Using Simulation to Develop Leaders

David Nesbitt, Software Portfolio Manager

Every year, the University of Michigan Sanger Leadership Center runs two high pressure business simulations for student teams, called Leadership Crisis Challenges (LCC). In these simulations, student teams play the roles of senior business executives who find themselves in the middle of a business and media crisis that unfolds throughout one night. The teams receive new information in the form of emails, phone calls and social media updates as they go through the simulation and have to evolve their strategy and responses on a dime as the crisis progresses. Facilitators play roles in the simulation as well, adding to the drama of the event. The next morning, the teams show up at Michigan Stadium to present their final strategy for handling the crisis to a board of directors. It’s an intense and exciting process, and a tremendous learning opportunity for students.

Forging a Partnership

A well-designed simulation like the LCC is highly engaging for participants, and helps them understand the myriad perspectives that come into play in a complicated real world situation. But the simulation the Sanger team had created was complex and extremely difficult to coordinate, and the planning team wanted to make it more manageable. So in 2018, the Sanger team started conversations with the Office of Academic Innovation about using ViewPoint, a platform for creating and managing customized role-playing simulations that was developed by Academic Innovation in collaboration with Liz Gerber, faculty member at the Ford School of Public Policy. Sanger wanted to explore how ViewPoint could help them run their simulation, and the Academic Innovation team was eager to build a partnership. “Sanger is a leader in this space and looked to as an example by other universities,” says Ben Hayward, Associate Director of Software Development & User Experience at Academic Innovation. “We really valued the opportunity to partner with true content experts to inform the evolution of the platform.”

Collaborative Development with Academic Innovation

ViewPoint had already been used in a variety of different contexts before the Sanger team started working with Academic Innovation, but the LCC presented some opportunities for developing new features to enhance the functionality of the tool. Using feedback from the Sanger team, Academic Innovation added a queued content feature to ViewPoint, which allowed organizers to schedule content like emails, resources, and social media posts to be delivered to participants at a particular time during the simulation. This change meant that the Sanger team could script out the simulation ahead of time and queue up content days or weeks in advance to deliver automatically during the live simulation, instead of having to send content manually during the event. The Sanger team also wanted to run, not just one big simulation, but instead have each of the 30 student teams interacting in their own simulation. To allow this, Academic Innovation developed new functionality so that ViewPoint could run multiple concurrent simulations, and also created a dashboard that allowed Sanger’s facilitators to navigate between the many simulations and play different roles in them, all within a single interface.


A screenshot of the ViewPoint interface.

A screenshot of the ViewPoint interface.


The Academic Innovation and Sanger teams collaborated closely on these enhancements to the ViewPoint platform over the period of a couple months. As Academic Innovation was building new features to support the needs of the LCC simulations, the Sanger team tested the new functionality and provided feedback. The two teams met weekly or biweekly to discuss their progress and to ensure that everything would be ready for the first simulation, the Graduate LCC (for graduate students), which was taking place on Thursday, January 17th, 2019. “There was a lot of trust-building,” remembers Hayward. “The Sanger team was taking a big step in deviating from a manual system that they had already used successfully in the past, and they were putting faith in a technology that was new for them. It really was both groups learning from each other.”


promotional signage for crisis challenge event

Promotional signage for the 2019 Leadership Crisis Challenge

The Challenge

On the opening evening of the event, the students logged into ViewPoint and were assigned to teams, and throughout the evening received live updates about the crisis through the platform. Voicemails, news articles, and emails flooded in, forcing the teams to quickly build strategies and react to the new information. As the Sanger team and their facilitators worked to manage all the details of the event, Hayward was on hand to support them in their use of ViewPoint.

The event wrapped up on Friday with the announcement of the winning student team, and in the end the Sanger team had pulled off another successful LCC. And this time, ViewPoint and the Academic Innovation team had helped them create an even more immersive and engaging experience for the students who participated.



Looking to the Future

With the January LCC event behind them, the Sanger team and Academic Innovation didn’t waste much time before getting back to work together. The Undergraduate Leadership Crisis Challenge is coming up on March 28 and 29, and Academic Innovation is already working on the next improvements to the ViewPoint site that will help the Sanger team run an even better simulation, based on the insights gained from the January LCC event. Now that the simulation is already built out in the ViewPoint platform, the Sanger team can make modifications to it and re-run it, without having to fully recreate it each time they run a LCC event.


student around a conference table and monitor problem solving during the leadership crisis challenge

Sanger’s organizers and facilitators working in the War Room, their headquarters for the simulation.


Moving forward, Academic Innovation is eager to continue collaborating with partners like Sanger, both to help partners achieve their goals but also to guide and inspire further development on Academic Innovation tools like ViewPoint. “When we get to combine the content expertise of our partners like Sanger with our technology, we’re constantly learning about new ways that our technology could evolve next to address new challenges and use cases,” says Hayward.

Recapping the Conceptualizing Public Engagement Series: Part Three. What are critical issues that hinder effective public engagement within our community?

