Center for Academic Innovation and OLLI partner for remote learning during pandemic

By Bryon Maxey, Monica Miklosovic

In reflecting on the Mission and Principles of the Center for Academic Innovation, the charge to “expand public purpose” at the University of Michigan–already central to our work–is of increasingly vital importance in light of the unprecedented changes and new conditions that have characterized 2020. Accordingly, the principle to “create new models for global, engaged, and lifelong learning experiences for students at the University of Michigan, and learners around the world” uniquely animates efforts across various teams at the Center for Academic Innovation to develop high-quality learning experiences accessible at scale.

Building on this principle, renewed efforts at the center to build strong partnerships with experts and organizations on our campus, in our state, and around the world, constitute the core work of one of Academic Innovation’s newest teams, Partnership Development. The team refocuses on a longstanding center track-record of cultivating partnerships ranging from local to global.

Fortuitously, this team formed just weeks before the pandemic dramatically altered the worldwide status quo. The sudden shift to emergency remote learning for organizations across the globe–from K-12 schools, to study groups, to corporate executive training–has given the Partnership Development team an animating sense of urgency from its beginning. With this context in mind, an aim of the Partnership Develop team in this, and a series of subsequent articles, is to introduce partnership building efforts and highlight our collaborations with key partners.

An illustrative first case, and representative example of robust collaboration spurred by the rapid shift to remote learning, is our dynamic partnership with the The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Michigan (OLLI). Beginning with an incredibly rich and lively in-person dialogue between a couple of center staff members, and OLLI staff and volunteers in February 2020, the collaboration between the center and OLLI has grown into a dynamic partnership. This partnership in many ways exemplifies Academic Innovation’s commitment to its principle to “support learners in adopting a lifelong learning lifestyle to help them become informed, peaceful, equitable, and empowered citizens.”

Response to the Pandemic

At the midpoint of March 2020 and the onset of a global pandemic, both the center and OLLI, along with the entire U-M community, experienced a shift of nearly overnight cancellation of all on-site activities and programming. Quickly, our state along with the rest of the nation found itself abiding by indefinite shelter-in-place directives with newly emerging challenges for both the center and OLLI to carry forward its missions.

OLLI’s Mission:

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Michigan (OLLI-UM) is a program established for older adults who share a love of learning, regardless of previous education. OLLI-UM’s mission is to serve enthusiastic learners from Ann Arbor and surrounding communities by offering multiple avenues by which members can explore new ideas, enhance creativity, and engage their minds. The 1700+ members of OLLI oversee and develop an extensive program of top quality lectures and offer a wide variety of study groups, travel excursions, evening and weekend events, and social/cultural gatherings. Prior to the pandemic, members had access to about 50 lectures per year, with attendance reaching into the hundreds at each event. This comprehensive range of opportunities was accomplished through the efforts of over 200 active volunteers who planned and created OLLI programming for their peers. To carry forward on the OLLI’s mission meant finding new, immediate ways to create a new sense of community, connectedness, and social cohesion during a time of isolation.

The Center’s Mission:

Aligned with the public mission of U-M, the Center for Academic Innovation’s work from the beginning has been creating transformative, engaging learning experiences to reach a global audience of lifelong learners. To accomplish this, we have collaborated with hundreds of faculty and other experts to design, produce, and deliver online learning experiences that have reached over 11 million learners worldwide. Powered by the Center for Academic Innovation, Michigan Online is the destination for U-M’s extensive portfolio of online learning opportunities where learners locally and across the globe can access ongoing education, build skills, and find a sense of community at all stages of life.

Partnership between OLLI and the Center for Academic Innovation

Our unique challenge of engaging lifelong learners at this time turned out to be the pathway toward an emerging partnership. The center and OLLI shared interest in collaborating within the mission of lifelong learning, now with the impetus of creating a new vision and possibilities for reaching learners at home. To contribute to the redesign of accessible programming, OLLI quickly formed a Digital Committee, with Academic Innovation becoming its first collaboration partner.

First Initiatives of the Digital Committee

The role of this newly formed Digital Committee was to spearhead exploration of alternative formats for new learning experiences, with the immediate charge to develop a range of educational presentations for spring and summer programming. OLLI and center team members quickly identified a shared opportunity to create presentations with elements familiar to the OLLI community, such as lectures and Q&As, while introducing new features such as pre-designed and produced videos.

The collection of Teach-Outs produced by the center, available via Michigan Online, became a rich source of inspiration and videos to build a new kind of engaged learning experience for the OLLI community.

The first initiative of the new OLLI Digital Committee is called “Live+Video Learnings” (LVLs). Sprung from our newly formed partnership, the idea behind the first initiative was to provide livestream sessions that combine videos providing background perspective with live presentations offering timely updates, and greater depth.The live sessions also provide the opportunity for live Q&A available to OLLI members.

The Digital Committee chose the Vaccines Teach-Out (originally launched in fall 2019) as inspiration for the first-ever Live+Video Learnings programming. Select Vaccines Teach-Out content was livestreamed over the course of three sessions running throughout May 2020:

  • First, a curated selection of Vaccines Teach-Out video was livestreamed to members. This experience was similar to a “watch party,” a concept quickly rising through the world in the face of staying at home.
  • Teams at the center facilitated introductions to two of the speakers in the Teach-Out videos. OLLI members then invited these speakers to lead a 30-minute lecture and 30-minute Q&A session held via videoconference. OLLI invited one additional speaker for an additional perspective on vaccines through a new lense.
  • A new video with U-M faculty member and Teach-Out collabor David Hutton was released on Michigan Online, featuring updated content on the development of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Building A New Definition of Lifelong Learning

The streaming Live+Video Learning events reached more than 200 members and became a unique experience for lifelong learners. The events featured content co-branding from both OLLI and the center. The experimentation with a new format created possibilities for members who might have been limited by mobility or other constraints (even prior to the pandemic) to now attend events remotely. It even caught the attention of Forbes, which featured a mention of U-M’s innovative online education as part of the national network of 124 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLIs), all recalibrating within a pandemic.

Following the success of the initial Live+Video Learning initiative focused on vaccines, OLLI and the center are now planning more lecture series and events spanning into the second half of 2020. Upcoming OLLI programming will again build on the model of blending videos from the comprehensive Teach-Out archive coupled with real time presentations and discussions.

As the Center for Academic Innovation and OLLI-UM continue to collaborate, we also see possibilities to invite other OLLI members from the national network to come together and explore ideas such as:

  • Designing nationwide events together
  • Building new events locally, and sharing ideas and information within the OLLI national network,
  • Connecting with organization beyond our own who also share the mission of lifelong learning

The center will continue to scope new ideas through our partnership with OLLI, such as the incorporation of content from Michigan Online into OLLI study groups. We hope to discover in greater depth the kinds of experiences lifelong learners would benefit from, and translate findings into new collections and offerings.

While the pandemic has been an incredibly trying situation for our entire community, we have discovered the immense value of innovation in education. We are confident that our partnership formed in the current moment will strengthen our ability to become resilient and build a new definition of lifelong learning that will serve learners not only now, but well into the future.