Personalizing at Scale

Engaging Every Student as an Individual

A project involving faculty and staff from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the College of Engineering, the Office of Digital Education and Innovation and the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching is creating a Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG), to build upon existing personalized education technology at U-M to provide tailored advising to students in all 19 schools and colleges.

“The Digital Innovation Greenhouse is a team of developers, educators and managers located in the Office of Digital Education and Innovation. The DIG team will transplant digital engagement tools developed by research groups, grow them to scale in the greenhouse, then pass them on to campus IT when they’re ready to become infrastructure,” explains Timothy McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics.

“Education in Michigan’s third century can be much more personal,” McKay says. “When students feel their education is personalized — when it’s right for them, aware of and sensitive to their background, interests, and goals — they respond with engagement; engagement which emerges naturally as a result of relevance, attention, and a sense of belonging.”

Project Background

The modern research university was born during the 20th century’s massive industrial expansion. Introductory courses across the curriculum typically enroll hundreds, even occasionally thousands of students. Instruction often follows the lead of Henry Ford: students are treated as identical, each hearing the same lectures, receiving the same advice, doing the same assignments and taking the same exams.

The 21st century began with an information revolution that promises to change higher education as dramatically in this century as industrialization did in the last. What happens in the classroom has already shifted, moving away from simple delivery of content. But the real revolution will come when the information technology is used to personalize education. It is now possible to gather rich and extensive information about each student’s background, interests, goals, activity and current status. Technology supported personalization enables us to act on this knowledge; to optimize education at scale, create much greater student engagement, and accomplish more with less.

This is already starting to happen at U-M.

For two years, the E2Coach system has been used to support 1,900 students a term in all four large introductory physics courses. It was recently expanded to include introductory statistics, chemistry, and biology, offering the system to more than 5,200 students. Personalized support has shown a clear impact: E2Coach users significantly outperform their peers in these courses, even after careful accounting for differences in their background and preparation. This project is a unique collaboration between behavior change experts and STEM educators; its existence provides a key advantage in our effort to play a national role in personalized education.

Beyond the classroom, U-M already acknowledges the unique needs of every student by offering one-on-one academic advising both at the college and department level. Personal advising has a huge impact, but here too scale imposes severe limits. General advisors at Michigan oversee more than 300 students apiece. While every student meets an advisor at orientation, many never return, and in practice, advisors spend much of their time on a small subset of students. Just as in the classroom, academic advising will be greatly enhanced if technology is used to gather a portrait of the background, current state and goals of each student and then this information is used to tailor the feedback, encouragement and advice they receive.

This is where the DIG hopes to make a difference. In the greenhouse, all of these existing engagement innovations already shown to be effective will be brought together, cross-pollinated, and grown to scale to create a permanent model for personalizing education through digital innovation.

Next Steps

1) Build an interdisciplinary team to plan and spread personalized education.

During the discovery phase a series of five monthly workshops will bring together faculty and staff from the existing E2Coach, Learning Analytics, behavior change, academic advising and education research communities. The DIG team will review the existing E2Coach classroom tools and assess their impact, develop a strategic and technical plan for using tools like this at a transformational scale and collectively design an initial advising application.

2) Make technology decisions needed for spreading personalized education widely.

U-M’s existing E2Coach applications are built on the open-source Michigan Tailoring System developed by the School of Public Health over the last 20 years. This powerful research platform has allowed us to accomplish what we have so far, but it has become clear that a dramatic expansion requires modernized tools. The DIG team will develop a technology roadmap that will clarify what is needed to go to scale.

3) Pilot the use of E2Coach for Academic Advising.

All of the work with E2Coach has focused on supporting students in large introductory STEM courses. But academic advising is an even better target for tools like this. The DIG team plans to test E2Coach for academic advising by building a tool to support students during freshmen orientation. It was first tested on the 500 students entering the Honors Program in summer 2014, and will be expanded expand to all incoming students during the summer of 2015.

“We believe taking this path will allow us to tailor our communications with students, coaching them toward success in ways which are aware of their current state, sensitive to their goals and identity, and delivered in the voices of faculty, staff, and prior students. Eventually, it will allow us to adapt the work we ask students to do, recognizing individual strengths and weaknesses focusing effort on areas in need of growth,” adds McKay.

Project Team:

Timothy McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics
Steven Lonn, Library Learning Analytics Specialist
Perry Samson, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences
August Evrard, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics
James DeVaney, Assistant Vice Provost for Digital Education
Matt Kaplan, Director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching