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LSA Prof. Tim McKay, the director of the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, gave the keynote speech Tuesday afternoon at the Depression on College Campuses Conference at Rackham Auditorium.

McKay’s speech focused on how to improve college learning for students by collecting and analyzing data about their learning habits — a practice called learning analytics, a specialty area of McKay’s.

The audience was mostly made up of the mental-health advocates and professionals who attended the entire conference. Allison Esber, who works with a county behavioral health board in Ohio, attended the conference and McKay’s speech to learn strategies to apply to the five universities within her county.

“I definitely (learned) some different strategies of implementation of different programs, of how we can continue our collaborations between the county board and the universities on how we can create a better general community on those campuses,” Esber said.

Though his speech did not directly address depression on campus, McKay stressed to the audience that his ideas on how to improve learning aligned closely with improving mental health.

“I am not an expert in any way in depression on college campuses,” McKay said. “But I’m going to talk to you about some things I am really working on because I think they have some resonance with the things that you’re all thinking about doing, and I want you to imagine … how we might ultimately work together on some of these issues.”

McKay began his speech with a brief overview of how industrialization changed higher education in the early 1900s, and then drew a parallel to how the digital revolution has changed university learning in this century.

“This century began with an information revolution,” he said. “It is now possible for us to know much more about our students than we’ve ever known before, particularly over the last 10 years as more and more of the actions of education have become digital. … We can use this data to personalize education at scale.”

This concept of personalized education at scale was the major focus of McKay’s speech. Though it would be easier to attend to students’ individual learning needs in a much smaller setting, he said, the University of Michigan has made a commitment to educating a large quantity of students at a time.

“By combining data with information technology, we might actually be able to act at scale,” McKay said. “There are a lot of major challenges in doing this kind of work. The first is that we have to learn how to gather and share and analyze and utilize this data while appropriately protecting the students’ privacy. We must also think much harder about what we measure and how we record the things we measure so they matter.”

McKay stressed the importance of re-thinking systems that have been ingrained in academic culture since that pre-digital era. This will allow for more meaningful measurements, analysis and thus action.

He used the example of the chemistry placement tests, which the University uses to determine whether a student should take the entry-level chemistry class or jump right to organic chemistry.

“The improvement in later grade that comes from taking this general chemistry class is about 0.2 letter grades,” he said. “This is another case where doing something that is well-intentioned might actually seem to be taking people who start behind and putting them farther behind.”

Inequity in classes is also something McKay has been using learning analytics to study. Data has shown that women in STEM lecture classes are earning lower grades across the board, which means the classes are less equitable than they should be.

One way McKay is approaching this problem is through personalized digital academic tools that use the collected data to help students succeed.

“We can use expert interpretation and advice and provide that to students at scale,” McKay said. “We’re doing this using a tool called ECoach, which uses a computer-tailored communication to be able to coach students with a particular eye towards equity of students.”

ECoach has received positive reviews from students since it was introduced several years ago. LSA freshman Sudharshna Radhakrishnan told the Daily earlier this year that ECoach actually helped her achieve the grade she wanted in her computer-science class.

“ECoach has always given me messages regarding tips on lecture material,” Radhakrishnan said. “But as exams got closer, I received messages on how to study for exams and what course topics to focus on. This helped me narrow down my strengths and weaknesses. … Overall, it paved the path to getting the grade I wanted on my first exam.”

McKay closed his speech by talking about the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, a place on campus where students and professors come together to build tools like ECoach and figure out how to make the University’s goal of “personalized education at scale” a reality. He said students play a big role in projects at the Greenhouse, and in coming up with solutions to these problems.

“Students are among our best innovators,” McKay said. “They know the higher education system, and they know what things we ought to change.” 

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