Ellen Kuhn, Public Engagement Specialist

Elyse Aurbach, Public Engagement Lead

One goal that we hoped to achieve through the Conceptualizing Public Engagement (CPE) series was to surface and explore barriers that the U-M community faces when doing public engagement work.

By gathering campus stakeholders from a wide variety of public engagement areas–from individuals who work primarily in policy and government relations to professional communicators to those who engage publics through community-based participatory research– we hoped to gain better insights into the common issues that often impede us from connecting effectively and ethically with publics outside U-M. We also hoped to identify opportunities for growth and support, as well as to consider possible pathways to address these issues in the future.

What We Heard

Despite differences in types of public engagement work that they represented, CPE participants identified and coalesced around five major barriers, which often overlap with one another in critical ways:  

Theme 1: We lack a strong and cohesive community among the faculty, staff, and students who conduct public engagement work at U-M.

This theme emerged in nearly all of the CPE sessions. Participants routinely said that they were unfamiliar with many of the other public engagement stakeholders on campus. They spoke of their interest in connecting more with others across campus who are also doing public engagement work; in fact, many participants said that the best part of the CPE series was the ability to meet and speak with other individuals who also operate within the public engagement community on campus. Within this theme, participants voiced concerns about duplication in public engagement efforts, as silos among campus stakeholders can pose internal barriers as well as potentially harm relationships with external publics.

Theme 2: We don’t have a clear picture of the full landscape of public engagement work across U-M.

Closely related to the first theme about connecting people across campus, participants shared that it has been difficult to understand the breadth of activities, programs, or units that fall under the public engagement umbrella. Without a shared understanding, it’s hard to know where to look for resources, support, collaboration, or professional development. This theme points to a major paradox within public engagement at U-M: the decentralized nature of the university allows for individual autonomy and creativity at the same time that it can also lead to silos among critical stakeholders.

Theme 3: We either don’t know about all of the training opportunities that exist around campus or we don’t have the comprehensive training and support needed to promote ethical, effective engagement.

Again, this theme connects closely with the barriers highlighting a lack of coordination of people and resources across campus. CPE participants acknowledged that individuals in different positions–including undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and staff–require both foundational skills and advanced knowledge to engage well. Participants said that they felt there were limited opportunities to develop the full, specialized range of skills needed for engaging effectively–or that they were unaware of the support and training that is currently provided on campus. Relatedly, participants again spoke about how inadequate training or support can damage relationships with external stakeholders.

Theme 4: We lack structures that recognize, incentivize, and reward public engagement work.

Many participants discussed the difficulties in conducting public engagement work when it does not routinely figure into hiring criteria, merit reviews, promotion, or tenure criteria. Faculty in particular said that it is difficult to devote time to public engagement work when they have schedules that are already full with research, teaching, and service responsibilities. Furthermore, public engagement work can pose personal and professional harm yet it is very rarely recognized or rewarded. Participants also cited a lack of sustained funding for long-term public engagement projects. Within this theme participants also felt that there is a lack of shared understanding about the “why” of public engagement. Why should the University of Michigan value and reward public engagement in the first place? While this theme was especially prominent in sessions composed mostly of faculty participants, it also applied more broadly to staff as well.

Theme 5: We haven’t fully aligned efforts around public engagement and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Participants in CPE sessions as well as attendees of the Social Transformation through Public Engagement panel and discussion articulated the strong, essential connection that exists between public engagement and diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, scholars of color have often engaged with external partners despite professional risk. Additionally, working with external communities that have been historically marginalized or disenfranchised requires thoughtful, ethical approaches that recognize past harms and work to address issues of power dynamics in the present.  

Where We’re Going

During the series, we also collected recommendations and ideas that might help our community to overcome these barriers. Future posts will outline some coordinated projects and actions that our community is taking to address and overcome these barriers.

Please look for additional posts recapping outcomes of the CPE series with the following schedule, subject to evolution:

March Outcomes: the draft Michigan Public Engagement Framework
April Outcomes: Collaborative Projects Addressing Barriers
May Next steps


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

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.

Event Recap: All the Data Showcase Love

Cait Holman, Associate Director for Research and Development

Academic Innovation Data Showcase stickers

Academic Innovation Data Showcase stickers

On February 14, 2019, we hosted the first ever Academic Innovation Data Showcase. We came up with this idea last fall as we were looking for ways to make the ongoing research here at Academic Innovation (and the opportunities to do new research with us) more accessible to the University of Michigan (U-M) community. By putting the focus on data we were able to create a space that allowed us to explore the connections between projects that might not otherwise be apparent– for instance, many of our tools share infrastructure, and so decisions for one may impact others; separately, much of our work is informed by concern for particularly important topics, like equity of access, mental health and wellness in learning environments, and student data privacy and ethics. With more than 90 attendees from across the university (and a few non-university visitors from other institutions!), we were thrilled to see such an array of perspectives take part in the event. We even saw the hashtag, #UMichData,  trending on Twitter in the Detroit area during the event!

