The first of the University of Michigan’s Teach-Out Series will be released online on March 31 and will focus on how countries transition from democratic to authoritarian rule. University President Mark Schlissel announced this online Teach-Out Series on Monday at the Academic Innovation Forum hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation.

The format and name of the Teach-Out series were based on University’s tradition of teach-ins, which were established in the 1960s and have continued to the present. However, it will be distributed as an edX course. In an email interview, James DeVaney, the associate vice provost for Academic Innovation, wrote the use of edX to promote the series is part of a goal to reach the largest audience possible.

“We hope to reach the broadest representation of society with each of our Teach-Outs,” he wrote. “We are reaching out to learners through social media, our partnership with edX, and with the help of our colleagues at the U-M Alumni Association, along with other channels. Our (massive online open courses) have reached over 5.6M enrollments over the last 5 years so we also hope to encourage many of these learners to explore these topics with us.”

Natural Resources Prof. Arun Agrawal, an expert in political science, will be hosting the first teach-out event. Agrawal said the transition to authoritarian rule is a prevalent topic in the media and he believes many can benefit from having a better understanding of how this transition functions.

“I think what is really important for us to understand better at this point is how democratic countries can become more authoritarian or countries that are more democratic can become more authoritarian,” Agrawal said. “This is important both because of the way many issues are being portrayed in the news media and because of the concern that many people have about the extent to which that an erosion in both democratic values and democratic decision making, and I’m not talking just about the United States — I think it is going on lots of countries.”

According to Agrawal, since the 1980s, there has been a general trend toward democracy in political systems in areas such as Africa and Latin America. However, he said in recent years there has been a growing concern about a global shift away from democracy in many countries, so he and other faculty members participating in the teach-outs will draw on historical examples of countries that moved from democracy to authoritarianism and relate them to current political climates around the globe.

“The goal is to try to provide a more comparative and a more historical lens on what is happening today,” he said. “So we both talk about what happened in other places and in other times and then also make connections to what is happening in some countries at this point, whether it is Venezuela or the United States or Russia or Turkey or even some European countries.”

The teach-out will include an introduction, as well as sections on the conditions that contribute to a shift toward authoritarian rule, examples of democratic countries where these types of transitions have taken place, the methods through which authoritarian rulers consolidate their power and the ways citizens of these countries respond to and feel about authoritarian regimes. Each of these sections will contain different types of contributions from faculty members, including lectures, interviews and discussions filmed prior to the teach-out’s release.

After its release on March 31, the Teach-Out Series event will be available to those registered on edX until the following Monday. During that time, learners will have the opportunity to ask faculty questions during online office hours they will hold through the week. Agrawal said after closing the teach-out course, it will be adjusted to add or delete content based on feedback before the course is re-released in about a month.

“In the short term, we hope these facilitated global community learning events will provide a diverse set of learners with information about timely topics, open new opportunities to engage with experts and learners with different perspectives, equip participants to better understand complex issues of the day, and engage learners in developing positive solutions in their communities,” DeVaney wrote. “In so doing, we hope to learn more about the communities we serve as a public institution and to identify new and transformative ways to engage lifelong learners in addressing the problems, events, and phenomena most important to society.”

Agrawal said the extended reach permitted by the digital medium is one of the main motivations for the Teach-Out Series, citing a little-attended teach-in on Saturday as an example of a lecture on campus. 

“I think if there was a way for us to reach out to 7 million people in person and to offer it to them in person, we would prefer that,” he said. “But there isn’t.”

However, he added he doesn’t expect the teach-out format to replace the in-person teach-ins, as both have an important educational opportunity on campus for students and faculty.

“I don’t have anything against a teach-in, I think we should do that as well,” Agrawal said. “Both are important and they have different possibilities.”

At the Academic Innovation Forum on Monday, Dean of Libraries James Hilton also stated the importance of the University educating the public in order to further productive debate of important present-day issues.

“The University of Michigan Teach-Out Series can be a model for a new era of engagement between institutions of higher education and the global communities they serve,” he said. “Part of our public mission is to create opportunities for citizens to be informed, because the more informed people are, the more informed debate can be.”

Agrawal said registration for the course opened on Tuesday and, while he does not know how many are currently registered for the course, he anticipates 1,000 or 2,000 learners to register.

Additionally, DeVaney wrote the success of the Teach-Out Series will not be based on the registration numbers but rather the quality of the information shared.

“More importantly, we’ll measure success in this initiative not by total enrollments but by the type and number of quality interactions we’re able to facilitate for participants, our ability to raise the level of understanding about societal problems, our ability to provide access to the expertise of U-M faculty with the world, and the extent to which we enhance our understanding of the problems faced by people representing different parts of society,” he wrote.

Education master’s student Erika Mendez said she was interested to see how the University would use the teach-outs and other new programs to reach students in new ways at the Academic Innovation Forum.

“I think that research interests and in my practice, a lot of what I’ve seen is that learning doesn’t just take place in schools,” she said. “It also takes place in other nontraditional ways … I think this kind of space starts bringing up and surfacing those kinds of thing that we commonly overlook and try to find different ways we can reach youth and students beyond just the classroom.” 

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