The University Record, February 22, 1999

Media Union to provide learning technology support

By Provost Nancy Cantor

The University, like all educational institutions, is faced with a growing challenge of how best to incorporate new learning technologies into the pedagogical toolbox. Last spring, I formed a task force to assess the status of learning technology at the University, and to help define the impact and growth in the use of computers in classroom teaching and in distance education. The task force, chaired by Associate Provost Pamela Raymond, included faculty representatives from many schools and colleges, as well as directors of several central and school-based offices involved in the delivery and evaluation of educational programs. Its charge was to examine the wide range of activities related to distance or asynchronous learning at the University and to offer suggestions on how these activities should be supported. The task force submitted its report to me in January. (The full text is available on the Web at

The Task Force studied needs across the campus for support of online education, particularly computer-based learning tools. It found that the level of engagement varies depending on the discipline, mission and student pool in each school and college. It concluded that overall the campus suffers from a lack of planning and coordination, which has led to both significant gaps in the provision of service and duplication of efforts. Moreover, the number and relative obscurity of current support providers frustrates faculty, who would prefer a “one-stop shopping” approach. One-stop shopping means the faculty can find needed services with a single phone call, a single encounter in a computer laboratory, or a virtual visit to a single Web site.

The Task Force recommended that the University designate a single, lead unit to organize resources, to provide leadership and coordination for the campus learning technology providers, and to serve as a clearinghouse and venue for one-stop shopping for learning technology solutions. It also recommended that each school/college assess its specific needs for further development and implementation of learning technology/distance education. The report recognized that the individual academic units will need to provide local support for learning technologies, but suggested that each unit should establish a formal cooperation with the central unit through a designated, support person(s).

I agree with the conclusions of the task force report, and I am pleased to announce that the Media Union will serve as the campus leader for learning technology development and support. The University is fortunate to have attracted Barbara O’Keefe to be director of the Media Union. Barb came to the U-M last fall from the University of Illinois, where she was director of the Advanced Information Technology Laboratory and a senior research scientist at Illinois’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The University of Illinois was an early leader in the development of information technology, and Barb brings a wealth of expertise and experience in this area. Since the Media Union already has the equipment and facilities to support these new technologies, it was the obvious choice to become the focus of this consolidation effort. Moreover, the Media Union is a University academic unit reporting directly to the Office of the Provost.

The proposed administrative consolidation will include the transfer and reassignment of staff and functions currently housed in other units, and the disbanding of Academic Outreach. The Office of Academic Outreach was created in 1995 with a core mission to develop and manage ‘non-traditional’ instructional programs such as distance learning. These responsibilities will be transferred to the Media Union. The staff and functions of the Office of Instructional Technology in ITD also will be transferred to the Media Union. Oversight of the Faculty Exploratory, which was administered by Academic Outreach but housed in the Graduate Library, will be transferred to the University Library. Academic Outreach also was given the responsibility for marketing and administration of summer session courses for non-U-M students, and these functions are being returned to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the Office of the Registrar, where they resided prior to the creation of Academic Outreach. Schools and colleges will continue to have responsibility for all academic programming.

Individual faculty and the various academic units at Michigan differ greatly in their level of expertise and involvement with these new learning technologies. Some need help getting started with standard tools, such as designing course Web pages; others have more sophisticated needs that are best met by forming partnerships with information specialists who work jointly to create new technological tools. The intent is to develop a new kind of service unit in the Media Union that will help bridge the gulf between technology specialists and academic programs at all levels. Faculty and academic units at both ends of this wide spectrum of expertise will be accommodated within a ‘one-stop-shopping’ model that is decidedly not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ product.

In the accompanying article, Barbara O’Keefe provides additional details on how we envision this new role for the Media Union. We are only in the beginning stages of this reorganization process, and I invite your comments and input on this plan to reconfigure central support for learning technology. Please direct your comments to