Dr. Caitlin Holman kicking off the Academic Innovation Data Showcase

Dr. Caitlin Holman kicking off the Academic Innovation Data Showcase


To kick things off, Dr. Gus Evrard, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and Astronomy and innovator in residence at Academic Innovation, spoke about his longstanding efforts to make data accessible to stakeholders across the university, including the launch of Academic Reporting Tools 2.0 (ART 2.0)and the importance of establishing Problem Roulette to make exam preparation materials accessible. His talk highlighted the necessity for Academic Innovation, U-M Information and Technology Services (ITS), and the U-M schools and colleges to collaborate in building a better future.

Dr. Gus Evrard, speaking at the Academic Innovation Data Showcase

Dr. Gus Evrard

Ben Hayward, Associate Director for Software Development and User Experience Design, described the problem-solving philosophy that the Academic Innovation software team brings to building learning technologies. His talk showcased the way that our data architecture is foundational to our ability to build personalized technologies as well as enable translational research agendas.

Ben Hayward

Ben Hayward

Dr. Rebecca Quintana shared how she and our colleagues on the learning experience design team have been using physical materials like beads to create “Course Composition Diagrams” that depict structural curriculum choices. These diagrams enable the team to reflect on the impact of the choices made across Academic Innovation’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) portfolio. You can read more about their award-winning work here.

Dr. Rebecca Quintana

Dr. Rebecca Quintana

Dr. Meghan Duffy, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and on sabbatical at Academic Innovation, described how she has been taking a data-focused lens on understanding student mental health at Michigan. With Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) reporting that 44% of undergraduates and 41% of graduate students say that mental health challenges have impacted their academics in a 4-week time period, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in this space. Dr. Duffy is exploring how a short wellness survey might help instructors and students make sense of the challenges in play, and start to build skills around preventative mental healthcare.

Dr. Meghan Duffy

Dr. Meghan Duffy

Dr. Christopher Brooks, research faculty in the School of Information and our own Director of Learning Analytics and Research, wasn’t able to make the event in person so we asked him to head to our studios and record an overview of the current state of research he’s been working on. With research interests that range from predictive analytics to MOOC learners use of language to culturally responsive pedagogy, audience members were taken for a tour through the vast potential that is research in online learning.

Dr. Christopher Brooks on screen at the Data Showcase

Dr. Christopher Brooks

We were incredibly lucky to have a diverse array of voices on our panel – Dr. Laura Alford, faculty in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, and Veronica Falandino, Associate Director for Admissions and Student Affairs, and Dr. Ravi Pendse, U-M’s Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer all joined me to discuss where we’re missing data in the educational landscape. The panel had a robust discussion around the degree to which we aren’t fully making use of data that’s already available to us, the importance of questioning how we use metrics to make decisions, and the challenges around being both transparent with students about their data and yet sensitive to need to thoughtfully contextualize that information.

Academic Innovation Data Showcase Panel - Dr. Ravi Pendse, Dr. Laura Alford, Veronica Falandino, Dr. Caitlin Holman

Academic Innovation Data Showcase Panel (left to right) – Dr. Ravi Pendse, Dr. Laura Alford, Veronica Falandino, Dr. Caitlin Holman

Want to see the whole conversation? The recording is available here:

To close out the event, Sarah Dysart, Director of Online and Hybrid Programs at shared her vision for research that we’re just getting started on, exploring how students in online degree programs make the decision to enroll, and what factors inform their decision making. Her work is a great example of how integrating research into our every day work is a core part of Academic Innovation’s process and mission.

Sarah Dysart

Sarah Dysart

If you weren’t able to make it to the event, but are interested in seeing more of what was discussed, we’ve made the slides available here:

Huge thanks go to Dave Malicke, Trevor Parnell, Marissa Reid, and Jen Vetter for their superhuman efforts in making this event happen!

A Reboot of Introduction to HTML5

Monica Miklosovic, Course Operations Manager Senior, Office of Academic Innovation

Colleen van Lent, Lecturer IV in Information, School of Information

When Web Design for Everybody (Basics of Web Development and Coding) launched in 2015, it became a place for learners to explore into the practical, foundational concepts of HTML5.  Its goal was to help learners uncover the “mystery” behind the Internet; jump into coding; and become familiar with the important but often overlooked concepts of validation and accessibility.

Since the original version of this course launched, new tools have emerged for writing, testing, and sharing code. Trends have shifted with respect to browser usage.  Also, we wanted to create more hands-on, authentic, ways for learners in our community to share work and learn from each other.

To that end, our course teams decided to revise Introduction to HTML5 from start to finish.  The final project in this was redesigned and switched to peer-graded. A number of other updates to the course content were made as well, including several brand new demonstrations of how to use the tools learners work with throughout course!

Highlights of the new version include:

  • Demos of the latest tools including GitHubPages, CodePen, FontAwesome, and a new interactive textbook
  • New how-to’s and resources for web accessibility
  • Redesigned practice opportunities and assessments, including a final project with demo


GitHubPages, CodePen, FontAwesome, plus a new interactive textbook

The revised version of Introduction to HTML5 includes a suite of demos to guide learners through the tools introduced throughout the course. These resources are used by industry professionals to share and test work, create portfolios, and integrate graphics and icons frequently used on websites today.

GitHubPages is service for free hosting of a site.  When we first launched this course, students couldn’t easily share their work.  Now, with GitHubPages learners can host their code and share their finished projects with friends, family, and peers.  This means that final portfolios can be hosted so people see the final product, not just the code.

CodePen allows students to easily practice editing code created by the instructor, or create their own code.  This tool allows for HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript as well as common frameworks such as Bootstrap and jQuery.

FontAwesome is a resource for graphics, icons, and images that are popularly used by designers to represent calendars, social media icons, and more.

Learn to Code HTML & CSS by Shay Howe is a new online textbook resource that we’ve included in this version of the course. The textbook covers HTML in depth, and also includes links to CodePen, an interactive platform for writing, testing, and sharing code (above). This inclusion was very important because it lets students get their hands dirty, so to speak, as they work through projects.  


Resources and how-to’s for web accessibility

As we introduced new tools and resources, it is important for learners to make sure their sites are still accessible.  For instance, in the previous version of the course students learned the importance of using alt text on images. While still a standard, learners now also need to know about concepts like aria-labels for icons.  

While it is often difficult  to know if projects are accessible, Introduction to HTML5 includes guides for tools available to help.  In this new version of the course we include links to some automated testers such as Wave and Funkify. These tools provide quick and simple ways to make sure that learners can create the best possible experience for the widest range of people.


Redesigned practice opportunities and assessments, including a final project with demo

As we interacted with learners in the initial run of this course, we paid attention to what worked, and what didn’t. Multiple choice quizzes can be an effective way for learners to fill in gaps missed during lectures and/or readings. To better support knowledge acquisition, all of the quizzes were recently redone to add additional questions and topics.

However, web design is also about creation.  In the original course the final project was autograded.  But we decided that our diverse group of students deserved a more robust way of grading.  There are so many different ways to make a page, and we wanted the student to explore the freedom.  The final project has been replaced by a peer graded assignment. This lets students share their work with a wider audience, as well as see what their peers have created.  It creates an opportunity for learners to share unique perspective, goals, and interest within our diverse community.


We invite new learners and people who have taken the course before to come explore the new features of this  updated version of Introduction to HTML5.  It is designed to align to the current trends and high quality resources now available.  Our goal is that this will create a space for learners to interact not only with the content, but in authentic situations and in a community with each other.

Learn more and enroll in the course on the Introduction to HTML5 Michigan Online course webpage.


The Big Idea: Ambitious Learning Goals

Barry Fishman, Faculty Innovator-in-Residence

What if we could re-imagine residential undergraduate education so that it:

  • Directly engages students in real-world problem solving and scholarship as the core of their learning experience;
  • Makes a big university feel smaller while enhancing learning and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, and;
  • Amplifies the value of a public research university for its multiple stakeholders?

That is a lot to ask, but it is exactly what a group of faculty, staff, and students have in mind as we design the Big Idea program, introduced in an earlier post.

When designing a new educational program, it is best to start with learning goals. What will students in this program know, understand, and be able to do? Goals come first, so that when you do begin planning curriculum, activities, and other structures the goals can serve as a benchmark. Designers must continually ask, “How does this activity satisfy one or more of the learning goals leading to our desired program outcome?” In education circles, this approach is known as “backward design” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

The Principal Objective of the Big Idea

The Big Idea is designed with the following top-level challenge—and how the university could respond to this challenge—as our central focus:

Society needs citizens who can identify problems in complex, ambiguous contexts and make meaningful contributions to progress towards solutions to those problems. The University of Michigan’s role as a public research university is to enable its students to gain this ability.

Let’s unpack this somewhat dense statement. A key motivation behind the Big Idea is a recognition that, while the world and its problems are increasing in complexity and ambiguity, the undergraduate educational programs we provide in higher education are too frequently designed in ways that do not support, or even undercut, students’ ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity. In part this is a response to demands from students themselves, who have grown up in a world where education systems focus on sorting and competition for access to both educational resources and jobs. From a student’s perspective, this environment is shaped by numbers; their GPA and standardized test scores.

Over the past two decades, many of the faculty involved in designing the Big Idea have observed that their students appear to be increasingly conditioned by these assessment and accountability pressures, and in response need to be given increasingly explicit instructions about not only how to complete assignments, but also in terms of what to think about. Above the level of individual courses, degree programs are structured as “checklists” of distribution credits and specialized courses that end up providing a disconnected, breadth-first learning experience. Finally, students’ extra-curricular or co-curricular experience—their life experience—rarely plays a significant role in or is counted towards their “formal” learning, because there is no obvious way to include these experiences in a student’s “score” or GPA. We argue that a different approach is necessary to achieve the goal stated above.

One could argue that the most academically “competitive” students are in some ways the most affected by this numbers-and-sorting, rule-following environment. They are usually extremely good at executing on the instructions they are given. In return, they have likely never received a “bad grade,” or done poorly on a standardized test. Their “success” is based in following the rules and executing well on everything they have been told to do. In short, they have no real experience with academic or intellectual struggle beyond the challenge of learning material for a test or prescribed assignment. The kinds of problems students face on exams or standardized tests are rarely similar to—or even good preparation for—the kinds of challenges they will face later in the workplace or the world. This is an example of assessment driving learning with negative consequences for the good of society. To address this, higher education needs to redesign assessment systems to better encourage risk-taking and exploration. (A future post will focus on assessment in the Big Idea).

