Democratizing and Diversifying Higher Education: A Case Study

Cathy Hearn, Fall & Winter Course Advocate

This is the fourth blog post in a series on the School of Education’s 2018 Winter Cohort initiative. In the first post in this series, Professor Donald Peurach introduced the 2018 Winter Cohort: a learning experience in which University of Michigan graduate students collaborated with online learners from across the globe to complete content from the School of Education’s MicroMasters program in Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement.

In this post, Cathy Hearn takes the 2018 Winter Cohort as case study for the ways in which we can harness educational innovations to further the causes of democratizing and diversifying higher education. Through the 2018 Winter Cohort, the course team strove to provide an accessible, flexible experience, enriched by the perspectives of peers from across an impressive range of national, cultural, and professional settings.

Democratizing Higher Education

The rise of online learning brings with it the prospect of dramatically widening access to education. When this education is designed and delivered by a team at a world-class university, we are talking not only about access, but also about quality. Online education from institutions like the University of Michigan has the potential to provide equal access to a high-quality educational experience to anybody with internet access and a smartphone or computer, where in the past, access to such resources was hindered by barriers of a financial, geographic, social-cultural, or other nature.

Students seated around a long row of tables with professor Don Peurach standing at the front of room looking at a projection screen with seven individuals on webcams.Approximately 11% of the University of Michigan student population are foreign nationals (2015); by contrast, our 2018 Winter Cohort learners came from across five continents. While we did not collect financial data, this geographic range—coupled with the fact that online learners could take the course for free or at a low cost—likely meant our class was more socioeconomically diverse than most at the University of Michigan. Further, our course provided learners across the globe with an opportunity to access knowledge, advanced largely in well-resourced American research institutions, and adapt this learning in support of their local settings.

In my view, two important priorities across all higher education teaching should be: (1) the inclusion of students taking non-traditional pathways, such as those working full-time or those with children, and (2) the support of learners with diverse learning preferences, including those with learning disabilities. As expected, the majority of our off-campus learners outside of Ann Arbor held jobs alongside their studies, and many spoke of families and other commitments. We also found a significant segment of our Ann Arbor-based learners were also working in addition to their studies. Potentially, they were attracted by the fact that we held class sessions for Ann Arbor-based learners triweekly, and a start time of 5 p.m.

Learners were keen to share the ways in which they used our online resources in ways that better suited their lifestyles and learning preferences: from creative use of technology to visualize their learning, to downloading lectures so they could listen to course content like a podcast during a busy commute. When asked how they viewed the experience, learners characterized it in a variety of ways. They reported that the cohort experience was:

  • “very flexible and highly practice-based,”
  • like “learning with a group of colleagues who had worked together for years,”
  • like “working in a network learning hub,” and
  • like “creating a professional team of change warriors.”

One of the strengths of this learning experience was that learners felt the agency to shape their experience into a form that matched their preferences and aspirations.

The Value of Diversity

Opening up our classroom to learners from across the world meant opening up our learners to a diversity of perspectives that served to nuance, challenge, and enrich the learning experience. While diversity manifested itself in a variety of ways, it ultimately amounted to a richness of thought and perspective that would have proved difficult to replicate in a fully residential environment.

A diverse group of students standing in a classroom and smiling at the camera.While many of the master’s students at the School of Education are early-career professionals, most with experience in K-12 settings, we found a tremendous diversity of professional experience—both in terms of sector and years served—among our online learners. Our learners benefited from the expertise of professionals working across a variety of sectors and roles, including: vocational and adult educators, policy professionals, educational technology entrepreneurs, and seasoned teachers and administrators from K-12 settings. In interviews and surveys, learners consistently spoke to the benefits of these diverse perspectives, for instance:

“I valued the different professional backgrounds of my team members. Being able to connect with individuals from different areas, with different educational backgrounds and professional experiences, was particularly valuable.”

Another of the more visible aspects of our course diversity was in national origin and cultural background. Learners noted several advantages to collaborating with others from across the globe, for example:

“The opportunity, in collaboration with colleagues, to consider improvement science from an international comparative perspective.”

As the University of Michigan continues to establish its status as a university with a positive global reach and impact, I hope we continue to recognize the fact that our international learners are valuable contributors to a richer learning environment for all students.

I’m keen to note that while aspects of identity such as race or socioeconomic status are rightly central to many discussions of diversity in higher education, several of our learners chose to disclose their identities to course colleagues in terms of their professional backgrounds or countries of origin. Since our learners were not required to upload profile photos, disclose financial information, of use their names in their edX user identities, racial and socioeconomic aspects were less immediately apparent in the online portion of our class. In this way, we have discussed the possibility that phenomena such as implicit racial, gender or (dis)ability bias were perhaps slightly mitigated by these features.


