can be difficult to comprehend (1) if course elements are mapping to learning goals, (2) if challenge and effort are distributed evenly throughout the course, and (3) if content and activities are varied in ways that are engaging for learners.

Introducing design representations

The scholarly work from the emerging field of learning design is a useful resource, because it considers how learning activities—tasks that learners engage in, in order to make progress on, and meet, learning goals—can be codified and made available for review and critique. Visual representations of curriculum design can be used as a shared referent in the form of design representations. Researchers like Grainne Conole from the University of Leicester have examined the utility of a variety of representational formats, such as mind maps, models, and diagrams, which can bring particular pedagogical dimensions into focus. For instance, Conole explains the “swim-lanes” format is a useful diagram for depicting activity levels that the curriculum designer anticipates will take place (Conole, 2010).

Drawing on the field of learning design, we have used large-format visual representations with course design teams to support and stimulate thinking about curriculum design. We have experimented with different representational formats, all of which essentially portray an abstraction of course elements and sequences. Since the big picture can be particularly hard to grasp at the “fuzzy front end” of the design process (i.e., when project teams are still making decisions about how instruction should be organized and sequenced in the online environment), we have tested using design representations as a mediational tool during design conversations. We found that during design meetings with faculty partners it can be helpful to focus on a shared referent—which can be used to stimulate conversations about target audiences and learning goals—to test ideas about content and activity structure, and to evaluate whether or not the current design gives learners sufficient opportunities to make progress and demonstrate that they have met learning goals. Next, we detail an approach that we have been piloting—using low-fidelity materials to storyboard curriculum design. The idea is that by using low-fidelity materials (e.g., Sticky Notes), design teams can get an “at a glance” view of the current state of a curriculum design, while feeling free to add and subtract elements, and move things around.

Design representations in practice at Academic Innovation

Rebecca Quintana and Brenda Gunderson standing in front of a whiteboard and easel paper page covered in multi-colored sticky notes

Figure 2: Rebecca Quintana and Brenda Gunderson work through the “translation” process of creating a curriculum storyboard for the first course in a series about Statistics.

In this first example, we created a curriculum storyboard with a team that is developing a series of MOOCs about statistics. The design team is large and includes Dr. Brenda Gunderson, the lead faculty innovator; professors, staff, and graduate students from the College of Literature Science and the Arts (LSA); faculty from the Consulting for Statistics, Computing, and Analytics Research group (CSCAR); a design manager; and a learning experience designer. The design team had jointly contributed to a spreadsheet that listed learning goals, possible topic areas, and possible data sets. During a “check-in” meeting, the design manager, learning experience designer, and lead faculty member worked through a process of translating the information contained within the spreadsheet to a curriculum storyboard (see Figure 2). We developed a system for representing the curriculum plan, using colored sticky notes and icons to represent each element type (e.g., a blue sticky note with an arrow stood for a lecture video). In a subsequent design meeting, the entire design team discussed the storyboard and made adjustments to the flow by adding and rearranging sticky notes.

In a second example, we created a curriculum storyboard for Dr. Katie Richards-Schuster, the lead faculty innovator who is developing the Social Welfare Policies and Services course, the final MOOC in the School of Social Work’s MicroMasters program (see Figure 3). The learning goals, instructional content, activities, and assessments for the course were already well-defined, but before moving into the production phase, the design team wanted to ensure the design made sense in terms of curriculum sequencing (e.g., building on foundational concepts introduced earlier in the course), workload balancing (e.g., creating a regular cadence for learner engagement), and personalized learning (e.g., providing learners with opportunities to investigate topics of personal relevance).

Four easel paper pages adhered to a whiteboard covered in multi-colored sticky notes

Figure 3: A curriculum storyboard of the Social Welfare Policies and Services course.

“I found the process very helpful to ‘see’ the course and its elements. The colored sticky notes also helped as I was conceptualizing types of activities and assignments,” Dr. Katie Richards-Schuster said. “I have continued to go back to these sheets (and pictures from them) as I have built out the course. They continue to help guide my ability to visualize the course and what I hope will be the learner’s experience with it.”