To address this disconnect between business-as-usual in higher education and the unusual demands we expect our students to face in the future, the Big Idea is built around problem identification, problem solving and preparation for ambiguity. We want graduates to have the skills and experience to make sense out of seeming disorder, in order to make progress on the really big problems facing communities, organizations, and societies.

To prepare students for our principal objective, we propose focused learning goals in four interrelated areas: Ways of Knowing, Team Good, Public Good, and Personal Good.  

“We want graduates to have the skills and experience to make sense out of seeming disorder, in order to make progress on the really big problems facing communities, organizations, and societies.”


Ways of Knowing

“What do we want students in the Big Idea program to know?” That’s a good question, but we prefer to approach the answer in terms of what we want students to be able to do. We want students to develop fluency with a range of different methods for thinking and reasoning. Higher education thinkers like Charles Muscatine (2009) have critiqued the traditional ordering of academic disciplines and undergraduate distributions as inadequate, too often focused on the “objects of study” (e.g., historical knowledge) rather than the “methods of study” (e.g., historical thinking). We have adopted Muscatine’s approach, arguing that students need to develop the ability to think in and with the tools from a broad range of different thought traditions, including: Logical, empirical, statistical, computational, historical, critical (analytic, evaluative), creative and artistic. This includes fluency with both quantitative and qualitative tools for understanding, interpreting and expressing ideas and information.

We also believe that students need experience with systems thinking and complexity. This is the ability to recognize how individual components exist within larger systems, and to understand how systems interact within themselves and with other systems to produce outcomes, sometimes unexpected outcomes. Students must understand how to reason with models of systems, to explore varying and conflicting models, and recognize the difference between what is knowable and unknowable, or predictable and unpredictable.

To be effective, students need skills in both communication and information literacy. That’s why most colleges have a writing requirement. But we want to go even further. Students must be able to construct a coherent and persuasive narrative in a variety of media (written, oral, visual, and performance/physical). They need to be able to establish a meaningful connection to their audience. They need to know how to engage in productive and respectful debate. Given the complexity of today’s information environment, students need the ability to process, understand, verify, and interpret information from various sources. This includes being able to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate information, and to know how to respond to or deal with inaccurate information.

We note that the Big Idea does not put much stock in knowing “things.” This is premised on the idea that facts, formulae, and other discrete bits of knowledge are easy to look up in today’s technological climate. What is harder is to know how to use these facts and formulae; when to apply them, what they mean in context. The Big Idea thus emphasizes real-world settings and problems as sites for learning, rather than the current practice of front-loading knowledge and skills in coursework without a clear understanding of how (or when) it will be needed.

Venn diagram: Problem identification & solving as an overarching theme including ways of knowing, team good, personal good, and public good.

Team Good

Michigan uses the phase “leaders and best” frequently. We like this catchphrase, and want the Big Idea program to embody it. To us, “leadership” is about thinking of the team (or as U-M likes to put it, “The Team! The Team! The Team!”). Our students need experience with organizing the work of groups, including the ability to make decisions, provide supervision, and give and receive feedback. This is the heart of leadership. Sometimes leadership is about being a good team member. Being good at teamwork is about having the ability to follow instructions, and to negotiate and carry out responsibilities. Students need collaboration skills (including communication). And finally, we want learners who understand accountability, exhibit humility, and can take ownership of the results of their choices and actions.

Public Good

A public university exists for the public good. As the U-M mission statement puts it, we “…serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values….” Students in the Big Idea will be engaged in community-centered research and scholarship in a variety of ways. Through this work, we expect them to develop a sense of civic purpose and engagement, including a deep understanding of community, civic, and governmental structures at all levels and the ability to participate in and contribute to the health of these structures. We want to develop a capacity for intercultural engagement, wherein students can identify cultural patterns (including their own), respectfully compare and contrast cultures, and engage in dialog to develop understanding and empathy across cultures. We expect students to develop a sense of ethics in terms of moral principles and reasoning that govern their own or a group’s behavior. And all of this requires a sense of altruism and empathy in order to identify the felt needs of individuals or groups and be able to act positively to address those needs.

Personal Good

A university education should engage students in a wide variety of projects. But it is important to remember that one of the most important projects is the student themselves. Nothing else we do matters if students, along the way to developing their skills, knowledge, and abilities in the ways described above, do not also develop as an individual. The Big Idea thus emphasizes intentionality and reflection for learners, teaching students how to formulate plans for their own learning and development in both the short- and long-term, and the ability to reflect on progress and outcomes in order to make choices about the benefits and costs of different paths forward. We expect students to challenge themselves in the Big Idea, to take on projects where the answer or outcome is unknown (even to their mentors). In such situations, we would expect that many of these attempts will not “succeed” as we traditionally understand that idea in formal education. But all attempts should result in important progress and learning. Thus we need Big Idea students to develop resilience, the ability to define and measure progress towards goals, and to recover from setbacks and failures. And we expect our students to develop self-knowledge and well-being, to monitor their own physical, mental, and spiritual health, to be self-regulating, and to be able to ask for or advocate for support or help when it is needed by themselves or others.

