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In a report from the Equality of Opportunity project earlier this year, the University of Michigan ranked last in socioeconomic diversity out of 27 “highly selective” universities in the United States. To improve outreach in low-income neighborhoods through the utilization of digital programs, the Digital Tools and Youth Outreach Community held its first meeting Thursday morning in the Hatcher Graduate Library.

University office staff members and directors from the Office of Academic Innovation and the Center for Educational Outreach, who co-sponsor the community, and many more academic programs participated in the kickoff event.

The Digital Tools and Youth Outreach Community, established as part of the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, is a support group of University representatives who are working on individual projects and need advice on how to bring their initiatives into the digital world and bring students of a lower socioeconomic status to the University. MOOCs, ECoach, the Office of Academic Innovation’s Digital Innovation Greenhouse and more existing projects were mentioned as elements of the University that could use more fine tuning for digital and outreach purposes.

The specific goals of the new community include a general increase in cross-campus dialogue, an increase in the community’s knowledge of existing technological tools and how to use these tools to improve outreach, the creation of a space for brainstorms and updates on new innovations and the fostering of a collaborative and practicing space. Megan Taylor, a research associate with the Office of Academic Innovation, lead the community kickoff event and will organize the community’s meetings and network.

Before breaking out to discuss individual projects and how the community will be used, Taylor, along with Michael Turner, Outreach Program Manager for CEO, gave summaries of two projects that can utilize the community’s input: InfoReady Thrive and Intend to Attend.

InfoReady Thrive is an app Turner and CEO are working with to provide K-12 students with better access to educational opportunities and camps at the University. The app uses a game profile model that rewards students for completing a profile and participating in camps through badges and achievements. Turner also said this data of who attends camps at the University can be accessed by Admissions for future University decisions.

“In a student living in these communities, you can see they’ve had some history (with the University),” Turner said. “In eighth grade, they did a science camp, they did an art camp, etc. so you can track that and the barriers are removed because the student only needs to go in and answer the initial questions, prompts, etc.”

According to Turner, the app will be free and plans to launch summer 2018.

Taylor gave a summary of Intend to Attend, a project still in exploratory stages in terms of what digital form it will take. The initiative plans to connect rural students and eventually urban and suburban students with easier accessibility higher education. Taylor said through developing technology, the initiative plans to be not just a recruitment tool but also widespread and individual.

“We were wondering how we can use those digital tools to reach those communities that are further away and to offer the same support that we do in our Residential Commuter program,” Taylor said. “That’s where the challenge came from and we’re looking at how we can create a digital college preparation program that would be, one, scalable so it would be able to serve a lot of students from a lot of communities and also personalizable.”

Mika LaVaque-Manty, Director of the LSA Honors Program, said while digital tools seem like the mediator between different communities, accessibility is still an issue in many rural, suburban and urban underprivileged communities. Students at the University who came from Detroit Public Schools Community District have been quoted as saying it is not a given that all computers in a school are functional.

“Some of the ideas we have floating around, there are lots of problems and if we start thinking about problems and challenges, it’s easy to crawl under your bed and give up,” LaVaque-Manty said. “One is always digital access … Whenever we think about building tools, it’s worth it to remember digital access is still limited in all kinds of ways.”

Turner said as a product of DPSCD, the community needs to focus on not only getting working digital tools into schools but also not alienating other educators by utilizing technology too far out of their current understanding.

“We’re into keeping it old school with straight up PDFs,” Turner said. “CEO’s job is to supplement some of these things missing in these communities … (PDF) programs aren’t just disappearing so one of the projects we’re working on is … we’ll do these specialized campus visits but a counselor or a teacher or an MCAC advisor or any of these counselors or advisers can go online and it will be a simple PDF and they can just download it.”

When attempting to design these two products and future products for specific communities, many in the roundtable discussion thought there is a necessity for more information about the communities the University wants to work in. Ryan Henyard, an Education Informatics analyst in Health Information Technology & Services, said different communities need different methods of digital outreach and programs.

“The extent of our ability to tailor depends on a lot of cultural and community knowledge about the students we’re hoping to reach and the students in a place like Holland (Michigan) … and students from the City of Detroit where I’m from are both answering different kinds of challenges and they respond to different kinds of messages,” Henyard said. “I don’t think there’s a good way for us to know easily what kinds of messages they respond to … without having some in person contact and without having some physical relationships that have been built.”

According to Taylor, the community will reconvene monthly and will continue to operate in both its larger form and smaller groups.

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