Engaged education symposium invites reflection, forward look


With 100 funded projects at various stages of development across campus, leaders of the Transforming Learning for a Third Century Initiative brought a number of faculty trailblazers together Tuesday and asked them to “think big” about the future of engaged education at U-M.

The symposium was billed by James Holloway, vice provost for global and engaged education, as the first in a series of events to “share developments, best practices, and outcomes” from those who have been recipients of TLTC grants.

The event, “Thinking Big: Engaged Learning for a Third Century,” was organized by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, in collaboration with the TLTC Committee.

“Clearly, there is much to learn from the impressive array of projects that make up the TLTC program,” Holloway said.

In 2012, the president and provost announced the availability of $25 million to inspire innovative programs that enhance the student learning experience.

Provost Martha Pollack addressed the group, saying when she meets with leaders at other universities the subject of educational innovation always comes up. She described the move toward engaged learning as “being prompted by a push and a pull.”

The push is the inevitable need to change the focus of teaching based in an increasingly digital age, in which students learn in very different ways than those in the past. The pull, she said, is “the real opportunity to engage with students more directly to help them become leaders in the 21st century.”

From left, Elizabeth Bruch, assistant professor of sociology; Ginger Shultz, assistant professor of chemistry; and Noel Perkins, professor of mechanical engineering, listen as Abigail Stewart, professor of psychology and women’s studies, makes a point during one of the sessions at Tuesday’s symposium on engaged learning. (Photo by Pamela Fisher, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching)

Holloway outlined for the group several pillars of engaged education and related the ways current projects fit into those areas:

• Reaching local and global communities through experiential learning.

• Leveraging U-M as a place of discovery.

• Developing student capacity for creativity and innovation.

• Helping students develop intercultural and ethical intelligence.

• Helping students develop skills in communication, collaboration and teamwork.

• Encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset.  

“While I think we are still grappling with the specific definition of third-century learning — and your discussions today likely will grapple with it some more — it can be conceived as a set of educational practices that provide students with opportunities for practice, by addressing unexpected, unscripted challenges in imperfect, authentic settings where various stakeholders are genuinely invested in the outcome,” Holloway said.

And grapple they did, as participants working on related projects moved into small groups to answer two questions:  what would a headline five years from now say about U-M as a leader of engaged learning, and what advice would they give colleagues thinking of starting a similar project?

One group’s projects had a common thread of leveling the playing field for students with various skill levels as they come into the university or begin their major coursework. Faculty hoped the headline would suggest that the university “cares about the individual,” and educates “one student at a time,” even in large classrooms.

The TECH/Organic: Technology Enhanced Collaborative Heuristic tries to address what Anne McNeil, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry, called a “huge variation in skill level” among students enrolled in organic chemistry. The online feedback system she and colleagues developed was created to help struggling students avoid getting lost in a 400-student course.

Steven Lonn, assistant director of USE Lab and library learning analytics specialist, and his collaborators developed a digital badge system to recognize undergraduate engineering students’ co-curricular learning, as a way to motivate them.

Both reported that one of the challenges of achieving those headlines for the university lies in the ability to scale successful innovations so that they can be used across campus.

“Creating the content that is individual took a long time,” McNeil said, adding that her program includes 600 questions for students to use to understand organic chemistry concepts.

Many project teams are now analyzing data and measuring success of their programs, so another common theme was that more needs to be done to evaluate programs, and Holloway said that, too, is on his radar. CRLT will partner with Holloway’s office to consult with project teams on their evaluations and to disseminate the findings.

“We’re now at the stage to flesh out some of these issues,” said facilitator Aileen Huang-Saad, associate professor of biomedical engineering and a member of the TLTC Committee.

In terms of advice for peers, a group whose projects fell under the umbrella of helping students to develop intercultural and ethical intelligence had a number of them:

• Help students learn how to be engaged learners.

• Make sure community partners understand that the design phase of the project can take a long time. Bring them along and keep them informed.

• Do not be afraid to collaborate.

• Consider evaluation of the program in your funding.

• Think about sustainability once the grant period is over.

• Don’t forget that although the projects are about transforming learning for students, they also are about changing the way you think about teaching.

Regarding the last point, facilitator Elizabeth Moje, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and associate dean of education, asked, “How do you engage in the transformation work and still do what you’ve been doing?”

She offered two interpretations of the term transformation: transformation of programs and curriculum, and of the educational experience for students.

Program organizers said the event also served to bring grantees together to learn from one another and to encourage colleagues to pursue their own innovations.

“We hope this is going to be the first step in your becoming ambassadors for engaged learning,” TLTC Committee Chair Melanie Sanford, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry, told the group. 


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