Recap of Learning Goals

In the Big Idea, learners will develop the ability to identify problems in complex, ambiguous contexts and make meaningful contributions to progress towards solutions to those problems.

This is accomplished by mastering learning goals in four areas:

Ways of Knowing:

  • Fluency with a range of methods for thinking/reasoning
  • Systems thinking and complexity
  • Communication
  • Information Literacy

Team Good:

  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Collaboration
  • Accountability

Public Good:

  • Civic purpose and engagement
  • Intercultural engagement
  • Ethics
  • Altruism and empathy

Personal Good:

  • Intentionality and reflection
  • Resilience
  • Self-knowledge and well-being

What’s Next?

With learning goals in hand, the work of the Big Idea group moves on to defining the core learning experiences where students will make progress towards mastering the goals. There are a number of key issues that must be addressed along the way. How do we assess learning in the Big Idea program? What kinds of students do we expect to engage with the Big Idea? How will admissions work? How will learners interact with research projects? How does the Big Idea help facilitate multi-disciplinary research projects with a community focus? Work is underway in all of these areas. Stay tuned for future posts on these and other Big Ideas!



The ideas in this post represent a group of faculty, staff, and students working on the Big Idea. This includes: Laurie Alexander, Jamie Blackwell, Norm Bishara, Bridgette Carr, Anne Curzan, Tracy de Peralta, James DeVaney, Meg Duffy, Cindy Finelli, Barry Fishman, Anita Gonzalez, Melissa Gross, Larry Gruppen, Matt Harmon, Leslie Herrenkohl, James Hilton, Paul Kirsch, Courtney Klee, Mika LaVaque-Manty, Tim McKay, Nigel Melville, David Mendez, Rachel Niemer, Ken Panko, Panos Papalambros, Andrea Quinn, Paul Robinson, Hannah Smotrich, Caren Stalburg, Verity Sturm, Stephanie Teasley, Alex Wilf, and Margaret Wooldridge.

In addition to sources cited above, the thinking behind these learning goals (and some of the language) was inspired by:

Particular thanks to Meghan Duffy, Larry Gruppen, Panos Papalambros, Tracy de Peralta, and Caren Stalburg for their feedback and input on this post.



Muscatine, C. (2009). Fixing College Education: A New Curriculum for the Twenty-first Century. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding By Design (2nd Expanded edition). Alexandria, Va: Assn. for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Opportunities for Students to Set Themselves Apart at Academic Innovation

Marissa Reid, Student Program Coordinator

Trevor Parnell, Events and Marketing Specialist

The student fellowship program at Academic Innovation is unique and offers students an opportunity to set themselves apart with the skills they’ve acquired while working alongside and learning from our talented staff.

In what areas could students contribute to Academic Innovation?

  • Behavioral ScienceAI student and AI staff member
  • Data Science
  • Design Management
  • Marketing and Communications
  • Media Design/Production
  • Online Learning Experiences
  • Public Engagement
  • Software Development
  • Strategic Initiatives
  • User Experience

Our office collaborates with faculty and student innovators to transform learning at the University of Michigan (U-M) and beyond. We build web applications to personalize classroom learning experiences, design online courses to prepare students for success now and in the future, collect and analyze data from these experiences to help students and the campus community make more informed choices, and much more!

Student fellows have contributed to a number Academic Innovation initiatives including Academic Reporting Tools (ART), ECoach, GradeCraft, Michigan Online, Problem Roulette, Tandem, Sage, and ViewPoint, to name a few.

What’s different about the Academic Innovation fellowship experience?

  • Cross-functional experience with freedom to make decisions.
  • Mentorship from former Academic Innovation fellows and current staff.
  • Resources for career development and opportunities for students to showcase their work
  • First-hand experience in a professional office setting

Dana Demsy, Graphic Design Fellow from 2016-2017, had this to say about her experience with our office: “Academic Innovation allowed me to gain real-world experience while developing confidence in my own design knowledge, right on campus. I went into the Academic Innovation fellowship as a STAMPS art student and left as a confident designer ready to take on my next design-adventure.”

What opportunities are available to students in the near future?

Listed below are all of the open student positions that are currently open or will become available for the summer term.

