One year later, "Teach-out" architects hope to expand predecessor's legacy

Thursday, March 29, 2018 - 4:24pm

In late March 1965, more than 3,000 people gathered on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus to protest and discuss United States involvement in the Vietnam War. The overnight event, which included lectures, music, informational movie screenings and more, was the brainchild of several University professors who had been growing increasingly frustrated with the escalation of conflict in Vietnam. Originally, the professors had planned to stage a strike, but concerned about administrative backlash, they instead planned 12 hours of campus-wide learning and activism.

Though controversial, the event, dubbed a “teach-in,” proved very impactful. The idea was rapidly adopted by a multitude of other colleges and universities. Similar teach-ins appeared across the country over the next several years.

More than 50 years later — as part of University President Mark Schlissel’s Academic Innovation Initiative — the Office of Academic Innovation and a group of collaborators decided to revamp the teach-in idea by bringing it online.

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Schlissel officially announced last March that the Office of Academic Innovation would be releasing a series of online learning experiences through Coursera and edX. The initiative, called the Teach-Out Series, consists of modular mini-courses featuring interviews, written pieces and other informative multimedia from University experts. Each Teach-Out extends over a few hours of content about a timely topic over the course of a week, then participants are asked to answer questions and discuss the material.

Coursera and edX are Massive Open Online Courses, also known as MOOCs. These web-based educational platforms allow users to disseminate ideas more quickly than in a physical classroom. Since 2012, the University has been experimenting with translating classes and educational content into online modules. In fact, the University was one of the first partners of Coursera and affiliated itself with edX in 2015.

The first Teach-Out, focused on the transition from democratic to authoritarian rule, was published on March 31, 2017. The release date was a nod to the first teach-in, which took place overnight starting on March 24, 1965.

The Teach-Outs have now been running for a year. James DeVaney, associate vice provost for Academic Innovation, believes the series has had a positive impact so far.

“We are off to a terrific start after one year of Teach-Outs,” DeVaney wrote in an email to The Daily. “Nearly 60,000 participants from around the world have engaged in these global community learning events where scale meets social learning and multidirectional interaction is facilitated around timely topics of widespread interest.”

Ten Teach-Outs have been released since last March on issues ranging from social justice to sleep deprivation to virtual reality. DeVaney says the Office of Academic Innovation gathers topic proposals from faculty, University organizations and Academic Innovation team members.

Physics professor Tim McKay is one of the series’ founders and also co-led the “Privacy, Reputation and Identity in a Digital Age” Teach-Out in January 2018. He thinks the Teach-Out idea was sparked by the culmination of several factors, including the University’s tradition, the rise of MOOCs and a growing sentiment of social responsibility.

“Here we had this heritage of teaching in the moment, getting campus experts out to talk to people, and this new way of doing it, these massive open online courses,” McKay said. “There was, I think, a year ago, a renewed sense on campus that current affairs called for more input from the academic world.” 

The name “Teach-Out” originates from “teach-in,” but conveys the broader impact of the new learning series. McKay believes the online platform of the Teach-Outs differentiates them from teach-ins in that they are more accessible to people outside the world of academia. According to McKay, Teach-Outs are special because they reach non-academic audiences who might not have as much experience with a topic.

“The only drawback of a teach-in is that we only talk to each other, like here on campus, and we do that a lot anyway,” McKay said. “It’s not going to change the world, to do a teach-in.”

As with the teach-ins of the ’60s and ’70s, the Teach-Outs are founded on the principle of translating the University’s brainpower into positive impact. Academia is often criticized as being elitist or disengaged, but Teach-Out leaders say the series allows the academy to share its knowledge with larger audiences. Wallace House Director Lynette Clemetson led a recently released Teach-Out called “Free Speech in Journalism,” and she agrees with the sentiment of increased accessibility.

“The kinds of conversations that you would have in a rigorous academic setting don’t have to be confined to the campus itself,” Clemetson said. “The experts and the topics and the research and the pursuit of people who are part of the University should not be just kept within the walls of the University. It’s very, I think, anti-ivory tower.”

The Office of Academic Innovation agrees that the goal of the series is to extend the University’s reach. DeVaney wrote that in publishing the Teach-Outs, the office is trying to “reimagine public engagement.”  

So far, the Teach-Out series has been accessed by 60,000 people from more than 100 countries. The Teach-Outs are marketed through Coursera and edX, which already have plenty of active users, and by advertisements sent to the University’s alumni network.

The majority of people participating in the Teach-Outs, at least in McKay’s experience, are not affiliated with the University. Many learners are just people who have an internet connection and want to join the conversation.

According to Clemetson, the Teach-Outs attract people who genuinely want to discuss impactful topics and learn from others.

“There is a target audience there, who not only wants to connect with the information, but also wants to connect with a community of people who are similarly interested in learning about the topic,” Clemetson said.

