Digital media and learning research explores digital media as a disruptive force in learning, emphasizing the learners’ interests, new forms of assessment and certification, and social learning. It challenges the business models of publishing, advertising and other sectors facing the decline of mass media. It is relevant to formal learning in schools, personal interest, and lifelong learning. Students explore ambiguous topics related to design and formulate logical examples and cases that help build the body of knowledge of the field.


The team’s proposition to the big, fuzzy problem of early childhood education was to leverage an existing network of “super user” moms to not only prepare their children for success in school, but also expand their own opportunities in life. With the addition of simplified forms and a social venture incubator, they reframed the problem to offer innovative solutions to United Way’s approach to the 30 Million Words challenge.


Historically, communities were self-sufficient in helping individuals to succeed: from assisting neighbors with plowing and harvest to erecting homes for newlywed couples. With the growth of philanthropic organizations like United Way, the hands required to build healthy communities have become institutionalized.

Philanthropies seek donations from citizens and perform the large acts of community building by managing formal networks of stakeholders. In Detroit, we met people that were hungry to get involved and collaborate in a meaningful way, not just with their check books.

The United Way of South Eastern Michigan has made a big goal of having all the children in Detroit who were born in 2012 graduate from high school college ready in 2030. The first step, having those children hear 30 million words before they are three years old, is a goal entangled in a knot of social issues: lack of basic resources, getting children around barriers school enrollment, and building resources for parents so that they may be in the position to read and speak those 30 million positive, encouraging words. When the team visited early learning centers, they met mothers who despite poverty, language barriers and their own underprivileged upbringings, wanted the best future for their children. However, we also learned that awareness of ELC programs was very low and that the United Way volunteer efforts to recruit new mothers to attend free ELC classes have been ineffective.

Closing the 30 million words gap for the children of Detroit could be diagnosed as a huge, tangled problem where great resources will be necessary to treat the social issue for years.

Proposed User Experience

The research team sees 30 Million Words as a program not just about reading. It is about nurturing good parenting instincts and creating great parenting communities to help each other, to find resources, and to even make opportunities for those parents to become the caregivers, teachers, and entrepreneurs that will drive Detroit into its bright, academic future.

Better Forms

For the parents who are dissatisfied with the current, multi-step paperwork process to enroll their children into a quality Head Start program, the team proposed designing user-friendly forms. In the existing model, 20% of parents who start early Head Start paperwork do not complete it and one teacher spends seven of her eight hours each day managing paperwork. An update to the stack of paper forms and binder filing system to a streamlined, user-friendly digital system will remove a barrier for the 20% of children not going to pre-school because of a form barrier (estimated 2000 students).

User-friendly forms will allow parents to more easily register their children for school, because they will easily be able to complete the paperwork. The team’s proposed system has user friendly paperwork that can be easily completed in one visit. More free time for the pre-school teachers to actually teach students will free time for her to communicate with and organize parent volunteer groups that would support the ELC’s 30 million words reading goals and get students “plugged in” to a quality education system.

The forms will have language that is easily understood, is translated, and uses appropriate language for sensitive questions. The system also eliminates barriers, like making doctors’ appointments, by bringing visiting pediatricians to the school system. For the schools, the time spent managing paperwork can be reduced to allow teaching staff to focus on engaging parent volunteers into the learning community, and other activities that focus on building the school community and fostering whole child and whole family well-being. In two years, if not sooner, the team expects to see a 20% increase in quality pre-kindergarten enrollment, with more engaged parents, because paperwork will no longer be a negative experience and a barrier to entry.

Super Users

For mothers who successfully completed all ELC classes and want to receive further education and training and grow professionally (ELC super users), the team proposed a new model–ELC super user– that is centered on the ELCs hiring their super user mothers to recruit and mentor new mothers and teach them the importance of reading to their children. Unlike the existing model where UW volunteers engage with new mothers at the hospitals and introduce them to ELC, the team proposed that ELCs hire super users to act as their family support workers to recruit at hospitals and other agencies, mentor and provide support to new mothers. In exchange they will receive stipends and scholarships, as well as access to job training via ELC and ELC partners to become higher paid child caregivers and bilingual teachers. The proposal will initially target super user mothers who are currently very active within existing ELC community and motivated to show others the value of ELC network, as well as grow and succeed on their own. Current ELC ‘super users’ share life experience and have empathy for new mothers and therefore will be able to more effectively connect with them and inspire them to join ELCs.

Developing relationships with other agencies where new and expecting mothers are present would help to increase recruitment rates and demonstrate in practice the value of ELC classes to new mothers. Next generation of mothers that joins ELCs will be inspired by the professional growth and new job opportunities that super user mothers will have access to. “Super users” will motivate new mothers to become more engaged in parenting and learning to become the next super users.

Social venture incubator

For United Way leadership who are dissatisfied with the current state of funding distribution and progress monitoring of non-profits, the team proposed a social venture incubator that empowers local entrepreneur community and serves as a springboard for sustainable businesses. Unlike most approaches of charitable foundations, the team has assembled a set of principles focused on coaching and educating the local community with the drive to make a difference and helping them to find great partners to launch their ideas in market. They will initially target the participants in existing social venture competitions and and connect them with companies with philanthropic interests to help them make their ideas into reality.

The social venture incubator will allow part of United Way to act like an design/innovation agency by drawing insights and ideas from public, running pilots to discover and/or validate concepts, providing co-working space and connecting the entrepreneurial community. United Way will also act as the message agent in this scenario, making sure all these social ventures are working towards one unified goal of better Detroit. The final goal is for these start-ups to become self-sustaining businesses, independent from United Way’s funding after the initial growth period. The successful ventures will continue mutually beneficial relationships with United Way by becoming mentors to the next generation of social entrepreneurs, and eventually, the incubator can be funded from the profits or proceeds of the companies involved.



Final Results