Winter term:

  • Content Marketing Fellow – Use your creativity to share information via videos, infographics, illustrations, audio, and more by browsing our database of online learning experiences (online courses, Teach-Outs, etc.), software tools (ECoach, ART 2.0, etc.), and other initiatives to identify new content opportunities.
  • Design Management Fellow: Teach-Outs – Assist the Design Manager for Teach-Outs in managing the scoping, design, and development of Teach-Outs to deliver high-quality online learning experiences with an emphasis on public engagement, conversation, and actionable outcomes.
  • Graphic Design Fellow– Create effective and engaging graphic design elements for a variety of Academic Innovation marketing and communications efforts. You’ll work on projects such as social media asset design, digital advertising design, print handout/collateral design, and other efforts to support the mission and activities of the Office of Academic Innovation.
  • Media Technology & Special Projects Fellow – Work closely with the Technology and Media Research Lead, the Media Design team, and other Academic Innovation teams to maintain, organize, track, and assist with research surrounding media tools and technology. In addition, you will assist with various media design projects, with a particular focus on audio mixing and mastering, and videography and editing.
  • Public Engagement Fellow– Facilitate experimentation at the intersection of public engagement and innovation by pursuing different projects related to research, benchmarking, and evaluation.
  • Software Development Fellow– Implement designs and create and test software across the development stack (from database to server-side code to front-end user interfaces).
  • Writing Fellow Excite our audiences and share stories about some of our growing library of online learning experiences (online courses, Teach-Outs, etc.), software tools (ECoach, ART 2.0, etc.) as well as the success of our teams in the Office of Academic Innovation.

Summer term:

  • Behavioral Science FellowApply behavioral science principles and communication strategies to intervention design and writing messages for students.
  • Data Science Fellow– Help Academic Innovation analyze and draw inference from user behavior to complement our research capabilities and ultimately improve the learning experiences we produce.
  • Software Development Fellow– Implement designs and create and test software across the development stack (from database to server-side code to front-end user interfaces).
  • User Experience Design FellowImprove the usability of existing AI tools and designing the experience of new products. You’ll have the opportunity to conduct user research and assist with UI design, rapid prototyping, and web-based tool development.

Join our team and innovate with us!

If you are interested in any of the fellowships listed above and would like apply, visit

Feel free to contact Marissa Reid, Student Program Coordinator, at with any questions.

Gallery Tool Unlocks Peer Feedback Possibilities for MOOC Learners

James Park, Design Manager

Rebecca M. Quintana, Learning Experience Design Lead

During our team’s work on the Storytelling for Social Change course with University of Michigan (U-M) faculty member, Anita Gonzalez, we recognized a need to really bring to life a tool that would allow learners to share their text- or image-based work for the course with other learners in an easy and open manner and to also receive robust feedback on their work from other learners. Because of the nature of our learners’ work in the course, and because of the different expectations and experiences we wanted them to have, we sought an alternative to the course platform’s peer-review tool. This alternative had to be one where work and feedback could both be shared more freely and in a way that prioritized high-quality interactions (especially dialogue) over numerical scores and one-way assessment. Ultimately, we ended up with a Gallery that would facilitate this sort of learner interaction and empower learners to share work—or multiple works—without fear that criticism of their work or the particular “rules” of the peer-review tool would impede their  successful progress in the course.

The Gallery tool is not only being used in the Storytelling for Social Change course, but also our Python Basics course, which introduces the basics of Python 3. For Python Basics, we wanted learners to have an opportunity to practice their Turtle programming skills and to submit their work for peer feedback. We wanted a lightweight option, something that would allow learners to share their work in a “low-stakes” environment, without the formality and restrictions of peer-graded assignments. The Gallery Tool allowed us to create a forum for learners to upload their drawing(s) and create prompts, which ask their peers for specific feedback about their drawing. We set the tool up to allow learners to filter on type of drawing, such as abstract, animal, building, logo, and nature.

We are already seeing a tremendous range of subject matter in the Gallery, including spider webs, pyramids, U-M logos, nature scenes, and many, many abstract drawings. Learners are asking for feedback on topics such as how to create color effects, how to create specific shapes, and areas for improvement. Interestingly, learners are also asking questions of other learners that relate to skills they have demonstrated in their drawings, such as “How do you fill a shape?”

Abstract drawings of turtles and a multi-colored spiral

Figure 1: Two Turtle drawings, published in the Python Basics course using the Gallery Tool


What does the Gallery Tool do?

Submission page for gallery tool

Figure 2: The Upload Submission screen learners see before submitting a piece for peer feedback.

Learners can upload a text- or image-based artifact, or a link to an artifact in another medium, to the Gallery, where they will be able to also provide a synopsis of the artifact and some relevant questions they would like to pose to a potential reviewer. In turn, they will have the ability to browse other learners’ work and provide feedback on it, taking into account the very questions that their colleagues have posed in association with the work. The Gallery is very much a place of reciprocity, and it thrives on learners contributing and receiving meaningful thoughts and reactions from others.

A collaboration across Academic Innovation teams

The creation of this tool was very much a joint effort across Academic Innovation teams, namely the Online Tools Team, who did the heavy lifting of designing and building the tool, the Design Management team, and the Learning Experience Design team. Our former colleague Steve Welsh provided a lot of early guidance on the tool’s design from a learning-experience perspective, and Anita Gonzalez also contributed helpful ideas about its purpose and execution, as well as a thoughtful early critique of a prototype. Together, members of all of these teams met regularly to assess the Gallery’s features, design, and future efficacy when employed in the context of our courses.

One personally eye-opening aspect of the development process was the careful balance of designing a robust tool that would be truly effective in Storytelling for Social Change—which was natural, since it was the impetus for the tool in the MOOC context—but easily adaptable for other courses and contexts from both the pedagogical and programming perspectives.

