Engaging Learners in Educational Product Development for Michigan Online

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Syed Amaanullah, Senior Product Manager  

Vishal (Vish) Chandawarkar, Product Management Fellow


What does product management look like in an educational context? What does it mean to explore the connection between a digital product and its manifestation in the physical world? What does it look like to co-create new products to solve real problems faced by learners and learning communities? How do can universities empower students to explore new knowledge and skills and enable student-led innovation?

As we foster a culture of innovation in learning at the University of Michigan, the Office of Academic Innovation builds products with faculty and learner communities, not simply for them. Remarkable breakthroughs happen at research universities every day. Yet the strength of the research enterprise doesn’t necessarily translate to educational product development and innovation. Bridging the gap between early-stage innovation and widespread adoption is a challenge that institutions know all too well.

I sat down with Syed Amaanullah, Senior Product Manager, and Vishal (Vish) Chandawarkar, Product Management Fellow and current MBA student in the Ross School of Business, to demystify product management in an educational context. We talked about Michigan Online – one of our signature initiatives – and how we think about product development, student-led innovation, and the connections between online, hybrid, and residential learning.


Q: Syed, What is Michigan Online and how has the product evolved over the last eleven months since launch? What factors are contributing to its rapid growth trajectory?

Michigan Online is the destination for online learning experiences created by the University of Michigan. With a growing portfolio of courses and programs in emerging fields like design, data science, leadership, and technology, we’re quickly becoming the go-to resource for students, professionals and lifelong learners to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills that are relevant in today’s world. A significant part of our core value proposition is based on extending the University’s mission of developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future, and we’re proud to be able to offer Michigan Online as a free resource for all U-M students, staff, faculty, and alumni. The value of the University of Michigan community extends far beyond the time that students spend on campus, and through Michigan Online, we’re able to support the learning needs of Wolverines throughout their careers and lives.

A lot has transpired since we first launched a year ago, from simply getting the technical infrastructure in place needed to aggregate courses from both Coursera and edX, to facilitating free access specifically for the U-M community, and recently completing work on a site redesign that made significant improvements to the discoverability of content and overall user-experience. Learners will find Michigan Online to be a welcoming and intuitive platform that gives them access to a broad range of learning experiences. As with many new products, the biggest hurdle for us to surmount has been awareness, and so we’ve worked very closely with on-campus and alumni groups to get the word out that this incredible resource exists. And as more and more learners come to Michigan Online and engage with our courses and content, we’re finding that they share this information and recommend the platform to their peers, which has really driven the rapid growth of our user base.


Q: Vish, when did you first learn about Michigan Online? What was your first impression  as a grad student? What possibilities did you see?

I first learned about Michigan Online from a university-wide email announcement from Provost Philbert about the product launch last spring. As an incoming grad student at the time, I saw the opportunity to take free online courses as an amazing way for me to get a head start on learning subjects I have always been interested in, but did not have access or bandwidth to pursue. I am pivoting from a career in brand management to one in product management, and courses like “Introduction to SQL” and the “Python For Everybody” series were extremely helpful in supplementing my creative background and MBA curriculum with a more technical skillset. Gaining access to the wide range of learning opportunities provided through Michigan Online, I saw an opportunity to fill an important gap faced by business students which led me to found the Michigan Code Academy.


Vish Chandawarkar speaking at the academic innovation student showcase


Q: Syed, when you approach product management in an educational context, how do you think about engaging learners and users in product development?

Building educational products requires a balance of leading with what we know, and adequately exploring what we don’t know. Given that our courses and programs are developed through a collaboration of expert faculty and our own highly-skilled Learning Experience Designers, we have a strong sense of what it takes to design and develop effective online learning content. Where we benefit from engaging deeper with our users is in understanding what types of content are most valuable to them, how they want to discover and engage with that content, how they might want to interact with their instructors or fellow learners, and what their expected outcomes might be. One way that we ensure that we’re incorporating the voice of users into product development is by building meaningful relationships with our users that go beyond the important, but transactional touchpoints of usability-testing and user-feedback-surveys. At the University of Michigan, we have a unique competitive advantage by virtue of our thriving campus of nearly 50,000 students. We’ve been able to leverage that advantage by working deeply with student, staff, faculty, and alumni groups to understand and address their needs as learners. It doesn’t hurt that we’re able to bring on talented students like Vish, as student fellows, to work as members of our teams and undoubtedly ensure that the voice of the learner is heard each and every day.


Q: Vish, tell us about the Michigan Code Academy (MCA). What problems are you trying to solve?

The Michigan Code Academy is a learning community that empowers U-M Students to activate, advance, and apply practical technical skills. Employers now expect candidates to not only have business acumen and leadership skills, but also technical skills to navigate an increasingly data-intensive workplace. I started the club last fall because a significant proportion of MBA students, including myself, were interested in advancing their data analysis skill set but did not have a formalized way to do so during their core curriculum.

I found the Michigan Online coursework to be extremely valuable in addressing this need and decided to partner with Academic Innovation to translate relevant online learning experiences into engaging peer-led, in-person bootcamps. By forming a community around extracurricular learning, we are breaking down the barriers and intimidation that comes along with exploring new, unfamiliar subjects like programming and data science. What we’ve created with Academic Innovation as our sponsoring organization has provided an amazing outlet for student-led learning which is a great complement to the awesome learning experiences we have at Ross.


Q: Syed, why is it important to support and incubate both unique and abstract use cases when creating a successful educational product?

It’s important for product teams to avoid being overly prescriptive with how a product might evolve. Although it is necessary to establish a sound product identity, the early stages of product development provide a tremendous opportunity to nurture a broad spectrum of potential use cases that could grow and evolve into valuable product features. The reality is that today’s users are very adept at manipulating a product beyond its intended purpose in order to get the value that they desire. As product leaders, we need to pay close attention to the way our users are behave because it often uncovers an underlying problem that is worth solving. With Michigan Online, we’ve been able to leverage user behavior to better understand how to engage learners with different motivations. We’re learning about the nuanced ways in which a learner looking to upskill and develop themselves professionally might differ from a learner who needs to reskill and change careers. And although we’re committed to serving all learners, we want to ensure that our content and features reflect the specific needs and use cases that our learners demonstrate through their behavior.


Q: Vish, after launching the initial MCA activities, what new opportunities emerged? What might we see next from the MCA team?

Because the core MBA curriculum is very structured, MCA found opportunity in providing first-year MBA’s with flexible extracurricular learning experiences to accelerate their learning.

For example, the MBA1 experience culminates in Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP), a capstone seven-week component of the program where students consult with companies and organizations around the world to solve real business challenges. MCA wanted to ensure students were equipped to take on any large datasets or databases they encounter. The Michigan Code Academy conducted a very successful 50-person Pre-MAP SQL training session for MBA’s. We applied Academic Innovation learning experience design expertise to make the session interactive and engaging. The student response was overwhelmingly positive and we received feedback that many MBA’s wished they had this kind of training earlier in the school year. One of the founding members of Michigan Code Academy and Ross student, Connor Nickell, attested that he immediately applied his understanding of database sets to help a hospital client assess and size transfusion markets using nationally syndicated data.