Due to the series’ broad international presence, participants have a wide array of experiences. The first Teach-Out, which focused on the transition from democratic to authoritarian rule, drew comments from people who had lived or who currently live under an authoritarian government. McKay thinks the diverse perspectives on authoritarian rule enriched the conversation.

One core characteristic of the Teach-Outs is an emphasis on social responsibility. The Teach-Outs are meant to facilitate conversation about relevant, current issues, from the rise of “fake news” to concerns about online identity and personal data.

McKay says all Teach-Out topics are inspired by current events, but the nature of each Teach-Out’s timeliness varies.

“The timeliness, you can think about it in different scales,” McKay said. “So, free speech — clearly a timely issue. Timely this week? Maybe not. But in this year, or this season, or now, yes, very timely. They have different paces, so as the office has learned how to produce these, they’re working with that, and trying to figure out, you know, a way to generate a steady flow of these in a way that really works.”

The level of urgency of each Teach-Out determines how quickly the Office of Academic Innovation puts it together. Current Teach-Outs, such as “Hurricanes: What’s Next?”, which was meant to respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, can be prepared in just a few weeks. Other Teach-Outs, like “Free Speech in Journalism,” are assembled over several months.

The Teach-Outs are centered on current events because, in the spirit of the original teach-ins, the series aims to inspire small-scale activism. Each mini-course includes a “call to action” — a set of questions or suggestions challenging participants to think about how they can apply what they’ve learned in a tangible, impactful way.

For instance, Clemetson says the “Free Speech in Journalism” Teach-Out asked learners to consider ways they might support a free press.

“On the call to action, a couple people wrote in that after participating in the Teach-Out, that they were going to subscribe to a local news source,” Clemetson said. “Supporting local journalism came up a lot in the conversations, and also consuming things that were outside of your point of view. A couple of people in the responses said that they were going to make a more concerted effort to consume news that was different from whatever they were finding in their echo chamber.”

McKay’s “Privacy, Reputation and Identity in a Digital Age” Teach-Out also had a concrete call to action, encouraging participants to look at their own digital footprints. McKay says many people were interested in finding out how Google and Facebook characterized them based on online activity. Additionally, the Teach-Out asked learners to engage in conversations about digital identity with friends and family members.

“We didn’t say, you know, go clamp down privacy restraints or something,” McKay said. “We said, go have that kind of conversation. If you’re a parent, talking with your children about it, and not in some awful, crazy way, but talk about it. Have them recognize that the things that you do online leave a record.”

In addition to including a call to action, the Teach-Outs often aim to clear up misconceptions about relevant topics. For instance, “Solving the Opioid Crisis,” which ran earlier this March, offered material clarifying certain aspects of the issue.

Vicki Ellingrod, a professor and researcher at the College of Pharmacy, contributed a piece of writing to the Teach-Out. Ellingrod says she was excited to participate because she wanted to address a common misbelief that many Americans hold about pharmacy rules.

“There’s a lot of misperceptions out there right now because CVS made that proclamation that they were not going to fill longer than a 70 supply of opiates for acute pain,” Ellingrod said. “There was really a public pushback, people thinking that they were not going to be able to get their prescriptions if they were using them chronically.”

But pharmacies are not trying to prevent opiates from reaching the people who need them. Establishments like CVS are only trying to keep prescription sizes small because opiates are often overprescribed. According to Ellingrod, “most prescriptions that go out for acute pain, 70 percent of those medications are never taken.”

Though Teach-Outs focus on current, often controversial topics, and attract a wide range of voices and opinions, the dialogue has mostly remained civil. Clemetson felt the online learners in her course on the free press were respectful and eager to learn. She thinks the questions participants asked reflected their open-mindedness.

“They were smart, engaged, thoughtful questions, and they indicated to me that people actually had listened to the conversations,” Clemetson said. “People engaged with the material civilly, which is, you know, different from the comment sections on a range of news sites.”

The Office of Academic Innovation hopes the Teach-Out Series will evolve and expand over time. According to DeVaney, the office plans to “experiment with new technology.” The faculty and administrators working on the series would also like to release Teach-Outs geared towards new audiences, such as pre-college students.

Just as the teach-in spread across the country during the ’60s and ’70s, the Teach-Out may be adopted by other universities. This summer, the Office of Academic Innovation will introduce the idea to several other institutions.

“We think the Teach-Out Series is unique but there are many institutions who share our values around inclusion, innovation, and public engagement,” DeVaney wrote to The Daily. “This summer we plan to host a dozen institutions in Ann Arbor for a Teach-Out academy to share our model of the Teach-Out and set it free.”

DeVaney added while the Teach-Out Series establishes the University as “a leading voice in progressive higher education,” the Office of Academic Innovation acknowledges that “the most important problems in society require the talent and commitment of many institutions.”

McKay wonders if, down the road, Teach-Outs will enable people to feel closely connected to the University community from a distance.

“We may see people who end up from a pre-college time to late in their life interacting a lot with Michigan, but never being a residential student here,” McKay said. “Maybe in the future there will be a broader sense of who is a Michigan alum.”