Throughout the 2018 Winter Cohort initiative, our team consistently engaged in critical evaluation and reflection. We recognize with pride that we worked hard to embrace and valorize the incredible diversity that our course attracted. At the same time, the process had us asking important questions of ourselves:

  • Are our course materials too US-centric, or can they be made more relevant for our learners from global contexts? Are there ways that we can empower learners through the creation of such content?
  • How can we make sure that we are accessing learners who could stand to benefit the most from our course? How can we support learners in developing the skills necessary to persist and succeed in a demanding online course?
  • Are there ways that we can ensure that our courses can be easily adapted by learners with different learning preferences or ability statuses?

Online and hybrid courses like ours provide exciting possibilities for welcoming an ever-wider range of learners to a world-class education. Pushing ourselves to ensure our courses welcome, reflect, and embrace this diversity means pushing ourselves to create a stronger learning experience for all participants.

Read these other blog posts from the 2018 Winter Cohort of the University of Michigan’s Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program:

Connect with the School of Education MicroMasters team: @UMLeadEdHub.

Four Keys to Managing Collaborative Teamwork in a Socially-Engaging Online Course

Kathryn Gabriele, Doctoral Student in Educational Studies in the School of Education and Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters 2018 Winter Cohort Learner

Hélène Gosset, Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters 2018 Winter Cohort Learner


This is the third in a series of blog posts from the 2018 Winter Cohort of the University of Michigan’s Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program. In this blog post, we hear from members of the 2018 Winter Cohort about their approaches to self-organizing in an online course that places high emphasis on social engagement to help enable the learning of all participants.

Whether collaborating on team activities in a university-based course or engaging in work groups in a professional context, collaborative work presents a dilemma. On the one hand, it creates the potential to learn and do more than would be possible by working alone, in isolation. On the other hand, it requires managing a long list of challenges, including meeting logistics, interpersonal dynamics, joint work on shared products, and more. These potentials and pitfalls can increase with the diversity of work groups, the geographic distribution of members, competing work demands on members, and the complexity of the work at hand.

These challenges of socially-engaged learning carry into massive open online courses. Research findings suggest some of the greatest payoffs for online learners lie in the opportunity to collaborate with other learners in authentic, project-based learning opportunities. However, many learners value working in the online space precisely because it affords them the opportunity to work individually, and around the contours of their professional and personal lives to engage when-and-as they see fit.

The Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program uses an instructional design called “Self-Directed/Community-Supported Learning” that challenges participants to manage the payoffs and pitfalls of socially-engaging online learning in team practice exercises, small group and large group discussions, and celebrating success.

The challenge begins immediately, in the first lesson. As a learner who created a team, I (Kathryn) was both excited and uncertain about who would join. After all, in reading the personal introductions of other members of the 2018 Winter Cohort, I realized I would be working with colleagues from across the United States and around the world, some of whom are just starting their educational careers and others who are seasoned professionals.

As members of the 2018 Winter Cohort joined my team, I was overwhelmed by their experience and diversity: a former principal in France now preparing for a leadership position in Québec, an experienced Michigan educator, a University of North Carolina PhD student, a state-level educational professional from Uruguay, and a University of Michigan master’s student.

As someone new to online learning, I was relieved to discover one of my new teammates, Hélène, had completed an online master’s program. Interested in learning more about her experiences and about any advice she might have for the team, I asked her to share the “Top Takeaways” about socially-engaging learning from other online courses.

Here is Hélène’s advice on leveraging the potential (and avoiding the pitfalls) of socially-engaging online learning:

1. Relationship Building Takes Time: Be Open and Patient

Learning to work together takes time. It is possible you won’t really start learning from others until after a few collaborative sessions, so don’t change groups too soon. Take time to learn from others. Form relationships with members of the group. It’s a good way to stay motivated to complete MOOCs.

But, what if I don’t get along with members of my group? This happens, but before changing, check to see if the team has worked together to set norms and rules to guide the group. These are helpful for coordinating team efforts. After several collaborative sessions, if your current team is still a challenge, make a change. Just remember: the perfect group doesn’t exist!

2. Thoughtful, Respectful Communication is Key

Communication is very important in online learning. You often don’t have set times to meet when working asynchronously.Instead, you may have to create them using tools like chat platforms, email, video-conference conference technology, etc. Even if you feel you don’t have much to say, maintain a presence and show interest in what others are writing. This is especially important in your small team.

Understand some people need time to feel at ease and share ideas. So, help engage others who may not initially be quick to respond. Reach out! Ask questions about their thoughts on a precise topic.

