Knowledge Sharing

Pedagogy-Driven Innovation / A Spotlight on U-M’s Integrative Systems + Design

At WDI’s Education Initiative, we are curious to learn about what schools and organizations are doing to promote educational innovation – especially with tools that could be used within emerging economies.This leads us to develop partnerships and explore models all over the world. Sometimes, however, pioneering work is happening just down the street. And so WDI’s Education team was privileged to recently visit the staff at the Division of Integrative Systems + Design (ISD) within the College of Engineering, University of Michigan.

learnersphotoISD’s mission is “dedicated to educating leaders who can think transformatively and create lasting value in the workplace and society.” It offers interdisciplinary technical graduate degrees, as well as professional certificates, short courses, and custom programs – bridging on-campus, distance, and online students, mostly in the College of Engineering. To accommodate students taking courses both online and face-to-face – sometimes with the same course serving both sets of students simultaneously – ISD has developed some first-rate tools. We learned about many of them from the ISD’s Instructional Support team:

  1. Online-By-Design Course Planning. Virginia Hamori-Ota, instructional Design and Program Development Officer, has created a template for engaging faculty in their course design: a Course Planning Map. This tool helps instructors initially think about the design of their course by formulating learning objectives, and then by linking these objectives to the three major pillars that make up a great class: content, active learning, and student engagement. Faculty can specify how they will incorporate these elements, and where they’d like support. Ingeniously laid-out, including key best practices, it furthers the departmental goal of ensuring that ISD courses are of the highest quality. It also creates open lines of communication and fosters teamwork between faculty and ISD staff.
  2. Reconfigurable Classrooms. The ISD team has built two on-site collaborative classrooms that enhance the face-to-face learning experience. Desks can be reconfigured from facing forward to group stations, with each station having its own power outlets and screen for viewing common work. Instructors have a Crestron interface that allows them to control the screens. Whereas in a traditional classroom, the instructor calls each group up to the front to present their work, now each group can remain at their stations as the instructor changes the screen to reflect each work group’s presentation. Students report a more positive opinion of group work following their experiences in the reconfigurable classroom, ISD notes. Behind windows at the back of the classroom, ISD staff control a series of cameras that capture lectures and make them available later to remote or absent students.
  3. Lecture Capture. Designed in-house by the College of Engineering, this system allows course recordings to be synchronized. The student is in control of display and can drag slides or notes alongside live lecture video onto their screen. Every class is recorded and stored, allowing ISD to re-purpose it. For example, if a professor is on sabbatical, ISD can utilize the archived videos of that professor from prior semesters – supplementing that with some new videos from that professor or a peer faculty to keep it fresh and relevant. This allows a hybrid approach; not just in terms of material, but also mode of delivery (not just video/lecture, but in blending current and past material). This approach creates unique value for students while reusing the best material in an efficient, low-cost way.
  4. 4. Editing Suite and Mobile Film Crew. Digital Media Content Producer Brandon Sandusky uses the latest in video production techniques to create engaging content for students, such as filmed visits to Engineering labs and factory floors, “Talk Show’ style office hours with instructors, and sketching videos.
  5. Lightboard. If you haven’t heard of a lightboard, you’re in good company – they exist on only a handful of campuses. With the ingenuity of Senior eLearning Coordinator Brandon Roberts and T.V. Engineer Senior Kirk Lawrence, ISD built its own from scratch, based on open-sourced design, at relatively modest cost (though having engineers around didn’t hurt!)

pinkhighlighterphotoThe lightboard gives luminous new meaning to the “flipped classroom.” A lightboard is a glass screen through which professors are filmed lecturing in studio. Functioning as a transparent chalkboard, the instructor can write notes on the screen while facing the camera, which is then mirrored, becoming readable to the viewer. The instructor can, without interruption to face time, elaborate on and annotate charts, graphs, and slides in areas of the lightboard. The engagement between professor and students is unbroken by the professor turning around to write on a chalkboard, or by that recent classroom ailment of screen fatigue. Even more importantly, the professor and students are – symbolically and physically – engaging material created between them. The instructor remains the material’s facilitator, but not its sole mediator, standing between it and the students; rather, students and instructor are looking upon common material for the sake of shared learning.

The lightboard is primarily used for teaching the school’s online, largely global population of students.


This is all very cool, but how does it connect to WDI Education’s work of advancing management education in emerging markets? And what, if any, are the upshots for our global partners? Permit me a few suggestions:

First, these innovations are mostly cost-effective and replicable. The lightboard took plenty of engineering savvy and passion, but not much money. The recording system in the classroom utilizes repurposed components. When paired with such tools, the professors’ content becomes a reusable asset. Using tech doesn’t have to mean loads of money or complex systems.

Second, ISD serves online and classroom-based students alike. As a result, their tools in design and function see beyond an either-or world of virtual or in-person; they try to create adaptive blended spaces in which interaction, even if through a screen, fosters more learning-centered, human interaction.

Finally, on this note, our tour demonstrated that ISD puts learning first. And this gets to the heart of why it is working well: ISD’s technical savvy and passion to create these tools is driven by pedagogy. As Roy Johnson, Senior eLearning Coordinator, says “Building relationships with and listening to faculty’s needs comes first.” This allows the team to respond to the needs of the faculty rather than foist pre-made resources upon them. The ISD team identifies with professors’ problems, taking an “assess needs first, recommend tools second” approach; of saying “We’re here to help their course,” and asking “What are you trying to do?” rather than “Here are these tools at your disposal,” says Johnson. Innovation, he says, often comes from a pain point. Sometimes this pain point drives the ISD team to further innovate. But sometimes they recognize solutions that are already there, and free of charge. For example, an instructor admitted to Johnson feeling overwhelmed with reviewing videos submitted by her 90 students. Jason Crandall, eLearning Instructional Designer, set up a Google+ Community for the students to upload directly, effectively adding a peer-review component to the assignment, thereby enhancing learning while aiding the professor’s organization.

To exhibit these three points, I turn to the lightboard. I think this innovation exemplifies the possibilities for emerging markets: a concrete example of where, for a little cash, and with some DIY drive, schools can build their own lightboard using open source materials online, facilitate student engagement and comprehension, and then join the conversation on how it can be best employed as a learning tool. It does require filming resources and students connected to the web and so is less suited for schools on a tight budget. But it exemplifies a cost-effective tool and encourages similar ingenuity that can deliver affordable training – either online or as a supplemental aide.

Apart from schools’ adopting an actual lightboard, however, the technology serves as a metaphor for the kind of educational innovation WDI commends for practice: it is developed and employed on the ground, in response to student needs; it begins with faculty expertise, listens to its needs, reflects it back to learners far and near; and in the end, pays forward its knowledge rather than hoarding it. In these ways, the model promotes educative curiosity at its best: innovation that is pedagogically-driven; innovation that is truly learner-centered.

With creative, passionate people on board, a pedagogical posture, and a unique departmental commission driven by the variety of student needs, ISD shows other training institutions, including those in emerging markets, a way to think innovatively and transformatively about education.

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