Teaching & Learning

UMich Labs Scale Up Instructional Innovations

This new office at the University of Michigan is in charge of scaling up digital learning experimentation.

Although higher education instruction is rampant with innovation, often it's tucked inside individual disciplines and tested in onesies and twosies. That reality can make for a frustrating experience when member of the faculty wants to research or scale innovation across a campus. They're often left to struggle alone. Unless, of course, you're at the University of Michigan, which launched its Office of Digital Education & Innovation (DEI) a little more than a year ago.

During that time DEI has blossomed with three labs. The Learning, Education and Design (LED) Lab is focused on doing research and scholarship to understand how instructional technologies and digital media can be used in teaching, learning and collaboration. The Digital Education & Innovation Lab (DEIL) instantiates new digital courses, including MOOCs, and helps develop open educational resources. And the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) emphasizes development of software specifically to help students.

Campus Technology talked with James DeVaney, the assistant vice provost of DEI, who gave a progress report on the projects underway.

Dian Schaffhauser: At a glance they look like they're tackling the same kind of projects. What sets the LED Lab, for example, apart from the other endeavors?

James DeVaney: The people that comprise that lab are research faculty, post-docs, graduate students, largely from the School of Information and the School of Education, but it is truly a multidisciplinary community of scholars. They're doing specific research projects but also supporting some of the project initiatives that are underway across DEI. They're coming at it from a very data-intensive and scholarly point of view, and they're focused on both publishing and disseminating the research that results. It's fundamental to the DEI strategy that we are both scholarly and practical in our experimentation. The LED lab pushes us to constantly raise the bar as we advance learning and drive student success.

GradeCraft is a really interesting project that they're working on. which is a "gameful" learning management system created by a faculty member who's part of both the School of Education and the School of Information. We're now working with it across 11 different courses and reaching several thousand students. We have plans to dramatically expand reach and increase impact.

Schaffhauser: Talk about DEIL. How is that distinctive?

DeVaney: The space includes five production studios and seven editing suites and a range of collaborative space. You might think about it as a digital media and production space to facilitate collaborative learning from our faculty.

More than that it's a dedicated space for knowledge sharing. We apply unique expertise and do very tactical work, like pre-production, post-production, production on digital media assets and MOOCs. But we also have a wide range of collaborative activity that's going on in this space to bring some of these innovations to scale.

One of the biggest outcomes of creating an office like this is really the matchmaking that happens when you take a highly decentralized university with 19 colleges and schools and you help innovators find each other. You might have faculty from across this campus working on similar challenges but in very different contexts. That space creates the physical venue or form for that kind of collaboration

Schaffhauser: And then there's DIG, the newest program.

DeVaney: They're all pretty new, but DIG is the newest of the three. At its core DIG is an education technology accelerator. It's designed to take good ideas that are coming from across our rich ecosystem of educational innovation and growing them to maturity.

A big challenge to scale is moving from that innovation stage to something that feels and looks like infrastructure. What DIG is there to do is work with pioneering researchers who are expanding user communities to help them take those digital engagement tools to the next level.

Whereas the LED Lab is comprised largely of research faculty, post-docs and graduate students, DIG has software developers that team with our research faculty community and also with ITS and our Center for Research on Learning and Teaching to begin to scale some of these tools and find new use cases and go through the development cycle — essentially, finding pathways to scale. That's a common goal across our portfolio. In this case it's about harvesting new software technology.

The Greenhouse will have a number of developers who are full-time contributors to DIG. But it's important to think of DIG and DEI as a portal to a broader set of resources across the university. Any of those projects that we're working on through DIG will also engage developers from our broader IT community.

When faculty come to us with ideas, they're seeking resource and expertise. We have something called the DEI Venture Fund. Think of that as sort of the point of connection between all of these parts of the portfolio. Depending on the nature of the initiative we might provide financial resources. We might provide digital media and production expertise through the DEI Lab. We might provide access to learning analytics and research expertise from LED Lab. Or we might provide software development expertise from DIG. It might be a combination of all of those, depending on the project. In a short amount of time we're already seeing great impact by simplifying faculty access to these areas of expertise.

Schaffhauser: Can you name the projects DIG already has underway?

DeVaney: The first is [Expert Electronic Coaching (E2Coach)]. The second is called Student Explorer. The third is the [Academic Reporting Toolkit] (ART) 2.0. The commonality between them is that we have an immense amount of data at the institution, and we're developing tools that allow us to use that data in very applied ways to help with personalization at scale.

