Attending at Scale, Responding Personally: Supporting Students in an Information Age

Tue, March 21, 2017
3:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Event Details


Timothy McKay, Ph.D.
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, Education
Director, LSA Honors Program


Rackham Auditorium



U-M Depression Center

We live in an information age. In this new world, educational and even personal interactions are often digitally mediated. When they are, they leave traces: data which reflect what students are doing, when, how much, how well, and with whom. The ability to observe and analyse both the process and product of education has fueled explosive growth in a new field called learning analytics which is helping us to better understand how student behaviors relate to learning and to personalize educational experiences at scale.

Built on tools originally developed for digital health coaching, Michigan's ECoach tool allows us to provide students with personalized feedback, encouragement, and advice even in courses which enroll thousands of students. ECoach uses everything we know about each student's background, interest, goals, and current state to tailor the content they receive: changing what we say, when and how we deliver the message, and even who delivers the message. This last is done by providing students with testimonials from identity salient peers. Tailored coaching tools like this hold great promise for student support at scale. In this work, we draw on decades of behavior change research: nudging students at key moments, providing interventions designed to affirm values, build a sense of belonging, and encourage a growth mindset. While these tools have so far been applied with an academic focus, they hold great promise for providing advice and basic counseling at scale.

Timothy McKay, Ph.D., is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, Education as well as the Director of LSA Honors Program at the University of Michigan

Professor McKay is a data scientist, drawing inference from large data sets, and he has done research has been in two main areas: observational cosmology and higher education. He has also been an academic administrator, leading the 1800 student Honors Program in the UM College of Literature Science and the Arts from 2008-2016.

In astrophysics, McKay’s main research tools have been the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Dark Energy Survey, and the simulations which support them both. His team used these tools to probe the growth and nature of cosmic structure as well as the expansion history of the Universe, especially through studies of galaxy clusters and gravitational lensing. He has also studied astrophysical transients, including gamma-ray bursts, as part of the Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment.

In higher education, McKay does learning analytics: using the rich, extensive, and complex data produced by digitally mediated education to better understand and improve student outcomes. In 2011, his team created the ECoach computer-tailored student support system. In 2014, he launched the REBUILD project, an effort to increase the use of evidence-based methods in large foundational courses. From 2012-2015 he chaired the University of Michigan’s Learning Analytics Task Force, which helped to create several new systems and structures supporting the use of data to improve teaching and learning at Michigan This group’s Learning Analytics Fellows Program provided the basis for McKay’s edX MOOC on Practical Learning Analytics.

In 2015, McKay founded the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, an education technology accelerator within the UM Office of Academic Innovation. As Faculty Director of DIG, he works with a team of software developers, user experience designers, and behavioral scientists to grow good ideas from innovation to infrastructure. DIG provides a home for a substantial expansion of ECoach, which now aims to support students throughout their undergraduate experience. All of this work is part of Michigan’s Academic Innovation Initiative, which aims to rethink public higher education for the 21st century, making it more engaged, inclusive, and effective.

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