What’s next for the Gallery Tool?

We can see lots of potential for use of this tool in future projects. Essentially, this tool is a forum for learners to participate in a “show and tell” of their work, because it allows them to share creative artifacts and receive feedback from peers. Some courses ask learners to complete a final project. The Gallery Tool would be a great place for learners to share sketches and drafts, and receive responses to questions about their work before they submit their project for summative evaluation. Learners can also browse through previous examples, before beginning work on a challenging project. Some of our courses are hosted on two platforms simultaneously. Since the Gallery Tool works through Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) integration, the tool could be a bridge between both versions of a course. Learners on Coursera would be able to share work and interact with learners on edX, and vice versa. In sum, Learning Experience Designers and others at Academic Innovation are excited by the flexibility that the tool affords, and are eager to use the tool in situations where learners would benefit from the opportunity to share and showcase their early work with a receptive and constructive audience.


Using GradeCraft in Language Learning Courses at Michigan

Janaya Lasker-FerrettiJanaya Lasker-Ferretti, Coordinator of 2nd Year Italian Courses in Romance Languages and Literatures, GradeCraft user

GradeCraft is known for giving flexibility to students because it offers them choice and agency when it comes to their learning. However, now that I have successfully piloted GradeCraft in my Italian language classroom for a semester, I have to come to realize that not only does it offer flexibility to students, but also to instructors, especially when in comes to the implementation and exploration of new material. Because of this flexibility, I was able to incorporate a new and experiential learning opportunity into my course structure.

Students in the language learning classroom learn their skills in a bubble in that they are not learning language on the streets of Italy through copious contact with native and fluent speakers. Language learning can be tedious and the process is slow in this bubble (even though it can also be that way on the streets of Rome!). Often by the time my students arrive to class, which is the last semester of their four semester language requirement, they have lost enthusiasm and motivation. In order to restore these, it’s essential that we make Italian more alive and relevant, which is what I was able to do with GradeCraft when this amazing experiential learning opportunity fell into my lap mid-semester.    

At the end of October, when the semester was already well underway, I was contacted by the University of Michigan (U-M) Language Resource Center’s Language Bank.  The Language Bank supports non-profit organizations, social justice efforts and the community by offering translation services to those who need it. The program works on a volunteer-basis and it gives those people with language skills at U-M the opportunity to give to their community while advancing research. Dr. Denise Saint Arnault, a professor in the School of Nursing at U-M, had contacted the Language Bank earlier in the academic year to ask for help with her research.  She is working with several researchers around the world that use a type of interview she developed called Clinical Ethnographic Narrative Interview (CENI) to understand how trauma is experienced transculturally. The interviews were conducted in Italy and the researchers interviewed women who had experienced some kind of gender based violence in their lives. To advance Dr. Arnault’s research and that of her international colleagues, there was now a plethora of material to translate into English from Italian. This is where the flexibility of GradeCraft came to the rescue. Leah Squires from the Language Bank wrote to me asking if I knew of anyone who could translate several interviews done in Italian and I let Leah know that because I was using GradeCraft in my class, I could offer this experience to my students for points.  

The Language Resource Center, which funds the Language Bank, kindly offered to host an event so that my students and others in a few different sections of Italian, could get together for a few hours and translate Dr. Saint Arnault’s interviews.  They provided the students with pizza and I, along with my colleague Luisa Garrido Baez and an Italian psychologist living in Ann Arbor, Annalucia Pierro, were there to help students with the language and the process of translation. For three hours, our students, working in pairs, pored through the interviews and made the voices of these women heard in English.  In every interview there was the story of a woman’s life narrated to them in the woman’s own words, and in a language that the students had been studying for almost two years. This experience made Italian real to them and their Italian skills valuable. Moreover, this experience made up part of their grade in the course thanks to GradeCraft. I assigned 30 points to this event, the same amount that they would have received had they earned 100% on an exam. I firmly believe that this experience is worth more than an exam because it is more rooted in real-life and allowed them a window into the lives of Italian women.  

We had a great turn out for the event–there were over 20 students total. Many students were moved by the experience and some even had trouble putting the interviews down once the event was over.  All the students to whom I had spoken about the event told me it had been a great experience. In all of this, credit goes to Dr. Denise Saint Arnault and the Language Resource Center, but just as important in making this possible was GradeCraft because I was able to give value to this experience and the students jumped at this opportunity.  I also invited students who were enrolled in non GradeCraft classes. In these cases, students were awarded extra credit points. They, too, found the event to be meaningful and rewarding even though the points they earned did not, and could not, amount to the points of an exam for them. I plan on working with the Language Bank and Dr. Saint Arnault to host future events like this because there is still a lot of work to do and many more interviews to translate.  At the beginning of last semester I would have never imagined being able to offer such an incredible learning opportunity, but because of GradeCraft I was able to seamlessly implement it into the course once the Language Bank contacted me. I was able to test out this material in the fall and I am looking forward to hosting more of these events during the winter semester. Thanks to GradeCraft, I will be able to make these experiences a part of students’ Italian 232 course and in turn, they will be able to find relevance in their language study and promote research.