We will expand the scope of our activities into a larger bootcamp. We are now partnering with Business Analytics Club and Data Analytics Consulting Club to design and run a full-day training available to all incoming MBAs on data querying and visualization this August.


Q: Syed, why is it important to explore the connections between your digital products and its manifestation in the real world?

I believe that this goes back to building a deep understanding of user needs and behaviors in order to effectively provide value to them. Although digital products often live exclusively in the digital world, our users don’t necessarily adhere to the borders and boundaries of that space, and are very comfortable in bringing things like online learning content across the divide and into the real world. Seeing a self-organized learning community like the MCA utilize our content for in-person trainings and bootcamps is really powerful and serves as a great example of how providing broader access to U-M expertise and networks helps Ross to create data-fluent and tech-savvy leaders. Supporting such real-world use cases can lead to the germination of interprofessional and interdisciplinary communities of early-adopters that have the potential to shape the future of our product. So, we’re excited to continue working with the MCA to co-design experiences, tools, and resources that would benefit them and other similar learning communities. If we had put our heads down and focused solely on user analytics within the platform itself, we might have missed this opportunity.


Q: Vish, what kind of work have you been focusing on as a Product Management Fellow at Academic Innovation. What are you doing this summer?

Because Academic Innovation is very much like a start-up and moves quickly, the Product Management team has exposed me to a wide range of projects over the past few months. I conducted competitive analyses as part of our product discovery initiative. I helped ensure the Michigan Online web redesign launched on time by defining acceptance criteria for our QA process. Currently, I am working on a feature prioritization exercise to determine what features should be added to the product roadmap in the next development cycle.

This summer I’ll be working at LinkedIn as a Product Marketing Intern on the Consumer Growth team. I’ll conduct quantitative analysis on LinkedIn product usage data and providing recommendations on how the organization should re-prioritize the ecosystem to drive user engagement. I’m very excited to apply the skills I learned from Michigan Online and through the SQL and “Statistics with Python” courses to query and analyze large data sets.


Q: Syed, what might we expect to see next with Michigan Online?

Now that we’ve established a strong baseline for Michigan Online as an online learning platform for students, professionals, and lifelong learners, we’re committed to growing our catalog of learning experiences in emerging content areas like FinTech, AR and VR, Mobility and Product Management to provide the most relevant learning experiences for today’s world. Beyond an aggressive content strategy, we’re actively working toward personalization features that would not only provide a holistic overview of learners’ progress and achievements, but could also make intelligent recommendations and learning pathways based on the interests and motivations of the learner. And of course, we’re committed to working very closely with our learners to ensure Michigan Online has the tools, features, and resources to support their lifelong and life-wide learning needs.

University of Michigan Library Unbound: Learning Beyond and Across Courses

Laurie Alexander, Associate University Librarian for Learning and Teaching

Barry Fishman, Faculty Innovator-In-Residence


Anne Cong-Huyen, Digital Scholarship Strategist @anitaconchita

Breanna Hamm, Instructional Technologist

Jamie Niehof, Engineering Librarian

Amanda Peters, Student Engagement Librarian

Rob Pettigrew, Senior Academic Technologist

Justin Schell, Director Shapiro Design Lab @612to651

Meghan Sitar, Director Connected Scholarship @meghansitar


The Academic Innovation at Michigan: Transforming Residential Undergraduate Education (AIM:TRUE) series is designed to provoke our thinking as we explore new possibilities for how we prepare students at Michigan for their future lives and careers. AIM:TRUE sessions are part of a larger project called “The Big Idea,” which poses the question: Given the resources and opportunities provided by a major public research university, how would you design undergraduate education, if you could start with a blank page? There are many possible answers to this question, but we believe few would resemble the current structure of undergrad education. You can learn more about the proposed Big Idea program in this post, and the learning goals we propose for the program in this one. You can also revisit our first two AIM:TRUE sessions, which focused on a completely re-thought academic transcript and the challenging landscape for current higher education.

In the third AIM:TRUE session, we turned our attention to campus experimentation and collaborations focused on student learning. The U-M Library, in partnership with faculty and students, is actively reimagining the way undergraduates interact with the university research enterprise and engage in real world problem solving. Through a series of lightning talks, we connected recent projects with the the core learning outcomes of the Big Idea: ways of knowing, personal good, public good and team good. Through a series of lightning talks (described below), trends emerged around innovative scholarly practices and new possibilities for students to connect scholarship to real-world challenges. Central to the discussion was the need for connection, partnership and creative application. We invite you to explore with us through the examples below.

Anne Cong-Huyen: Collaborative Digital Pedagogy and Wikipedia Edit-A-Thons

Anne Cong-Huyen, Digital Scholarship Strategist, discussed two projects. First was her work with collaborators and partners from across the library and LSA to help Professor Jason Young transform a 200-level U.S. history lecture course. A second project involved the use of Wikipedia editing assignments to engage students in rigorous peer-reviewed public scholarship. In Professor Young’s course, library experts helped design three digital assignments that asked students to 1) participate in annotating primary texts in an online database, 2) curate and author an online exhibit of 19th century texts from Special Collections, and 3) make arguments with maps using census data. These assignments actively engaged students in alternate modes of scholarly production that were open and contributed to the public good, and which also pushed them to engage in unfamiliar activities that helped them grow as individuals, as collaborators, and as scholars.

Jamie Niehof: Information Literacy Through Canvas Modules in Engineering

Engineering librarian Jamie Niehof created two Canvas modules for students in the Multidisciplinary Design Program. These modules introduced students to information literacy concepts like citation management in a lab setting, and finding engineering literature in the Scopus database. By Fall of 2019, the modules will undergo further adaptations and reach more than 700 first-year engineering students.

You can find the Canvas Modules here: https://umich.instructure.com/courses/301354

Amanda Peters: Engagement Fellows, Mini Grants  
As an academic hub for all disciplines, the U-M Library is committed to actively engaging with the campus community to extend learning beyond the classroom. The Student Engagement Program provides and supports transformative student experiences, enabling practical opportunities for students to explore, experiment, create, lead, and reflect — capacities and skills that are critical to addressing 21st century problems in any field. The Student Mini Grants opportunity is one way we support student-driven work. Students can receive up to $1000 to support innovative and collaborative projects that make a real-life impact. Projects must strengthen community partnerships, enhance global scholarship and/or advocate for diversity and inclusion. Students who are awarded grants are then paired with librarian specialists for mentorship.

How can libraries contribute to engaged learning and student-driven work? As one mini-grant recipient stated “The library enhanced my scope of the university and broadened the depth of my project.” Not only are librarians able to connect students with research sources for their projects, and support for things like data visualization, 3D printing, video and podcast creation and more, we are able to offer them the right kind of collaborative spaces for their work, and exhibit spaces to showcase their projects. Librarians are also the connective tissue for many students to finding other stakeholders on campus and in the community who are integral to taking their projects to the next level.  