3. Be Planful, but Adaptable

Planning and respecting the plan is fundamental to online team work. All learners are working on different timelines. Some work during the day, others at night, others on weekends. Often learners have a full-time job. Planning ahead is necessary for success. Nonetheless, a member of your team may get behind or withdraw from the course. Be prepared by always having an understanding of what others are working on and potential ways to adjust if necessary. Life happens, and sometimes teams need to rearrange how work is shared with little notice.

4. Be Open-Minded, but Earnest

Students from all over the world and from very different backgrounds enroll in MOOCs, so social codes and ways of proposing ideas can vary greatly. A team member may propose an idea with which you may disagree and/or lack comfort. Accept the expression of this idea, and be earnest and explain why you are not comfortable with it. Sometimes the fact that we write instead of talk can lead to misunderstanding and/or contribute to reasons for disagreement. When expressing an idea orally, we can share ideas and ask clarifying questions. It might be a good idea to schedule a video-conference with your team to try to talk through brainstorming sessions and any potential areas of disagreement.

As our team worked together in Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement, we found Hélène’s insights were helpful in guiding our collaboration. Heeding her advice allowed us to form strong, collegial relationships. While we did face the inevitable, initial challenge of self-organizing and delegating tasks in the absence of face-to-face conversation, following her “Top Takeaways” has helped us to successfully jump that hurdle and continue to move, as a team, closer to the finish line.

Celebrating Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have a remarkable group participating in this initiative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned!

Join Us in Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement

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

The University of Michigan School of Education invites you to join us in an experiment aimed at catalyzing a world-wide community of professionals committed to engaging educational innovation and improvement as a field of study and a domain of practice.

This initiative celebrates the launch of our Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program,  a series of five massive open online courses on the edX platform that introduce the theory and practice of large-scale, network-based continuous educational improvement. The program was designed in collaboration with the Ross School of Business and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, with contributions from over 40 leading educational professionals, researchers, and reformers across the US. I had the honor of serving as the lead designer of the program.

We are launching Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement at a fascinating moment in the history of US public education. Over the past five years, a new educational reform movement has taken shape, one that has practicing educators, researchers, and reformers collaborating in novel “school improvement networks” to address educational problems, needs, and opportunities using formal methods of continuous improvement. In Fall 2017, school improvement networks became the centerpiece of a $1 billion grant program announced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to improve academic success, high school graduation, and college placement among black, Hispanic, and poor students in the nation’s most challenged schools.

Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement locates learners at the center of this rapidly evolving “improvement movement”, and supports them in developing the foundational knowledge, capabilities, and dispositions needed to become active members.

Toward that end, we designed Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement not only as a series of massive open online courses. We designed the program as a platform for building a new type of trans-institutional, trans-national educational reform community. All core courses use an instructional approach called “Self-Directed/Community Supported Learning” that combines presentations, enrichment activities, scenario-based team practice exercises, and community-wide discussion, with the aim of drawing diverse learners in the US and around the world into a community of discourse and practice.

From January — April 2018, I will guide a cohort of learners in completing curated versions of the two courses that comprise the core of Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement:

I will be complementing the existing online resources with supplemental instructional guidance, online office hours, guest webinars, and blogging opportunities, all aimed at enriching learners’ experiences and supporting their success.

These special, curated versions of LeadEd502x and LeadEd503x courses are open to practicing educators, graduate students, faculty members, and reformers across the US and around the world. They are also being offered as part of a 3-credit seminar in the School of Education open to all graduate students and upper division undergraduate students:  EDUC 639 — Engaging Educational Innovation and Improvement.

Together, we will use these curated versions of LeadEd502x and LeadEd503x as a laboratory in which to explore new approaches to developing foundational understandings of cutting-edge educational theory and practice, new ways of using open-access instructional resources to support place-based professional development, and new ways of collaborating to accelerate the redesign of graduate programs in response to dynamic policy environments.

Indeed, our aim is to collaborate in a grand experiment using a new, online learning platform to do what world-class public research universities do best:

  • Convene diverse groups of stakeholders around pressing issues of social importance, and rally their passions and wisdom.
  • Inform conversations among them with new insights about theory and practice.
  • Empower them to move forward, together, in making a big difference for many people, especially those who are too often disempowered and disenfranchised.

Stay tuned! We will be using this blog to report on our progress over the winter semester.

If you would like more information about participating in this initiative, please click here for an FAQ about the MicroMasters program that also provides more details about the special, curated versions of LeadEd502x and LeadEd503x.

If you would like to join us for this initiative, please click here to complete a general information form by December 15, 2017. We are using this form to build an email list of potential participants. On 12/16/2017, we will be mailing specific guidance for registering for these courses on the edX platform.

As always, please feel free to email me ( for additional information.

We hope you are able to join us in celebrating Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement!