The University Record, October 30, 2000

U-M unveils Ameritech-funded projects

By Wanda Monroe
Office of the University Chief Information Officer

Listening to presentations of the projects developed as part of the Ameritech Learning Initiative are, clockwise from left, James Ewing, Ameritech Michigan; Josť-Marie Griffiths; Susan Shields, deputy director of Corporate and Foundation Relations; Vahid Lofti, professor of management and executive director of information technology services at U-M-Flint; and Gail Torreano, Ameritech president. Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services
A Web site that offers resources for Michigan’s small businesses; a collaboration between Flint, Grand Blanc and Lapeer High School students and information technology experts; and online course technologies intended to aid in the teaching and learning experience were profiled during an Oct. 18 ceremony celebrating the mid-point of a five-year agreement between the University and Ameritech.

The projects, all part of the Ameritech Learning Initiative, were demonstrated during a luncheon that included dignitaries from the University, Ameritech and the state, and from Lapeer, Flint, and Dearborn.

Included in the program was the unveiling of the DesignInBiz Web site (, an interactive site that provides small businesses with resource tools and information about designs for their Web sites. Jack Williamson, project director and lecturer in the School of Art and Design, explained that the site was created to help small businesses in Michigan by bringing the design knowledge and expertise of faculty and students in the School to bear on their business design needs. “The site will assist in establishing a community of business people, designers and design faculty where all will share expertise in addressing business needs through design,” Williamson said. “We also provide ongoing site enhancements to ensure we keep pace with the needs of the small business community.”

The Virtual Learning Tool developed at the College of Engineering and Computer Science at U-M-Dearborn was demonstrated by Armen Zakarian, assistant professor, Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering. Developed with undergraduate student Raymond Siu-Man Yu, the Virtual Learning Tool allows faculty members with little or no Web-authoring skills the ability to post course materials and communicate online.

UM.CourseTools was demonstrated by Joseph Hardin, project coordinator for the Ameritech Learning Initiative and director, Systems Development and Operations, School of Information. UM.CourseTools was created by staff at the Media Union, with input from faculty and students from several schools and colleges. Hardin showed how the Web-based software provides an online tool kit that faculty can easily customize to fit their course needs. Currently used by more than 17,000 students and faculty, UM.CourseTools includes scheduling and assignment tools, feedback mechanisms, announcements, online course materials and other resources.

A discussion of how U-M Flint is collaborating with high schools in Flint, Grand Blanc and Lapeer to select and train groups of students on the use of computer hardware was presented by Vahid Lotfi, professor of management and executive director, Information Technology Services for the Flint campus. The program emphasizes student training on specialized topics that expands their information technology backgrounds. After they complete the training, they partner with their high school technologists to help provide services in their own schools.

The Ameritech Learning Initiative was established in 1998 with a commitment to the U-M and its community partners to help build distance-learning communities and advance the effective use of information technology. With a goal of facilitating the sharing of ideas and knowledge through information technology, a Learning Collaboratory was developed to investigate, evaluate, develop and test solutions for expanding the possibilities for distributed education available to frontline educators, with a focus on supporting business education.

“This pioneering effort is developing, testing, and implementing the best ways to use advanced technology to benefit students, educators and small businesses throughout our state,” said Gail Torreano, Michigan Ameritech president. “You are giving reality to the promise of technology and showing how it can address the tough issues facing educators today—issues such as funding, equity and quality,” she said. Torreano presented a check for the third installment of the $1.5 million grant to Josť-Marie Griffiths, University chief information officer, and Jefferson Porter, senior director, Corporate and Foundation Relations.

“It is clear through these initiatives that we share a common interest in seeing our work in collaboration and technology expanded and enhanced, such that it can be shared with a larger audience and used by more individuals in organizations beyond our own,” Griffiths said. “We are finding more ways to leverage our combined expertise and resources and working more effectively with our corporate partners. Together we are significantly enhancing and extending our research and results.”

For more information about the Ameritech Learning Initiative and the Learning Collaboratory, visit the Web at


Learning collaboratory project descriptions

Editor’s Note: The following descriptions for the Ameritech Initiative Learning Collaboratory Project were developed by Jay Jackson, School of Information.

School of Art and Design/Ameritech DesignInBiz Project, Ann Arbor campus

Project Director: Jack Williamson, lecturer, School of Art and Design,

DesignInBiz focuses on the Michigan small-business community and the development of a Web site that will help business people to better understand and use design as a business resource. At this site, the small-business community can:

  • Improve awareness of the importance of design to business success.

  • Enhance understanding of the design process.

  • Improve its critical abilities, allowing business people to become more familiar with the language of design and gain more confidence in their ability to recognize and employ good design.

  • Obtain resources to contact and hire qualified designers.

    DesignInBiz is an interactive, informationally rich Web site that alerts small businesses to design’s importance as a strategic business tool, offering clear, easy-to-access information on design and design services. DesignInBiz has been developed with the assistance of representatives of small businesses from throughout the state. The site includes a number of interactive information modules and community building discussion areas.

    Interactive Information Modules include:

  • Learning modules with information on graphic design and graphic design services.

  • Worksheets on design that offer a personalized, interactive experience for site users.

  • Case studies that provide real-world examples of design’s benefits.

    Site users can use learning modules and worksheets to assess their business identity, to review their current communications plan and to help with their selection of a designer.

    Community Building Design discussion areas include:

  • The design issues discussion area, which offers users an opportunity to discuss issues of shared concern.

  • The design critique area, a highly innovative critique space where users can post images of design solutions and get design feedback from both the business and academic communities. The design critique itself always has been central to visual training, providing a way to present and evaluate design work before proceeding to the next stage of development.

    Since the user/audience’s goal is to learn more about design, the critique is a central feature of the site. It focuses social interaction (self-exposure, respect, sharing and group synergy) around the visual analysis of images and objects. The event can be either synchronous or asynchronous, as appropriate.

    UM.CourseTools, Ann Arbor campus

    Project Coordinator: Joseph Hardin, deputy director, Media Union, and director, systems development and operations, School of Information

    UM.CourseTools is Web-based software used on the Ann Arbor campus by more than 16,000 students this fall. The software:

  • Allows faculty to structure their course and manage course material delivery through announcements, calendars, assignments, posted resources and participant profiles. Faculty have an efficient and effective way to communicate expectations and requirements to students on an ongoing basis.

  • Provides faculty a mechanism to extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom through the collaborative tools of electronic assignment submission and “threaded” discussions. These online discussions can include important classroom topics, student group and project work, and peer reviews.

    Flint High School Student Computer Systems Specialist Program, U-M-Flint campus

    Project Director: Vahid Lotfi, professor of management and executive director, Information Technology Services

    Activities undertaken by the U-M-Flint School of Management and the Information Technology Services area focus on collaboration with K–12 educators in the Grand Blanc, Lapeer and Flint school districts. The objective is to assist educators in applying information technology for instructional purposes, both in the classroom generally, and with a special focus on business education.

    The most recent of these activities is a partnership with the Flint high schools to train a select group of students as computer systems specialists. This initiative includes an intensive six-week training program in information technology, including software and hardware. Such topics as PC fundamentals, PC support specialist, software applications (e.g., Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access) and vendor knowledgebases are covered. The program is designed to provide students with real-world experience. Upon successful completion of the program, students will receive a Certificate of Accomplishment from U-M-Flint, sponsored by the Ameritech project. Students will then use their newly acquired skills to assist with the operation of instructional technology computer labs in Flint community schools.

    The first generation of Ameritech Project computer systems specialists has been selected. Based on the recommendations of teachers, the selection committee approved 13 Flint high school students for this program. Students attended an orientation session Oct. 19.

    At Grand Blanc community schools, more than 50 teachers and administrators have received instructional technology training, sponsored by the Ameritech grant. These teachers and administrators have been involved with developing administrative and academic Web pages and other applications for Grand Blanc community schools. The academic Web sites have enabled teachers to post class materials and other valuable information on the Web. Students can use the pages to find links to course-related Web sites. Parents can use the sites to view class assignments and communicate with teachers. Initial reports about usage and benefits of this project are very encouraging.

    Last year, the Ameritech grant sponsored a new program involving teacher/student partnerships. Six students were selected to work with 13 teachers in supporting instructional technology programs and Web development activities. Five of the six students will continue with the program this year. They are scheduled to enroll in an online course at U-M-Flint, learning Web development technologies. The project also will sponsor development of an e-commerce site for the Grand Blanc Foundation.

    Virtual Learning Tool, U-M-Dearborn

    Project Directors: Armen Zakarian, assistant professor, Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering, and Raymond Siu-Man Yu, research assistant, Department of Computer and Information Science,

    Virtual Learning Tool (VLT) was developed to support instruction in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. VLT is an advanced software package that allows faculty members with little or no Web authoring experience to post course materials and communicate with students online. VLT is written in Perl, a powerful scripting language widely used for Web-based applications. To start using VLT, faculty members simply fill in some forms within their favorite Web browser. VLT then automatically generates the necessary pages, using predefined templates. Within minutes, a functional course Web site is up and running.

    VLT contains two major sections: the classroom and the administrative center. The classroom is where the students access course Web sites, view and download course materials, and interact with the instructor. In the administrative center, the course administrator performs many administrative tasks, such as setting up course pages, accessing passwords, publishing course materials and sending e-mail messages to the entire class list.

    VLT offers:

  • Password-protected Web sites, accessible only to students registered in the class.

  • Course materials in various file formats.

  • An automatic announcement system.

  • An interactive question board.

  • Individual course mailing lists.

  • Professionally designed Web site templates.

  • A user-friendly interface.

  • User manuals, including tutorials.

    The software is used by Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty. Developers are now moving VLT from a distributed, client-based application to a server-based application for even greater flexibility.