Justin Schell: Citizen + Community Science

Building on his background with community and citizen science, Justin Schell and the Shapiro Design Lab have helped develop a number of different projects that facilitate public use of and engagement with science. These include two projects built on the Zooniverse crowdsourcing platform; collaborations with communities in Dearborn and Detroit on environmental justice issues; and partnering with the U-M Museum of Natural History on a Project Incubator program that helped graduate students, faculty, and staff develop a variety of projects. All of these projects take a real-world problem as its focus, and bring together a variety of expertises. For instance, the Zooniverse project Unearthing Michigan Ecological Data involves collaboration between students, faculty and staff with expertise in project design, community engagement (in this instance on Zooniverse’s message boards), historical and cultural understanding of scientific processes, and multiple dimensions of data science to analyze volunteer classifications and explore algorithmic identification of information.

Rob Pettigrew & Breanna Hamm: Faculty Collaboration and Project Design

In the past year, we worked with a number of English 125 sections on projects to move a writing assignment from earlier in the semester into an oral and visual presentation. While we do some instruction on lesser-known, yet useful, features of presentation software, the majority of our instruction now focuses on incorporating visual design principles to create well-designed, clear, and engaging visuals to enhance the student’s own oral presentation.  Working with a Writing 120 course, we have collaborated with LSA-IT to provide support for students who were creating comics. Again, the focus of our collaboration has centered on themes of digital literacy and communication as students were transforming a written paper into a digital format. In a History 224 course, we aided a project where students were to create zines. We provided the guidelines for creation; had students visit the Labadie Collection for inspiration; talked about composition, mood, design, and storytelling; and provided consultations and office hours for students to drop in for assistance and support. There were few zines that were created using digital tools, so learning the process was more important in this course than learning the tools. The zines were not graded, rather, students created a written reflection on their process as we wanted the focus to be on their planning, creation, decision making, and topic selection.

Meghan Sitar: ScholarSprints and Library as Research Lab

Inspired by similar programs at the University of Kansas and the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan’s ScholarSprints program aligns resources to help faculty and graduate students overcome challenges in their research and teaching through an intensive immersion with expertise from across the library and across campus. The intent is for the sprint team to work intensely for a short period of time, and to produce a tangible product or outcome. Sprints, which typically last four days and are hosted in ScholarSpace, differ from standard consultations in their timing and depth of interaction, in their orientation to public scholarship, and in their aim to build sustainable campus community connections. Sprints illustrate a strong commitment to the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. We believe that the expertise of scholars and librarians can enrich the goals and outcomes of a collaborative project. We remain attentive to the issue of equitable labor in scholarly collaborations. In evaluating applications, support is prioritized for research, teaching, and creative projects that contribute to the public good. We are offering another version of the program in a one-day format as ScholarDash to focus on narrower projects this spring. This model of focus and project management could easily be translated into an undergraduate-level challenge. Students might work on an independent or collaborative project, where students use new ways of knowing while engaging with the resources and expertise that have been customized for their challenge.

The University of Michigan School of Information and U-M Library received a 3-year IMLS grant to embed three research labs in the Library, composed of UMSI graduate students, librarians, and UMSI faculty, with the goal of providing real problem-solving experiences to future library professionals. The three labs focus on the assessment of student learning, the assessment of research and scholarship, and design thinking for library services. This model of intergenerational learning and applying theory to real challenges faced by organizations provides students with the opportunity to explore problems and their solutions in creative ways that aren’t typically presented by the curriculum, where projects are often already scoped and scaffolded to reach an outcome. In the Design Thinking for Library Services lab, students picked up a project that had already been started by another group of librarians and had to make sense of what came before and what needed to happen to continue. They created multiple prototypes of an exercise that translated user research into an alternative strategy for creating stories about our users, with these stories fostering empathy and shaping more nuanced research questions about our community when developing library services. Students worked within the complexity of an organization and had to employ systems thinking to understand how their work connected or challenged those complexities and power structures, gaining mentorship and networking opportunities along the way.

Conclusion and Coming Attractions

These examples illustrate not only interesting approaches to ambitious learning aligned with the Big Idea, they also show new forms of collaborative partnerships for instructional innovation. One aim of the Big Idea project is to break down barriers between disciplines and programs at the University of Michigan. The University Library, which lives—almost literally—at the center of our university campuses, is a natural hub for building connections  that enhance teaching and learning.

Our next AIM:TRUE talk is scheduled for Tuesday, May 14 at 11am. Sean Gallagher, Executive Professor of Educational Policy and Executive Director, Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy at Northeastern University will address the question, “What Does College Prepare Students For?” and explore how employer demands on online credentials are reshaping college education. The next Big Idea post will focus on assessment, so stay tuned for that as well.

Teach-Outs: Reimagining Public Engagement in Online Learning

Benjamin Morse, Design Manager

Rachel Niemer, Director, Strategic Initiatives

We need new modes of teaching, learning, and connecting in an increasingly digital society. We must challenge how we define expertise by connecting scholars with engaged citizens and by bridging the gap between digital and physical communities. At the Office of Academic Innovation, we believe that we must come together with other institutions of higher education to collectively reimagine how we engage with the global public and how we can create engaged learning experiences with diverse learners.

We are thrilled to announce the second annual Teach-Out Academy at the University of Michigan, which will be held on June 11-12. We will once again convene a group of like-minded institutions to catalyze an emerging mode of public engagement: Teach-Outs, which bring together people from around the world to learn about, discuss, and address important topics in society. Inspired by the collective discourse embodied in the original Teach-Ins, which started at the University of Michigan during the Vietnam War era, Teach-Outs echo the sentiment that we can and must bring people together to collectively address our world’s most complex social issues. They are free and open online learning events where learners engage with diverse experts, discuss and connect with other participants, and consider actions to take in their own lives and communities.

A group of three women having a discussion

One of many collaborative discussions from the 2018 Teach-Out Academy.

Since March 2017, the University of Michigan has produced 23 Teach-Outs and engaged with over 76,000 learners from across the world. In developing these Teach-Outs, we have worked with over 200 experts, both from inside higher education and beyond, to foster conversations about a range of salient social issues such as self-driving cars, immigration and family separation at the border, free speech and the aftermath of Hurricane María.

In May 2018, we hosted the first cohort of Teach-Out Academy participants from Brown University, Davidson College, Emory University, MIT, Stanford University, Texas A&M University, University of Colorado, University of Illinois, University of Notre Dame, and University of Pennsylvania. As a community, we discussed what kinds of institutional support are needed to engage our publics through digital platforms, how important storytelling is to bring participants into the conversation, and how to design calls to action that give participants the opportunity to impact an issue in a way that is aligned with their values. Since then, we have seen several Teach-Outs designed and developed by our colleagues at the University of Notre Dame, Emory University, University of Leiden, and Davidson College.

We partnered with the University of Notre Dame to create the Listening to Puerto Rico Teach-Out, which captured the stories and perspectives from Puerto Ricans one year after Hurricane María devastated the island on September 20, 2017. In June 2018, teams from both institutions traveled to Puerto Rico to film testimonies from Puerto Ricans from all walks of life. By listening, we hoped to take notice of, and act on, what Puerto Ricans said. Learn more about this Teach-Out and the continued work that the University of Notre Dame is leading, visit the Listening to Puerto Rico website. The Teach-Out and all of the videos, are also available on Michigan Online.

