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The introduction of a Teach-Out Series on topics ranging from “fake news” to the rise of increasingly authoritarian governments was announced by University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel at an Innovation Forum hosted by the University’s Office of Academic Innovation on Monday night. There are four “global community learning” events scheduled so far in the series to be hosted on the edX platform — a digital education company which aims to improve education research at universities worldwide.

The event was also a continuation of Schlissel’s Academic Innovation Initiative, which launched in fall 2016 in an effort to foster growth in technology use to further classroom learning.

At the beginning of the event, Schlissel said he was excited the University is hosting these teach-outs, which are modeled after the teach-ins that began at the University starting in 1965 to protest then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s military escalation in the Vietnam War.

The four course offerings available through the edX platform will cover: the transition from democratic to authoritarian rule, fake news, communication of scientific research, and the future of the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s health care law. These topics were selected because of their relevance to modern-day global politics — much like the inspiration for the teach-ins held at the University over 50 years ago.

“Tonight’s event is keeping with the University’s historic ideals as we move forward into its third century,” Schlissel said at the event to an audience of over 100 attendees.

However, unlike the teach-ins of the 1960s, which were in-person lectures given in university classrooms, the online teach-outs, according to Dean of Libraries James Hilton, the vice provost for academic innovation, hope to reach a global audience.

“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,” Hilton 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.”

Education master’s student Bayane Alem said prior to the event she was eager to hear elaboration of how the University plans to approach new methods of teaching.

“I know this is a conversation about how we can learn from the University in different ways, I guess just to see how the University is thinking about students and how they’re thinking about approaching learning in new ways and if that’s actually going to result in practical different ways of teaching at the University level,” she said.  

Natural Resources Prof. Arun Agrawal will host the first of the teach-out events on authoritarian rule. He also told the Daily before the event he is looking forward to having the opportunity to teach about topics of contemporary importance to a wide audience online.

“We look forward to engaging online learners in this teach-out,” Agrawal stated in a press release. “Our historical and comparative lens will inform how societies and citizens have responded to the back and forth of more democratic versus more authoritarian political structures. The almost-daily churn of the current political climate makes our just-in-time approach to the learning experience ever more relevant.”

The event began with a keynote address given by edX CEO Anant Agarwal, who spoke about the need to expand online academic programs to meet the needs of students worldwide and the changing dynamics of the labor market.

“Because the world around us is changing, the demands of education must also change,” Agarwal said. “We founded edX to address these challenges. Our mission is to reimagine education for the 21st century and to meet the needs of those seeking continuous education for career advancement.”

The University’s relationship with edX goes back to October 2015, when the University became a charter member of the educational non-profit organization. Last September, the University expanded its partnership with the addition of three MicroMasters programs, which are graduate-level courses that are available to those seeking career advancement.

In October 2016, the University announced a partnership with both edX and Microsoft to improve K-12 teaching methods.

Agarwal said online platforms allow for more flexible learning opportunities among students, and they have received positive feedback from students who have piloted these opportunities.

“The reviews from the students are absolutely amazing, they absolutely love it,” he said. “Students are finding that the stress levels are lower by being able to flexibly watch videos and flexibly do things, the stress is lower. And undergraduate stress is a big issue. Any number of reasons where we can use digital technology to transform our reach both on campus and online.”

Following Agarwal’s keynote address, School of Information Prof. Barry Fishman, the head of the OAI Digital Innovation Greenhouse learning platform, GradeCraft, introduced a panel of University administrators and professors. In his opening speech to the audience, Fishman touted the universal appeal of the Teach-Out Series.

“The teach-out does resonate with students and faculty because the University should be a place to both inform and connect,” Fishman said.

Included in the panel was: Kedra Ishop, the vice provost for enrollment management and the executive vice president for academic affairs at the Office of the Provost, Engineering Prof. Joanna Millunchick, Agrawal and School of Information Dean, Thomas Finholt.

The topic of the panel discussion focused on the use of massive online open courses — courses taught by University faculty that are offered online and available to the general public.

According to Ishop, the potential of MOOCs to expand access to the University is a promising opportunity, because it enables the institution to reach students both before they are college-age and after graduation.

“It’s the question of how you innovate and maintain access (to the University),” Ishop said. “The space of K-12 transiting to higher education, how do you make sure that as we identify some of these areas, as we identify ways to supplement we make sure it has breadth, that it’s attainable.”

Ishop highlighted already-existing University initiatives, like Wolverine Pathways, a program designed to mentor middle and high schoolers from underfunded public schools in Detroit, Southfield and Ypsilanti before they apply to the University. She said by expanding access to MOOCs for that demographic, the University can potentially boost institutional diversity by targeting students who are still enrolled pre-collegiate schools.

The topic of the panel then shifted from the wider potential of MOOCs to the specifics about the Teach-Out Series events. Agrawal said the public availability of the teach-outs is a positive example of the potential for MOOCs to be used as a way for educational institutions to connect with the public on contemporary issues in a manner similar to the Teach-Ins of the 1960s.

“It’s not only about making factual things more quickly possible, it’s also about reimagining the nature of learning at the University, which we need to do,” he said. “We need to free ourselves from teaching facts and make places where students react and reflect and become different, better, more capable students.”

Business and Education master’s student Iris Nguyen said after the event she felt the forum brought up issues she found pressing to future educators that are not necessarily discussed in other spaces.

“I think it addressed a lot of the issues education faces with developing, I hate the phrase, but 21st-century learners equipped to go out into society and deal with our biggest issues today,” she said. “So I feel like it’s a conversation that’s not necessarily always taking place in classrooms, so having a space to hear what’s happening on that front and what they’re thinking about and innovating in that space was really inspiring.”

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