In a third example, we created a curriculum storyboard for use in design meetings that were held virtually (see Figure 4). Most of the design meetings for the Strategic Planning of Public Libraries MOOC were held online using video conferencing tools. Throughout the process, we used a variety of digital communication and coordination strategies, including email, shared documents, and spreadsheets to develop the curriculum for the course. As we were nearing the end of the design process, a learning experience designer and a student intern created a curriculum storyboard of the entire course (based on the digital documentation). We photographed the storyboard and sent the photos to the course’s instructor, Larry Neal, via email. In a subsequent design meeting, we discussed the design of the whole course, focusing on areas that were tagged “to think about” (the neon green Sticky Notes).

A collage of photos of easel paper pages standing upright and laying on a table organized with multi-colored sticky notes

Figure 4: A curriculum storyboard of the Public Library Management: Strategic Planning MOOC.

Jeff Bennett, Design Manager in the Office of Academic Innovation, said, “These colorful visualizations helped streamline a process, by making the course easier to understand for both myself and the faculty member, moving us forward at a critical moment in the design process.”

Neal said, “Working with a visual representation provided both a detailed and broad overview of the entire course. It also provided a simple model for collaboration and understanding the desired outcomes between the course instructor and the MOOC designers.”

As we continue to experiment with curriculum storyboarding in our design processes, we will continue to refine our methods toward a more nuanced understanding of how they work best and how they may be effectively used in the future.

Selected references

  • Conole, G. (2010). An overview of design representations. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Networked Learning (pp. 482-489).

Free speech: U-M President, Faculty, Students and Media Lead Online Teach-Out Series

Written by Laurel Thomas, Michigan News

From football players taking a knee during the national anthem to debates over allowing controversial speakers on campuses to the question about rights of immigrant activists, interpretations of the First Amendment right to free speech are front-and-center in many of our conversations today.

Issues being discussed across the United States seek to answer if a concern for safety trumps free speech, or if universities should penalize students that shout over and disrupt speakers whose views are different from their own.

The proliferation of so-called “fake news” has led many to wonder what information sources can be trusted.

For the next several months, as the University of Michigan explores through various events issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, the Office of Academic Innovation will present a teach-out series that focuses on free speech on college campuses, in journalism and in sports.

Leaders of the three-part series include U-M President Mark Schlissel; faculty from the Law School, School of Education, School of Information, School of Kinesiology and College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at U-M; faculty from American University and Michigan State University; the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation; U-M students; and members of the media, including a journalist participating in the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program at U-M.

“Our society’s greatest challenges tend to play themselves out in very intense ways on university campuses. And as a public institution, I think we have to be open to these challenges to make sure discourse on campus represents a broad variety of viewpoints and perspectives, and that we make our challenges visible to the public,” Schlissel said in an interview that will be part of the first teach-out on “Free Speech on Campus.”

“Free speech is a particularly important value at a university, not just a public university, but all universities. It’s the way we learn and grow and improve our understanding.”

Teach-outs are free, short learning opportunities that allow people across the world to engage with experts on various topics of national and international interest. They are modeled after the teach-ins of the 1960s, started at U-M, which physically brought people to campus for a short-term, intensive educational experience on a timely topic.

Delivered on the Coursera online platform, teach-outs take advantage of current technology to engage learners. Participants can enroll and move through the learning opportunities at their own pace for the few weeks they are posted online.

The free speech teach-outs are part of a larger “2018 Speech and Inclusion: Recognizing Conflict and Building Tools for Engagement” series sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and several other campus units.

Events throughout the winter semester invite students, faculty and staff to “openly discuss, listen, and engage with differing views on free speech and to advocate for voices that have historically been silenced—important issues that continue to challenge both our campus and the nation,” according to the DEI website.

The idea that opinions, however unpopular, should be heard is what student Jesse Arm said prompted student groups to bring controversial author Charles Murray to campus in the fall.

In the late 1990s, Murray wrote a book called the “Bell Curve” that claimed that the normal distribution of IQ showed differences in intelligence based on race and class. Murray’s appearance on campus in October to share his latest book “Coming Apart: The State of White America,” was met with protests. Students attempted to shut down the event by shouting down the speaker.

“We hoped to bring in people who may not agree with Dr. Murray, may not see eye-to-eye with him,” for an exchange of ideas, said Arm, chairperson of the American Enterprise Institute’s Michigan Executive Council. “We believe that forwards intellectual diversity. We believe that forwards the competition of ideas on our campus.”