Another one of the 2018 Teach-Out Academy participants, Emory University, launched the “Making” Progress Teach-Out on April 15. This Teach-Out is “an invitation to think about what progress means, and how you can look for it wherever you are—in your city, community, or neighborhood—and reflect upon your own ideas about the place you live in.” The focus of the Teach-Out is on Atlanta, Georgia and how communities change and evolve over time and how physical spaces are defined. Many of these questions are “comparable to many of other places in the world on what it means to progress.” In this Teach-Out learners gain insights into the process of finding “the history of public spaces in any community and how to reflect upon the idea of progress.” You can join the Teach-Out by signing up on Coursera.

In October 2018, the University of Leiden hosted the Global Human Rights Teach-Out. It was designed to coincide with the opening of the “Young One World” Summit in The Hague where more than 1500 young people from across the world came together to discuss the issue of human rights. The Teach-Out consisted of an “online discussion on various human rights with scholarly input in the form of podcasts from over 20 academic instructors, including some contributions from advocacy groups addressing the urgency of issues.” The Global Human Rights Teach-Out is still available on the Coursera platform.

Another Teach-Out Academy participant, Davidson College, continues to produce online learning experiences as part of their Davidson Now initiative. Davidson College has produced four courses as part of this initiative, the most recent being the Community, Race, and Space in the U.S. and France course. This course explored questions such as: “When we think of where we live, who do we imagine as our neighbors? What actions invite some people in and keep others out?” This course was designed to foster dialogue about what forces determine the makeup of our cities and communities. Learn more on the Davidson Now website.

Building on this momentum, our goal for the 2019 Teach-Out Academy is to provide in-depth, hands-on consultation for institutions interested in producing a Teach-Out of their own within the next 12 months. We will explore the various dimensions of instructional design, project management, media production, and product management through a range of workshop activities and collective conversations. We will also feature a panel of representatives from other institutions who have developed Teach-Outs of their own, so we can all learn from insights generated beyond the context of the University of Michigan. We are also beginning to engage with non higher-ed organizations, who are looking at ways that the Teach-Out model helps their missions of engaging diverse publics.

Two women engaging in a hands on experience within the Academic Innovation filming studios

The 2018 Teach-Out Academy attendees explored all areas of a Teach-Out, including the studio filming experience.

We are proud to see this new mode of public engagement expand and are excited to welcome another cohort of institutions to Ann Arbor this summer as we seek to foster global problem solving communities comprised of diverse teachers and learners who aspire to solve the world’s most complex problems.

The application is live at http://teach-out.org/academy/2019 and will remain open until May 10, 2019.

Thank you and we look forward to exploring this growing movement of institutions who seek to redefine public engagement in online learning.

Presenting Our Research at the 2019 AERA Annual Meeting

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Design Lead

Yuanru Tan, Learning Experience Designer for Accessibility

Ricky LaFosse, Compliance and Policy Lead

Jeff Bennett, Design Manager

AERA in Toronto

This year’s annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Toronto, Ontario brought together a community of more than 14,000 educators, researchers, policymakers, and school leaders. Over the five-day conference, attendees navigated through a phonebook-sized program of over 600 sessions featuring more than 6,000 papers. With this year’s  theme, “Leveraging Education Research in a ‘Post-Truth’ Era: Multimodal Narratives to Democratize Evidence,” many sessions contributed to centuries-old conversations on expanding access to educational opportunities and welcoming a greater diversity of learner and educator perspectives in educational policy, research, and design.

Surrounding the Toronto Metro Convention Center and three nearby hotels needed to accommodate such a large conference, the city of Toronto offered its guests an endless supply of entertainment, fine dining, vibrant neighborhoods, and beautiful parks. As a city that lives up to its international label, a short walk downtown can feel like a trip across the globe.

Several staff members from the Office of Academic Innovation attended this year’s meeting.  Rebecca Quintana and Yuanru Tan, two members of our Learning Experience Design team, presented their research on learning design in MOOCs in two different sessions. One of our newest team members, Ricky LaFosse, presented a paper he co-authored with former colleagues at Indiana University, which focused on distance education compliance challenges. Jeff Bennett, Design Manager, presented MOOC design research with Academic Innovation co-authors in a structured poster session, along with doctoral student Alison Bressler, from the School of Environment and Sustainable Studies. The School of Education had a strong presence at AERA, including participation from Professor Chris Quintana who contributed to the structured poster session with Academic Innovation staff.

Session Types and Reflections from Presenters  

AERA sessions now come in ten varieties, including off-site visits and tours. Presenting authors from Academic Innovation briefly describe their experiences engaging and presenting in just three of these formats.   

The Paper Session: Reflections from Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Design Lead; Yuanru Tan, Learning Experience Designer for Accessibility

A typical structure for a Paper Session allows authors to present their papers in a 10-15 minute time slot. Usually, four or five papers investigating similar research topics are grouped in one paper session. Questions and commentary from the audience follow each presentation. At the conclusion of the paper presentations, a discussant (an expert in the field covered by the paper session) provides prepared observations and critiques. Rebecca and Yuanru presented their research Characterizing MOOC Pedagogies: Exploring Tools and Methods for Learning Designers and Researchers, in a paper session titled MOOCs: Pedagogies, Participation, and Perspectives. Their talk highlighted the work they have done to refine the Assessing MOOC Pedagogies (AMP) instrument, which was developed by Professor Karen Swan and her colleagues. Interestingly, the AMP instrument was based on a framework for computer-based education developed in the 1990s by Professor Thomas Reeves, who was the “virtual” discussant for our session. In his recorded remarks, Dr. Reeves encouraged us to consider how the refined AMP instrument could be used in educational design research that seeks to produce more effective MOOCs. He also pointed us to a book he co-edited on the subject called Conducting Educational Design Research. We look forward to diving into the book, which he has sent by mail to our team!

Rebecca Quintana presenting at the 2019 AERA conference

Rebecca Quintana presenting at the 2019 AERA conference

The Roundtable Session: Reflections from Ricky LaFosse, Compliance and Policy Lead

Roundtable sessions, as the name would imply, position presenters and guests across from each other at a table to encourage more interaction and conversation than a paper session might allow. For this session, presenters were paired together by theme at the same table—in our case, “Organizational Leadership as a Praxis for Higher Education Institutional Change.” With so many presenting groups scheduled at the same  table, even a session scheduled for 8 a.m. on a Saturday was well attended.

Going first, a former colleague and I briefly described the contents of our paper, What Happens When Compliance Officers and Online Educational Design and Support Mingle?, and not surprisingly, the discussion in this group quickly moved toward practical implications and leadership strategies. Our table of higher education administrators discussed how to engage faculty and course designers in compliance efforts and guidance for high-risk areas, considering our presentation highlighted how distance education is moving closer to individual course decisions. Discussion of the other two featured papers evolved similarly, with practical significance being of paramount importance. Within the 90 minutes allotted, we covered an impressive range of topics and strategies. Given the intimate session format, it was also quite easy to exchange contact information and continue these conversations after the conference.   

