Founded in 1817, the University of Michigan is an R1 public research institution with more than 7,200 faculty — serving approximately 32,000 undergraduate and 16,000 graduate students.
Recognized as a leader in higher education awarding 250 different degrees through its 19 schools & colleges, U-M is committed to enhancing diversity, increasing the inclusiveness of the academic community, and promoting greater equity across campus. To enrich its overall educational offerings, U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) uses Harmonize, a suite of collaboration tools integrated with the Learning Management System, Canvas, to elevate the learning experience for students.
U-M’s LSA Drives Meaningful Two-Way Interactions & Increased Social Connection
Coming out of 2020’s emergency shift to remote learning, the College recognized how challenging it is to facilitate a connected, interactive learning environment without the right digital learning tools.
With a focus on providing students with more robust opportunities to communicate and collaborate both in and outside the classroom, the College wanted to improve the quality of interactions and facilitate more ongoing, two-way communication among students and between instructors. U-M wanted to enable the kind of digital learning experience that could power the future of blended learning and live up to the existing standards for residential education. This meant making collaboration and discussion cornerstone elements of all courses, especially blended and hybrid courses.
In addition to incorporating traditional place-based classroom teaching and learning methods, the College focused on ways to shift seamlessly between synchronous and asynchronous learning in order to deliver a more dynamic learning experience, which included:
- Fostering an engaging & inclusive learning environment
- Enabling ongoing collaboration in blended coursework, and
- Building more pathways for student-to-student & student-to-faculty communication
As a result, U-M’s LSA has begun to design a more connected social online learning environment for students that translates into even stronger student engagement.
THE HARMONIZE SOLUTION
The Harmonize Solution
For U-M’s LSA, the key was creating a sense of belonging and inclusivity, giving all participants the opportunity to connect, collaborate, and learn in the ways that worked best for them. As part of that goal, the College adopted Harmonize to facilitate community and support diverse teaching & learning styles across many of its disciplines — including English, history, archaeology, and language courses. Harmonize also allows LSA to offer high quality blended courses, using an effective mix of both synchronous and asynchronous learning activities.
Inclusive Social Learning
With the expansive and flexible capabilities of Harmonize, instructors were empowered to explore a wider variety of instructional methods and implement a broad range of learning activities that included synchronous and asynchronous activities that fostered collaboration.
With more intuitive ways for students to create and annotate videos, produce written assignments, access discussion boards, and communicate from within the platform, Harmonize provided faculty with instructional flexibility and catered to students’ different learning styles.
Harmonize’s social media look and feel also made it more familiar and easier for both students and faculty to use. Students felt more comfortable participating in Q&A forums, discussions, and instructor polls — increasing opportunities for communication and fostering a strong social learning environment.
Synchronous & Asynchronous Learning
For online and blended courses, it was important to provide students with ongoing and various ways to reflect on and engage with course material. In addition to leveraging the rich multimedia options within posts, instructors use the integrated video conference features, to allow discussions to shift back and forth easily between synchronous and asynchronous.
With Harmonize supporting both asynchronous and synchronous learning activities in a course, students were able to take their time, bring in supplemental research, and ultimately think more deeply in order to provide more meaningful contributions. Similarly, instructors have more opportunities to provide feedback all along the way so students can iterate — fostering a more enriching learning experience throughout the course.
Collaborative Knowledge Building through Discussions
Unlike the scrolling, single-stream discussion threads in which readers can get lost, discussions in Harmonize are organized into pinboard-like cards under each prompt. U-M found that providing students with an easier way to view their discussion posts encouraged students to take an increased sense of ownership and gave more visibility into their contributions.
Within those discussion entries, students can easily revisit topics and reflect on their own discussion contributions while exploring and commenting on each other’s discussion entries, using a variety of multimedia as well as annotations. Instructors set milestones, or multiple due dates, that serve as guideposts for when students should interact, provide feedback, or iterate on group work. Using these milestones, instructors also more easily score student’s work, without the burdensome manual tasks of searching through long threads or tracking responses.
With a simpler way to monitor, coach, and evaluate discussion contributions, instructors are using Harmonize to foster a more collaborative learning environment online that is resulting in more meaningful interactions and stronger connections.
Language Use Cases
In French courses where direct practice strengthens reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills, instructors leverage videos in Harmonize. Students create and share short personal introduction videos and use annotation to comment on others’ videos right within the system. Because of the social media-like familiarity of the tools, students require no additional training or instruction, which has greatly reduced barriers and increased participation.
Students also break into small groups to research assigned topics together, share their findings with the broader class, and then solicit feedback from other students. Activities like this have allowed students to strengthen language skills, while practicing the art of giving and receiving feedback. Using a digital tool like Harmonize to facilitate this work has increased knowledge building and sharing among students and allowed them to engage with each other in ways similar to the physical classroom.
Similarly, in first-year English writing courses, instructors use Harmonize discussions to build stronger social connections between students and with the content. Using multiple milestone due dates is an integral part of encouraging students to engage more frequently with one another in conversations. By creating steps across an assignment, students can observe conversations in progress, gather additional sources, and reflect more deeply before contributing. Not only does it make for more meaningful multidirectional interactions, but it also helps reduce any sense of isolation and foster a social learning community.
The Impact in the College of Literature, Science & Arts
Studies show that students who actively participate are more motivated and show improvement in communication skills — and those highly engaged students are 1.5 times more likely to complete a degree (Svanum and Bigatti, 2009).
With the ultimate goal of elevating the overall learning experience so that students actively engage in their learning journey, LSA has been able to:
- Build student confidence through peer-to-peer listening and learning
- Foster feelings of acceptance and belongingness through timely peer conversation and instructor feedback
- Move seamlessly between a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities in courses for a more holistic learning experience
- Scale small- and large-group discussions
- Give every student a voice through intentionally diverse activities that provide opportunities for independent, small, and large group work
- Create a safe space for authentic discussions using a variety of tactics like anonymous posting capabilities
- Support flexible time management through asynchronous learning opportunities
Increased Student Participation & Collaboration
When compared to student activity (discussions, feedback, polls) in the Learning Management System and other discussion tools, a higher number of students appeared to interact in courses that used Harmonize because of its ease of use.
Students also had a more favorable experience:
“I liked that we could react and reply directly to other students as it made it seem like we were having proper conversations which enhanced my French.”
“I genuinely looked forward to having other people comment on my posts.”
“I liked getting to know my classmates. It was more personal than just a regular discussion forum because of the videos and other media.”
Connection & Community Lead the Way
By leveraging technology to build community and provide unique opportunities to engage and collaborate, U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts untethered learning from a specific time and space in order to elevate the learning experience for students.
Students are able to experience the diversity of thought that comes from working with others, and in the process, share a sense of belonging and connection that has resulted in stronger engagement. Students became better equipped to solve problems, think critically, and take a more inclusive approach to discussion — all of which brings blended learning into alignment with the mission and high standards of LSA.
By building a more engaging course experience inclusive of synchronous and asynchronous learning, U-M’s LSA increased interaction and collaboration among students, and as a result, created a more enriching social learning community for students.