Schaffhauser: Tell me about Student Explorer.

DeVaney: Student Explorer is about informed, efficient human connection. We're working with academic advising and helping with the important role they play in supporting students as they transition from high school to college. Student Explorer leverages real-time course performance data through our LMS and through online homework and exam systems and provides students and advisors with frequent updates on their progress. It helps advisors catch students who are in trouble early on and notice those who are thriving. So it's both for intervention and to identify ways where we might accelerate pathways for student performance. We're working with about 5,000 undergraduates through Student Explorer, and we're hoping to scale that so we can reach all undergraduates.

Schaffhauser: What about E2Coach?

DeVaney: E2Coach provides personalized feedback and encouragement and advice to students in large introductory courses. Michigan has 20-plus years of leadership in the field of computer-tailored communication in public health schools. But as a result of creating what was called the "Task Force on Learning Analytics," we found many other applications for this kind of approach. With introductory courses it's easy to get lost. Bringing a level of personalization to those kinds of courses was something we saw as being quite important to the undergraduate educational experience

It's an interesting example. It's taking the core principles that were working really well in the public health space and applying it to undergraduate education and student success in introductory physics, chemistry, statistics and biology classes. We're now offering E2Coach to more than 15,000 students. We're working on scaling it across campus and in parallel carrying out a significant amount of research about personalized communication to accelerate student outcomes.

Schaffhauser: And then you have ART 2.0.

DeVaney: ART 1.0 was built in 2002 by the staff of our College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Faculty team members on a committee a little over a decade ago defined a series of course-oriented questions that they were sure faculty would want to ask, and then they built tools to answer those questions using data warehouse data through a very simple Web interface. [Version] 1.0 allowed authorized users to answer many questions about a course, including things like enrollment, grade distribution, pre- and post-course enrollment and grade correlations among classes.

ART 2.0, which will benefit from DIG, will foster increased student engagement by giving students personalized information to inform decision making. When students prepare to register for classes, ART 2.0 will tell them much more about every course: how large it is, who takes it, what they've taken before, what they take after, what they major in, what it prepares you for, what majors the course meets requirements for, who's teaching it, whether they've taught it before, how students are graded. Think about how different a course registration process would be if you had the benefit of all of that information

We have this broad ambition that every student that matriculates to the university will benefit from every student who has come before them. Every student that is a part of this learning environment will benefit from the vast number of choices and pathways that people have taken in order to increase the number of choices that a student is able to make.

One of the interesting programmatic activities tied to ART 2.0 is a series of design jams, which you can think about as student hackathons. Students will come and essentially help us think about the course registration process. We're trying to engage students at every step of the way.

We're doing the same for E2Coach and Student Explorer. We're already working with students on a number of dimensions. That hackathon-style model will be core element of DIG to really make sure we're getting student input often and empowering them to co-create the innovations that shape the U-M experience.

Schaffhauser: For any one of these innovations, how would they have found a place on campus before your office was in place?

DeVaney: We didn't start from scratch a year ago. There were all sorts of innovations going on around campus — both curricular innovation and also the enabling structures that helped pushed some of these things along. One of the phrases you will hear most often in a meeting here is, "Oh, I didn't realize we were doing that." So part of what DEI is here to do is to project some coherence around these types of innovations.

The assumption is that this will make it easier not only to spin up and scale some of these innovations, but to share the prototypes that result. Our hope is that this model will inspire more interesting innovations to surface and scale around campus.

Schaffhauser: What's coming up in DEI's second year?

DeVaney: We'll have more projects and more engagement from a wider range of faculty. Where we would really like to see more experimentation is in efforts that are multi-disciplinary efforts, efforts that are modular and efforts that transcend course. If you think about GradeCraft, part of the pilot for that was to take it out of a few disciplines and test it out in many different disciplines to see how the principles of gameful learning worked or didn't work in different environments.

There are many implications of these kinds of experiments. One that I'm most excited about is that they have the potential to reduce and maybe remove barriers to multi-disciplinary learning.

An example would be [this]: We created a MOOC on "model thinking" out of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems. It's running now for the ninth time. A faculty member in the School of Nursing teaching a healthcare-related class discovered these digital assets and found a way to incorporate those modules into her nursing course. All of a sudden you have nursing students that are benefiting from knowledge in complex systems.

There have always been electives. That's nothing new. But if we can integrate different habits of mind within courses and across courses and across learning experiences, that seems to be the real kind of amplifier of digital education.

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