The Structured Poster Session: Reflections from Jeff Bennett, Design Manager  

After five days of presentations, our intrepid team still had one more session to go. In the last hour of the conference, we participated in a structured poster session titled “Innovating MOOC Pedagogies,” organized by Rebecca Quintana and her colleague, Hedieh Najafi, from the University of Toronto. The session featured U-M authors on four of seven papers/posters and was a great showcase of the diverse educational design research creating innovative, effective, and high quality MOOCs.

The unique Structured Poster Session format tasks authors with presenting the central message of their paper in four minutes or less, after which attendees may visit authors at their posters and receive feedback. Following this informal discussion opportunity, the authors assemble in a panel and a discussant surfaces important aspects from each paper and makes connections to broader themes across the papers. Audience members may engage in a question and answer period with the authors.

Professor Carol Rolheiser chaired the session alongside discussant Professor Jim Hewitt, both from the University of Toronto. Professor Chris Quintana, Rebecca Quintana, and I shared our work, Exploring the Integration of Project-Based Learning Approaches into MOOCs. Interestingly, while our poster and research primarily focused on sharing novel ways we are implementing project-based learning into the MOOC context, many audience questions centered on the use of software tools within U-M MOOCs. It was a great example of how socializing our team’s work can spark ideas for MOOC practitioners beyond U-M. Authors who participated in the poster session hope to assemble a special issue of a journal to expand and share each paper with a wider audience.


The AERA conference experience was a very positive one for our team members. In addition to having the opportunity to present Academic Innovation research to an international audience, it allowed team members to reflect on emerging research from colleagues outside of the University of Michigan and to consider how new ideas might impact our ongoing work.

The 3 Things to Know about Tandem

Holly Derry, Associate Director of Behavioral Science

Group projects.

Many people we talk to about group projects say things like “One person totally took over” or “I ended up doing all the work.” We also hear “As the only woman, I got stuck taking notes.” We believe it doesn’t have to be that way, so we set out to make group work better.

Academic Innovation teamed up with Robin Fowler, Laura Alford, and Stephanie Sheffield from the College of Engineering to create Tandem, a tailored software tool that supports students working on group projects.


“A bad teaming experience can sour students on collaboration, and can convince them that their voices aren’t being heard or valued. With Tandem, we get to help students recognize the value of their own voices; that these voices are likely to be those of underrepresented populations makes a support system like Tandem even more necessary.”  

~ Stephanie Sheffield, Faculty Innovator


And now, as the title promises, here are the 3 things to know about Tandem:

1. Tandem uses data to connect students and instructors.

It’s human nature to want feedback on our performance and progress. The Tandem team believes that if students and instructors receive timely information about how things are going, teams may resolve issues before they spiral out of control.

Tandem charts weekly team checks for students on five dimensions: how the team is doing overall, logistics, idea equity, workload equity, and confidence they’re going to do well.

Tandem screenshot

Teams can use the information to check in with each other and make course corrections. They can see, at a meta level, how their own personalities mesh with others’ and learn new ways to work better with people who are different from them.


“Tandem scaffolds students as they reflect on what is working well (or not) for their teams. It provides them with evidence-based strategies to try, tailored to the particular struggles of their team. We hope it will improve team experiences in the moment but also improve students’ ability to abstract from this team experience and transfer this knowledge about themselves and about interacting with others to new teaming situations.”  

~ Robin Fowler, Faculty Innovator


In addition, instructors can see how teams are doing and which dimensions need improvement. The Instructor Dashboard also gives additional context to instructors so they also know why teams might need support.


“One enlightening moment I had while working on Tandem was hearing from instructors how challenging it is to not assign stereotypical labels (e.g. slackers, overachievers, etc.) to students who are having issues with their teamwork. It means that Tandem needs to be just as effective at engendering empathy and equity in instructors as it is in students.”   

~ Molly Maher, Behavioral Scientist


Screenshot of tandem


“Tandem takes in hundreds of thousands of data points over time and converts these into a small amount of useful output. The Instructor Dashboard is ‘mission control’ for instructors and clearly tells them which teams and individuals need additional support (as determined by our algorithm), as well as providing an overall view of everything happening in the current class at a glance.”

~ Ollie Saunders, Software Developer


2. Tandem is tailored for each team and individual.

Tandem’s beginning of term survey asks students about their personalities and work preferences, including their likelihood to speak up in a group or work close to a deadline. The tool then uses this information, along with weekly team checks, to tailor the students’ lessons and activities.  


“We are lucky to work with an incredibly diverse student population, and we know that everyone learns and works differently. Tandem’s beginning of term survey helps both faculty and students understand what their strengths are and what areas we want to work on over the coming semester. I love that Tandem gives students feedback and strategies that are specific to them and their current team situation — just like I would do if I was meeting with each student every day.”  

~ Laura Alford, Faculty Innovator


A team may have trouble sharing ideas equitably, and so they’re assigned a lesson on communication, which points out when a student’s survey answers indicate they’re more likely to listen rather than speak. The lesson talks about why that might be a challenge for them or the team, and in the activity, the students see different thought-provoking reflection questions personalized to their communication styles. By raising awareness early on, individuals have more insight about their differences and gain a shared language to have a productive conversation about these differences. When conflict does arise, team members may have healthier attributions for the conflict: “Maybe my ideas aren’t in the final design because I didn’t speak up much, not because the team doesn’t care.” And over time, teams may also learn to adapt to each other’s styles: “Tom’s quiet again. How can our team make sure he has the space to speak up?”

3. Tandem is the product of many disciplines.

  • Behavioral scientists work with instructors to figure out which positive and negative team and individual behaviors to target. They also work closely to develop the surveys, lessons, and activities.
  • Learning experience designers help the behavioral science team align activities with learning objectives of the lessons.
  • User experience designers ensure Tandem’s user interface is easy to use so students can see which surveys and lessons are due, as well as make sense of their team’s ongoing data.
  • Software developers make the tool operate smoothly so that students get the right message at the right time based on the correct data.
  • User research specialists interview instructors and students so that Tandem focuses on topics and feature sets that bring value to users.
  • Data scientists meet with the Tandem team each week to make sure the algorithms that assign lessons and triage teams are adjusted properly.


“The Manage Members page was one of the most challenging pages within the site to style and code. It allows faculty to build teams by dragging and dropping members onto or between teams. The drag and drop functionality was new for me and was fun to get familiar with, and I worked very closely with one of our developers, Ke Yu.”  

~ Kristen Miller, UX Designer


What’s next for Tandem?

This term, we’re piloting Tandem in Engineering 100 with a group of 60 engineering students. In the next year, we have plans to expand into courses that will stretch Tandem’s capabilities even further. We’ll think more about group formation, changing groups multiple times in a term, and adding a wider range of lessons and reflection activities. In the future, the tool aims to move beyond programmed algorithms and use machine learning to form teams, predict possible issues, and address teaming issues.

New Cohort of Academic Innovation Fellows to Share Groundbreaking Work at Student Showcase

Marissa Reid, Student Program Coordinator

Each year, we gather to recognize the tireless work of our student fellows at the Office of Academic Innovation. Our team has made this event a tradition that celebrates the monumental growth of our students as young professionals and their significant impact on Academic Innovation. This year’s event will feature more than 20 student participants showcasing their work in various formats, including lightning talk presentations and academic posters.

I am excited for the wide range of projects that will be featured at this year’s showcase. The majority of the Academic Innovation portfolio will be represented by students contributing to the fields of behavioral science, data science, learning experience design, management, product management, public engagement, research, software development, and user experience design. Throughout the last few months, my colleagues and I have equipped our student innovators with resources to prepare them for this event. Among these resources was Yuanru Tan, Learning Experience Designer for Accessibility, who served as a mentor to our group of student fellows after contributing to last year’s showcase as a student fellow herself. We also utilized the strong communication skills of Elyse Aurbach, Public Engagement Lead, who led multiple public speaking workshops surrounding audience, narrative, and verbal and non-verbal communication skills.

“It was very interactive and fun. The workshop presented ways to express yourself in ways that could be applied to our presentation.” – Xuenan Xu, User Experience Design Fellow

See below for a sneak peek of the types of topics that will be presented by our amazing student fellows:

Vishal Chandawarkar: Keeping the Discussion Alive: Product Differentiation Through Media-Based Discussion

Shaung Cheng & Yun Hsiao: Problem Roulette
Kush Dawar: Learning Engagement for Support Staff and Learners

Liz Hanley: Visualizing Learner Journeys in the Python for Everybody Course Series

Siyu Jia (Pansy): Telling the Course Series Story: Building Success Metrics for MOOCs from a Product Perspective

Christopher Lezama: What is Software QA?

Yiwen Lin & Xindi Wang: Mentor Academy 2.0: Exploring New Meanings of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in MOOCs

Xi Li: A Design Journey on ECoach Planet

Yuting Luo: Course Building and Course Operations

Brandon Punturo: ViewPoint: Utilizing Natural Language Processing to Understand Participants

Shameek Ray: GradeCraft

Megan Taylor: How the Conceptualizing Public Engagement Series Helped Us to Make Sense of Public Engagement at U-M

Tayloir Thompson: Understanding the Product Life Cycle of GradeCraft

Kylie Wojciechowski: From Quick Findings to Formal Reports: When and Why to Use Which in User & Design Research

Xuenan Xu: My OMG Design Journey at Academic Innovation

Wenfei Yan: Exploring Learner Engagement Patterns in Teach-Outs: Using Topic, Sentiment and On-topicness to Reflect on Pedagogy

Nichole Yang: Writing Learning Objectives “Retroactively” and Creating Course Personas

Mengdan Yuan: Who Wins, Who Learns? Exploring Gameful Pedagogy as a Personalization Technique to Support Student Differences

Fanpan Zeng: Michigan Online Admin Improvement

Xucong Zhan: “Premature Optimization Is the Root of All Evil” – Me Living Through a Quote in AI

Though I have only been here for a little under a year, my role as Student Program Coordinator has been extremely rewarding. I’ve had the distinct honor of helping our 2018-2019 cohort of fellows transition from young adults to young professionals and watching our staff cultivate their skillset. This event is not just a showcase, but also a way for the University of Michigan community to gain insight into what our students do, the fellowship experience, and what drives our students.

Please join me this year on April 11, 2019 for our third annual Academic Innovation Student Showcase located in Forum Hall & in the Great Lakes Room of Palmer Commons. Here you will see why we are so proud our students chose Academic Innovation as a part of their journey.

Recapping the Conceptualizing Public Engagement Series: Part Four. The Draft Michigan Public Engagement Framework

Ellen Kuhn, Public Engagement Specialist

Elyse Aurbach, Public Engagement Lead

One goal of the Conceptualizing Public Engagement (CPE) series was to surface and better understand the diversity of efforts that exist across the public engagement landscape at the University of Michigan (U-M). U-M has a rich history of engaging with publics in a variety of forms, from large interdisciplinary initiatives to individual disciplinary projects undertaken by passionate faculty or staff.

We also wanted to begin collecting all of these public engagement efforts into a larger conceptual framework, utilizing the aspirational definition of public engagement created during the CPE series as a starting point. If public engagement is the “intentional and mutually beneficial interaction between members of U-M and external individuals or groups that results in positive societal change,” what practices are fundamental to any public engagement effort? Which approaches are specific to a particular type of engagement? What connects or differentiates public engagement in K-12 educational settings from engagement in the policy sphere? Moreover, what can these different approaches learn from networking with one another?

The CPE series invited public engagement practitioners from across campus to come together, discuss their own types of public engagement work, and consider ways to organize all of these efforts systematically. Based on these discussions and feedback–particularly around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion–we have developed a draft Michigan Public Engagement Framework.

By inclusively capturing and reflecting the wide variety of university public engagement efforts, we hope to inspire opportunities for continued support, new growth, and innovative creativity across the entire public engagement landscape at U-M.

The Draft Michigan Public Engagement Framework

The Michigan Public Engagement Framework rests on three elements: people, relationships, and context. In describing these three elements, we can begin to understand the unique facets of any engagement effort, as well as consider points of similarity. The framework can also be used to prepare for and guide engagement efforts.

Icons of public engagement framework

Working Draft – Michigan Public Engagement Framework – Twin Sunbursts Model

Step 1: People

Both public and university stakeholders bring distinct and individual characteristics to the table. How might we describe all of the parties involved?  

Some characteristics are relatively static, including demographics, values and beliefs, historical contexts and inequities, group size, and group similarity. These are often the characteristics that are referenced when considering an audience.

At the same time, people also bring a set of variable characteristics that might change over time. Describing and measuring this same set of characteristics for each stakeholder is likely to yield very different–and very informative–sunburst images. These pictures enable us to think more deeply about stakeholders as whole humans.

Stakeholder Variable Chracteristics

Working Draft – Michigan Public Engagement Framework – Twin Sunburts Model (People)

Step 2: Relationship

Similarly, any relationship that public and university stakeholders create also has descriptive and variable characteristics. Descriptive characteristics include needs, goals, and locality, while variable characteristics help us dive a bit deeper. Critically, these characteristics can and should be negotiated between all stakeholders as part of the relationship-building process.

Relationship Variable Characteristics

Working Draft – Michigan Public Engagement Framework – Twin Sunbursts Model (Relationship)

Step 3: Context

The environment in which the relationship exists determines additional norms, expectations, constraints, and opportunities. In the Michigan Public Engagement Framework, we call these “domains.” Domains are often separated by different types of goals, stakeholders, experiences, or content knowledge. Many of them, however, are intersectional, and a single project could span multiple domains. For example, faculty might create a community-engaged course (Community-Engaged Learning and/or Service) that involves their students working with elementary-school youth in an after-school program (Alternative, Informal, and Lifelong Learning) to create a public work of art (Performance, Exhibition, and Installation). Ultimately, these domains help us to conceptualize the range of opportunities available in the university public engagement landscape.


Domain Working Definition Examples
Alternative, Informal, and Lifelong Learning Connecting with learners of all ages in informal or non-traditional educational settings
  • Public speaker series
  • Museums
Applied Practice and Consulting Offering professional services, often on a pro-bono basis
  • Community health clinics
  • Consultation sessions for family-owned businesses or nonprofits
Business and Entrepreneurship Collaborating to create new products, services, or innovations
  • Sharing equipment or facilities for collaborative research
  • Working with industry partners on the commercialization of technology
Capacity-Building Programs Training and enabling stakeholders
  • Workshops that prepare stakeholders to work with one another
  • Leadership trainings
Communications and/or Media Sharing research-related information in various forms
  • Writing op-eds
  • Discussing research on social media
Community-Engaged Learning and/or Service Working directly with external stakeholders through academic courses, co-curricular programs, or volunteer projects to address community-identified needs
  • Community-engaged coursework
  • Student service organizations
Community-Engaged Research Working directly with external stakeholders on projects that address community-identified needs and drive research
  • Community-based participatory research
  • Oral history projects that originated from within a community
Holdings and Collections Acquiring and negotiating physical assets held by the university
  • Museum collections
  • Botanical garden collections
P-14 Education and Educational Outreach Connecting with youth in formal school settings or educational programs
  • In-school presentations
  • School field trips to a university-created makerspace
Performance, Exhibition, and Installation Creating spaces or artistic works open to public consumption
  • Public concerts
  • Public art projects
Policy, Advocacy, and Government Relations Engaging with all levels of government in order to inform policies and decisions
  • Testifying before Congress
  • Advocacy days
Residency Programs and Internships Embedding individuals within an organization for exchange learning and work
  • Internships
  • Bringing practitioners to campus for co-learning
public engagement framework twin sunbursts model (domain)

Working Draft – Michigan Public Engagement Framework – Twin Sunbursts Model (Domain)

How might we use the Michigan Public Engagement Framework?

We believe that the Michigan Public Engagement Framework allows us to accomplish a number of interrelated goals. First, it allows us to utilize a shared language and framework when discussing public engagement. This in turn helps to name and break down silos that might exist between different types of public engagement activities.

Second, it points toward key practices in public engagement and enables stakeholders to identify and develop skills necessary for effective engagement, including effective communication and inclusive practices. It helps new practitioners in particular to understand the variables of public engagement, as well as consider the wide range of opportunities that are available to them.

Finally, the framework can inform assessments of public engagement activities by pointing to important relational variables and different areas of impact. Practitioners have long grappled with ways to evaluate public engagement activities, and assessing these activities with a common language would help to recognize and reward the important work of engaging with publics.

For a more detailed description of the draft Michigan Public Engagement, including fictional examples of the framework in action, please see this working slide deck.

Where We’re Going

Future posts in this series will outline some coordinated projects and actions that our community is taking to address and overcome barriers to public engagement. Please look for additional posts about the CPE series with the following schedule, subject to evolution:

April Next steps


This post is one part of a set recapping the Conceptualizing Public Engagement series:

Update: We have changed our schedule slightly from the dates originally provided. We will be finishing this recap of the CPE series in May with a final post outlining next steps. Please stay tuned.

If you missed the CPE series but would like to get involved with the conversations and work moving forward, please email us.

**The Conceptualizing Public Engagement Series was sponsored and co-hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation, the Vice President for Communications, the Vice President for Government Relations, the National Center for Institutional Diversity, the Office of Research, and the Vice Provost for Global Engagement and Interdisciplinary Academic Affairs.

Recapping the 2019 Learning Analytics & Knowledge Conference

Rebecca Quintana, Learning Experience Design Lead

Yuanru Tan, Learning Experience Designer for Accessibility

Wenfei Yan, Data Science Fellow

Reflection on Cross-Platform Comparison Project  

Yuanru Tan and Rebecca Quintana are Learning Experience Designers (LXDs) and researchers in the Office of Academic Innovation. Last summer, they embarked on a learning analytics project to investigate discussion forum interactions in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), looking at data from one course that was hosted on two different platforms. Their submission titled “What Can We Learn About Learner Interaction When One Course is Hosted on Two MOOC Platforms?” was accepted as a poster at the 9th International Learning Analytics & Knowledge (LAK) Conference in Tempe, Arizona. By conducting a social network analysis using MOOC discussion forum data from a single data science ethics course that ran concurrently on two different MOOC platforms (Coursera and edX), they identified higher network connectedness and network centralization on the edX platform and lower cohesion within the Coursera network as a whole.

This work illustrated how technical features of MOOC platforms may impact social interaction and the formation of learner networks. As LXDs working within the Office of Academic Innovation where they partner with the two leading online education platforms (i.e., Coursera and edX), this preliminary work on MOOC discussion forums enables them to think further about the factors that foster interaction amongst learners in online discussion forums. For instance, on edX, pre-existing posts are visible to learners before they respond to a prompt, so that learners have the choice to react to historic posts besides posting their own thoughts; while on Coursera, learners must respond to the prompt without seeing historic posts. This may account for the higher participation rate on Coursera, though a reduction in learner-to-learner interaction. In their research they ask questions like,“How can we take advantage of different platform features to design engaging online learning experiences?” Yuanru had the opportunity to share their work in one of the most prominent learning analytics communities. This experience left Yuanru and Rebecca with tremendous insights and a desire to continue to investigate these important questions in future work.

LAK Reflections & Takeaways

Reflections from Yuanru Tan, Learning Experience Designer for Accessibility – With 525 unique attendees and 900+ participants over the 5 days in pre-conference workshops and the main conference, LAK 2019 was the largest in its 9-year history. As a first-time LAK attendee, I was fascinated by the interdisciplinary experience one could have at LAK. In the pre-conference workshop section, I attended a machine learning workshop hosted by Dr. Erkan Er, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Valladolid, Spain. Together with about 20 participants, we spent an afternoon exploring the topic of How to Generate Actionable Predictions on Student Engagement with Python Scikit-Learn. Dr. Erkan Er delivered an informative session to introduce the machine learning approaches for creating actionable predictions (i.e., in-situ learning and transferring across courses) that can offer many utilities for designing real-world interventions. This hands-on workshop also provided a space for the participants to reflect on their own experience building predictive models and share their opinions on the future use of these approaches in research and practice.


Yuanru Tan presenting a poster at the Learning Analytics & Knowledge conference

Yuanru Tan presenting at the LAK2019 poster session at Arizona State University


In the main-conference section, there were so many great and concurrent sessions/talks. I struggled to come up with an optimal solution to attend all the sessions I was most interested in. Several talks were extremely intriguing to me. Weijie Jiang and Zach Pardos from the University of California Berkeley developed a recurrent neural network-based course recommendation system according to students’ target courses of interest, estimated prior knowledge, and zone of proximal development; Abelardo Pardo from the University of South Australia shared his team’s progress on understanding both students self-reported self-efficacy and cognitive load data and the trace-based measures for the two constructs detected by the system. Furthermore, as a University of Michigan alumna working at the Office of Academic Innovation, I was so proud to see that U-M has such a strong presence at LAK and our office also has such a supportive role in some of the research presented by the U-M cohort, e.g., Social Comparison in MOOCs: Perceived SES, Opinion, and Message Formality presented by Heeryung Choi, Beyond A/B Testing: Sequential Randomization for Developing Interventions in Scaled Digital Learning Environments presented by Timothy Necamp.


group of LAK attendees posing for a photo on stage for international womens day

On the last day of LAK2019, female attendees took a picture to celebrate International Women’s Day.