The news recently reported that a Princeton University professor canceled a free speech course following intense criticism over his use of a racial slur in class as an illustration of words that incite negative feelings and reaction.

Some of U-M’s free-speech-on-campus discussion will center around what are called trigger warnings—advance notices to students that subject matter in classes could get uncomfortable and cause unpleasant responses.

“They emerged to really help people not trigger anxiety, loss of concentration or other more severe reactions,” said Vasti Torres, professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the School of Education. “The way they are taken today is to assume that trigger warnings are about restricting when someone doesn’t believe what you believe.”

Knowing what to believe with the barrage of information coming at us through traditional and nontraditional news sources is behind a second teach-out that will focus on “Free Speech in Journalism.”

As public trust in news organizations reaches historic lows, in part due to accusations of “fake news” by top leaders, and an increase in false or misleading information masquerading as news, many are asking what is the role of journalism in a free society?

In her video segment, HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen said the discussion often focuses on journalism and journalists but free speech is bigger than one institution.

“The First Amendment is first because it applies to all of us and it’s really the bedrock of our democracy and our identity as Americans,” Polgreen said.

“The true menace of restrictions of speech is less and less the government and more and more big and powerful companies,” she said, explaining that most people today do not seek information from newspapers but from Facebook, Twitter and various websites backed by companies that limit, control and sometimes distort the available information.

As top officials accuse even mainstream press of proliferating fake news, Chuck Lewis, professor at the School of Communication at American University, said such assaults on journalism and a free press are not new. In the past, he said, the subjects of news stories have faced prosecution, broadcast operations have been threatened with license revocation and journalists have even been murdered for their reporting.

“There have been a number of incidences where the press has reported about uses and abuses of power that has enraged and offended and angered the powers that be, whichever party is in control,” Lewis said, citing the Pentagon Papers and Watergate as chief examples. “Even though we have this amendment, that’s always been subject to interpretation and the subjectivity of individual political actors. That’s why this amendment is so crucial.”

The third teach-out on “Free Speech in Sports” will ask if athletic events are appropriate venues for social and political activism, and the role of players and various stakeholders with respect to free speech during those activities.

U-M has an ongoing series of teach-outs on topics such as sleep, opioid use, fake news, and privacy and reputation in a digital age.

Next Up for Origin Stories-Problem Roulette: Getting to know our Exam Prep Tool

Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate

Recently we introduced Origin Stories, an Office of Academic Innovation Podcast series that features each one of our digital edtech tools. Origin Stories tells the tales of why and how our tools were born, uncovering our faculty partners’ early motivations for creating teaching and learning software, and exploring what the future of these tools may look like.

Problem Roulette, origin stories podcast seriesThis month we welcome you to take a listen to Dr. August Evrard, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Mike Mills, U-M alumnus and current UCLA physics graduate student, as they share the history and evolution of Problem Roulette, a “points free zone” web application for exam preparation. Learn more about Dr. Evrard’s desire to help students more effectively study for courses that use multiple choice exams, while ensuring that all U-M students have access to past exam problems. Listen as Dr. Evrard and Mr. Mills discuss the early look and feel of Problem Roulette, and how much it has changed since they began collaborating with the Office of Academic Innovation. Explore with us what the future of Problem Roulette looks like including additional features like group study mode, which enables students to work with their peers on exam preparation. Click on the link below and enjoy learning more about this simple and effective digital edtech tool.

Spotlight on the Digital Tools and Youth Outreach Community

Megan Taylor, Research Associate

Trevor Parnell, Events and Marketing Specialist

The Digital Tools and Youth Outreach community is a group of U-M faculty and staff who meet throughout the academic year to explore the relationships between digital technology, learning and engagement in K-12 environments and success in higher education. This community, formed through a partnership between the Office of Academic Innovation and the U-M Center for Educational Outreach, met recently to hear Rachel Niemer, Director of Strategic Initiatives speak on gameful pedagogy, as well as the gameful learning management tool, Gradecraft. Laurie Sutch, Executive Director of the Talent Gateway at U-M Dearborn was also on hand to discuss using Gradecraft in a non-course setting with the Talent Gateway.

The Digital Tools and Youth Outreach community was formed in November 2017, in an effort to spark conversations and collaborations between two increasingly interconnected communities on campus: the youth outreach community and educational technology community. This partnership between the Office of Academic Innovation and the Center for Educational Outreach is an opportunity to bring these communities together in a significant way. The Office of Academic Innovation offers expertise and experience in edtech and the use of digital tools to support teaching and learning, and the Center for Educational Outreach coordinates and supports all K-12 outreach programming. The purpose of the Digital Tools and Youth Outreach Community is to increase knowledge of existing digital tools, imagine new uses for digital tools and discuss how to incorporate these tools to complement K-12 outreach programming and strengthen and broaden our impacts. This community is a space for each of these groups to learn from each other, build connections and spark meaningful and unique collaborations.

Rachel Niemer opened up the conversation by posing a question to the group. “What does engagement mean for you?,” Neimer asked. “Gameful courses provide opportunities for students to make choices for how they are going to learn.” She noted that gameful learning creates a sense of belongingness for students, while also pointing out that competition in courses can be motivating for some students and demotivating for others. A short demonstration of the Gradecraft dashboard was presented, including a brief history since the tools’ inception.

Laurie Sutch standing next to a podium and in front of a projector screen in front of a seated audience

Just over a year ago, Laurie Sutch helped launch the Talent Gateway, an initiative unique to UM-Dearborn that empowers students to be agents of change in their own lives by connecting them with resources, experiences, and people who can help to prepare them for a successful life ahead. Students can voluntarily participate in a variety of “challenges” to help them develop particular skills that would be valuable to a potential employer such as critical thinking and problem-solving, oral and written communication and digital literacy. Talent ambassadors, represented by all four U-M Dearborn colleges, provide feedback to participating students. “Students feel like they know the talent ambassadors and feel like they are a part of a community,” said Sutch. Students are offered incentives for completing challenges, such as an (M)Talent distinction on their official transcripts and recognition at graduation.

“We were excited to welcome Rachel and Laurie to share about gameful learning, Gradecraft, and the Talent Gateway. Their work is an inspiration and it intrigued many of our community members to learn about the unique ways that gameful pedagogy can shape programming. It was a robust learning opportunity and we look forward to further exploring how gameful pedagogy could be incorporated into our outreach practices,” said Megan Taylor, Research Associate for the Office of Academic Innovation, who helped form the community along with Adam Skoczylas, Program Manager for the U-M Center for Educational Outreach.

Reflecting on the meeting, Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate for the Office of Academic Innovation, said, “What does it mean to support K-12 outreach using digital tools? How do we use digital edtech born in the classroom in diverse settings in meaningful ways? I am so happy we have a community grappling with these questions. The Digital Tools and Youth Outreach group provides for us a space to convene and discuss how to use digital edtech in creative ways to reach K-12 students, and promote a college-going culture.”

At its heart, the goal of this community is to use digital tools to strengthen and scale outreach practices so that they may be increasingly accessible and inclusive to have a broader impact. In pursuing a diverse, equitable and inclusive campus community, it is absolutely essential that our outreach practices and efforts too, are diverse, equitable and accessible to all students and communities. As attaining a college degree becomes increasingly critical in today’s economy, these conversations and questions grow in significance, and I am thankful to have this community of practitioners to grapple with them.

“The Office of Academic Innovation aims to broaden access to higher education by building new models for pre-college learning that are open, both in terms of easily accessible content for college preparation, but also that make pathways to higher education transparent to all populations. This community is a wonderful space to explore, with like-minded partners from across campus, how our existing tools can support ongoing efforts and be used to re-imagine how the University of Michigan supports pre-college learners,” said  Niemer.

Throughout the next year, the community will continue to host learning opportunities. Next, they will begin to dig into the use of data in K-12 program evaluation to improve outcomes, and will explore the ethical use of data as it pertains to youth and their families.

The Digital Tools and Youth Outreach community meets regularly for an in-depth learning opportunity on a specific topic with guest speakers and facilitators. Additionally, they host informal pop-up small groups bringing together U-M faculty and staff for conversation on a specific question, idea or challenge that a member of our community is grappling with. If you are interested in being a part of this community, please contact Megan Taylor at