The Office of Academic Innovation partnered with edX, a massive online open course provider, on Tuesday evening to hold a Design Jam for University of Michigan students. The event was held so edX could hear from students about its program and get a new perspective on the issues within their platform they want to solve.

MOOCs are online higher-education classes available to learners at all levels and with all interests. The University partners with edX, as well as with other providers like Coursera, to create classes taught by University professors for the platform.  

The event aimed to facilitate the discussion of solutions and creation of prototypes to solve some of the challenges edX faces within their company. According to Rachel Niemer, director of the University’s Gameful Learning Lab and the organizer of the event, design labs are important because they allow students to enter conversations about innovation that are traditionally faculty-based.

“Our mission is to create a culture of innovation on campus, and we interact a lot with faculty … but we love to go directly to students and get their fantastic ideas,” Niemer said. “We find that the students, because they are immersed in the act of learning right now, have really unique insights.”

While the edX lab did not draw a large crowd of students, the handful present were able to interact directly with edX team members and faculty from the Office of Academic Innovation in a collaborative discussion.

Iain Kennedy, vice president of product at edX and Ross School of Business alum, began the event with an overview of edX’s history and mission. In the five and a half years since its creation in 2012, edX has gained 10 million registered “learners,” or people who take classes on the site. As a nonprofit organization, it partners with more than 120 academic institutions — including the University — to create classes that are generally free and open to the public.

“Our mission as an organization … is to make the best education in the world available to anyone in the world,” Kennedy said. “What we’re hoping to get out of today is some insight from folks such as yourselves into how we can advise that mission.”

After Kennedy’s statement, students grouped together to discuss the questions posed by edX. Some of these questions dealt with increasing interactivity and communication among learners and making the experience more reputable and meaningful.


Students began by brainstorming solutions to the questions edX asked them as they compared and contrasted MOOCs with their in-person University courses. LSA freshman Amar Srinivasan quickly turned the conversation to how questions should be asked and answered in the online format.

“If I was in this situation, what would I want?” Srinivasan said. “Open forum would be interesting, one where you can easily ask questions and get them answered.”

The facilitation of questioning eventually became the focus of the student group. While students discussed the issues in their own teams, the Office of Academic Innovation and edX staff formed teams themselves. The groups eventually came together to collaborate and discuss some of the solutions they came up with.

Noni Korf, the director of the University’s Digital Education and Innovation Lab, brought up the idea of using “bots” and systems of artificial intelligence to keep up with the magnitude and speed of questions that might come into an edX course.

“We were in a talk this morning and someone was talking about having used the IBM Watson (an artificial intelligence system) to be on the discussion boards, answering questions, and that was apparently very successful with a speedy response,” Korf said. “When you post something and nobody answers it, it’s really lonely, and there you are, with 50,000 people. It’s horrible to be lonely with 50,000 people.”

After a collaboration session, the students regrouped to discuss further and pose their final ideas to the edX team. They discussed how to establish credibility and trust among students who wanted to answer their classmates’ questions themselves, as well as how to find questions that might have been asked in the past. LSA sophomore Alex Wilf proposed a tiered system for finding previously asked questions or those asked by other students.

“I think it might be cool if you gave people the ability to search not only the discussion but the module, then the unit module, and then you could bring that out to a class level, and then you could bring that back to previous classes as well to see that data,” Wilf said. “This would create a tiered system that would go beyond just the in-class discussion (forum).”

Participants stated they left the event feeling excited about the future of edX and its relationship with the University. Kennedy said he found the session helpful and engaging, and was ready to work on expanding the ideas brought up at the Design Jam.

“I’m really impressed with what the Michigan team is doing,” he said. “I think this is a group of people who really get it … Michigan’s really taking this very seriously but at the same time, Michigan has a personality and they’re bringing that to the online space and as a graduate of the school, I think that’s really fantastic.”

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