New name, enhanced mission: WMUx fosters innovative next-level learning

Contact: Joy Brown

Western Michigan University faculty and staff at a WMUx-sponsored feedback session.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.— "Tell us your crazy ideas." 

That's one of the approaches behind the transformation of Western Michigan University's Extended University Programs unit into WMUx. With a new name and an enhanced human-centered philosophy, the unit that for years has facilitated such offerings as online courses and regional locations across Michigan is applying WMU's Think Big initiative to generate more imaginative methods for teaching and learning.

Tired of the standard lecture hall with the neutral color pallet? Interested in how augmented reality can strengthen traditional two-dimensional lessons? Have an idea about how a particular interactive presentation might provide cross-departmental academic benefit? WMUx wants instructors and learners to provide input on potential education-related improvements, no matter how "crazy" those ideas may seem right now. 

Eventually, some of the concepts will be put into motion to benefit people such as Osher Lifelong Learning Institute participants, dual-enrollment students who are earning college credit while in high school, regional nonprofit workers, long-time professors and traditional students.

The unit's new name is in keeping with its tradition of offering extended learning, represents the next stages of education, and serves as a creative capacity multiplier for programs and people across campus. Its "human-centered" focus relies on empathy, ideation and experimentation as those pertain to outcomes rather than capabilities. 

"This entire transformation from EUP to WMUx represents a significant investment in the core academic mission of the University," says Dr. Jennifer Bott, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Learning lab

Existing since the early 20th century as an "ideas incubator" and proving ground, WMUx is now also intending to spark creative endeavors that speak to those it serves in ways they've never before experienced. 

Technology will be harnessed and some offerings and operations will be bundled. In keeping with WMU's galvanizing Think Big initiative, which is hyper-focused on the changed learning landscape, leaders are ready to try and even sometimes miss the mark if that means ultimately providing better services.

Changes that have already taken place, or that are in the works, include merging the Faculty Technology Center and Office of Faculty Development, as well as using augmented reality—AR—to teach aviation students how to start an airplane and provide students in health-related fields medical simulations. 

AR-related concepts now being considered include:

•   Offering simulated topographical training for military personnel; and

•   Developing technology that will replicate cells and molecules to provide 3D models, which will allow for movement and other manipulation. 

Also, organizers are thinking about:

•   Starting a "process elevation lab" that would tackle a variety of problems related to behind-the-scenes academic operations such as workflows and non-integrated digital systems; and

•   Launching a "reimagining learning lab" to unify instructional support Universitywide.

•   Using physical space to create a next-generation virtual classroom that will allow instructors to alter surroundings, such as carpet texture, wall color and lighting to create atmospheres more conducive for particular lessons. Support would include instructional designers and learning engineers to help professors, graduate teaching assistants, and other instructors realize their updated teaching dreams. 

Listening tour

Dr. Ed Martini, associate provost for WMUx.

Dr. Ed Martini, associate provost for WMUx, says they are now in an information-gathering and listening phase, seeking out faculty and asking them: "What kinds of things can you imagine? What ideas do you have? What might we be able to create together that will help you do your work in the classroom, help engage students and really help to make these transformative learning opportunities possible." Obstacles will be identified and solutions to challenges posited. 

"Unifying instructional support, breaking down distinctions between learning locations and modalities, and allocating resources to support and properly fund offices such as (the Faculty Technology Center and Office of Faculty Development) are important first steps," Bott says. "We now need instructors to partner with Ed and his team to truly imagine and create the future of learning at WMU." 

Meeting future demands, changing landscape

Largely driving WMUx forward is demand for more online learning, along with changing demographics that are affecting enrollment, says Martini. Also inciting innovation is WMU's new budget model, which requires the department to remain "entrepreneurial and strategic in mission and behavior" as it finds new ways to work with partners and to fund its offerings. 

Martini also notes that operating online classes—which will increasingly become a part of the Main Campus experience—AR technology and more requires a robust and reliable infrastructure, and several skilled staff.

During the latter part of the spring and through the summer, WMUx intends to extend its listening phase to the student audience, current and prospective community partners, and anyone else "who's interested in having a conversation about the future of learning at WMU and who is interested in working with us to create that future," Martini says.

WMUx's full visual identity and name will be introduced everywhere next fall. The department will continue to operate on the third floor of Ellsworth Hall on WMU's Main Campus.

For WMU News, arts and events, visit WMU News online.