Reflections from Wenfei Yan,Data Science Fellow – It was an awesome first-time conference experience for me at LAK. The atmosphere was as warm and welcoming as the weather inTempe. I was deeply impressed by insightful keynote speeches. I especially liked the 5th challenge for the learning analytics field presented by Ryan Baker from the University of Pennsylvania which is the generalizability of the models. As a student currently studying data science, I have learned in every course that the generalization of a model is critical, but requires efforts to achieve. Considering the breadth of the learning analytics applications, I believe the model generalization is both challenging and useful in this field.

In the Dialogue & Engagement session on Wednesday, I presented a case study on the Privacy, Reputation, and Identity in a Digital Age Teach-Out, which explores the learner engagement pattern in Teach-outs. Learn more about the Teach-Out Series on Michigan Online. Understanding learning behaviors in the discussion forum is particularly crucial for the development of Teach-Outs, as they do not include formal assessments by design. As such, we utilized unsupervised Natural language processing (NLP) techniques to extract information from learner dialogue, and came up with the following interesting findings:

  • Learner discussion topics were generally very related to the Teach-Out content. Further, there were no extremely on-topic or off-topic posts, which could indicate that learners were discussing on-topic concepts while incorporating their own experiences. This would be a desirable sign considering the design goal of Teach-Outs.
  • There were more positive emotions than negative emotions in the discussion forum. However, due to the topic of this specific Teach-Out, on-topic posts were actually more negative, as they mostly expressed concerns about the state of privacy in a digital era.

This was a very first pilot study on the Teach-Out series, which hopefully enabled us to know more about learner engagement during a Teach-Out.


At the Office of Academic Innovation, we have been actively probing into ways for understanding online education. It was a very inspiring experience attending LAK conference and sharing our work with the community of experts from interdisciplinary fields. We are looking forward to exploring further in the future!


Are We Ready to Move Beyond Translations? Making a Multilingual Destination for Learning and Problem Solving

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Last month, we launched three massive open online courses (MOOCs) in Arabic with our partners at Coursera. As a result, the nearly 300 million Arabic speakers around the world now have access to courses on Leading Teams, Programming for Everybody, and The Science of Success. This spring and summer, we will launch seven additional courses in Arabic delivered on the Coursera Platform.

We are also partnering with edX to translate courses into Spanish delivered on edX’s Spanish language platform. We will start this journey with Programming for Everybody and create additional learning opportunities to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking learners across the United States and around the world. Previously, we translated a course on Successful Negotiation into both Spanish and Portuguese through our partnership with Coursera and have reached more than 110,000 learners to date. All of these courses are made available to learners on Michigan Online.

Screenshot of the Michigan Online course description page of the "Leading Teams" course translated in Arabic.

Why does this matter?

Imagine a destination for lifelong learning, better yet, a destination for lifelong problem solving. Significant problems. Problems that matter to diverse, global populations.

What do you need to solve these problems? Knowledge, skills, and people. Scaffolding to support interactions. A sense of community. A shared purpose. To solve the most important societal problems, we need problem-solving communities made up of learners that reflect the diversity of the world around us. Unfortunately, most learning communities fall short on many dimensions of diversity.

So what is standing in the way?

In the current digital era, we often start by removing the barriers of time and space. We create self-paced, asynchronous, and near synchronous learning experiences. We develop tools to personalize learning, support collaboration, and close distance. We quickly find ways to lower these barriers with smart technology choices and shift our collective thinking about reach.

Next, we tend to look beyond our massive reach and see positive gains on many dimensions of diversity. At the same time, we realize that we can do much more. Relaxing time and space gives us a new lens and inspires institutions like the University of Michigan to think differently about our ability to expand our public purpose. As we build upon experiments in the only way we know how, informed by data and scholarship and in the interest of advancing learning, we see additional barriers in the form of access, belongingness, and affordability. We haven’t solved for higher education deserts, helped learners at all levels to see themselves in higher education environments, or sufficiently experimented with business models to reduce costs to learners. There is more to do here and experiments are underway.

But there is at least one more important barrier to lower in addition to time, space, access, belongingness, and affordability: Language.

In a world of near-limitless access to knowledge, and with learning tools that are improving every day, we understand that increasing access to learning opportunities is essential, but also insufficient. We must provide opportunities to learn together.

Language is one tall barrier that stands in the way. Since launching our first MOOC in 2012, We have surpassed more than 7.3 million enrollments with learners from nearly every country. This new network of learners objectively alters our community diversity. At the same time, we see significant opportunities to make larger strides forward in areas of diversity such as socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and cultural identity.

We believe lowering the barriers imposed by language is part of the solution. We know that more diversity leads to better problem solving. Just as we’ve designed experiments to lower other barriers, we are now pointing resources toward language. Translations are only the beginning. We need to imagine and design learning environments and enabling tools that engage and empower learners and facilitate sharing, understanding, and problem solving across this boundary type. We need a multilingual destination for learning and problem solving.

As we move beyond translations we will explore new modes of learner-centric design, including the development of original learning content in the language and context of specific communities, which will help all our learners develop cross-cultural competencies, and position our global problem-solving community to address grand challenges. It is these grand challenges that require problem-solving teams made up of curious learners that together posses deep knowledge, skills, and lived experience. These problem solvers are evenly distributed and language is a significant barrier to constructing the universal and compassionate public square our world so desperately needs.

In the near term, we hope to open our doors to more learners around the world in order to strengthen the diversity of our community. We will start with on-ramp courses and our Teach-Out series to provide new opportunities for learners to access our community and level-up in certain areas. Ultimately, we aim to facilitate opportunities for these learners to put knowledge and skills into action.

Imagine there’s no barriers. It isn’t hard to do.

We want aspiring problem solvers to be able to learn with and from each other, to create new learning experiences and tools that bring us closer together, to create new knowledge and a better world.

It’s important to note that the near-term benefits of translation will be realized close to home as well. Let’s go back to the example of courses translated into Arabic. The population in Michigan who identified as having Arabic-speaking ancestry on U.S. Census surveys grew by more than 47% between 2000 and 2013. With an Arab American population of more than 223,000, the State of Michigan ranks second among all U.S. States and is among the fastest growing Arab populations in the country. There are particularly large concentrations of first-language speakers in cities like Dearborn and Hamtramck. Michigan has also been one of the most welcoming states when it comes to accepting refugees, particularly those from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Creating these new learning opportunities in Arabic provides an immediate opportunity for U-M to impact the lives of Michiganders and to open channels for U-M to learn from the individual and collective experiences of an important constituency in our State. We also create new learning opportunities for U-M’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni in Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn as translated courses provide language-learners and bilingual students with valuable opportunities to practice new skills in domain-specific contexts.

We are excited about the potential of this new area of focus and hope to see more compelling projects initiated through a new call for proposals shared with University of Michigan Faculty and Staff. On March 8, 2019 we launched a new call for proposals designed to expand equity and inclusivity in U-M’s academic innovations. With this call we see opportunities to increase access to the scholarship, learning experiences, and technologies created at U-M. We invite proposals aligned with our mission of supporting diverse learners and the creation of inclusive and equitable learning experiences.