University Teach-Out series engages participants from over 130 countries

Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 5:41pm

In March 2017, University President Mark Schlissel announced the University of Michigan’s development of Teach-Outs, an educational series covering a broad range of current topics that can be accessed for free through digital platforms, edX and Coursera. After the series’ first several months, the first five Teach-Outs have engaged participants from all over the world.

The current series pays homage to the University’s Teach-In Series held in 1965 as a response to the Vietnam War. Professors held teach-ins to encourage students to form educated responses to the rapidly changing political climate. Fifty years later, the University has revamped the series to be a Teach-Out, where professors have discussions through online edX courses, or massive open online courses, in order for the program to reach a global audience.

According to James Hilton, dean of libraries and vice provost of academic innovation, the series has successfully met its goal of not only engaging the students at the University, but also gaining different perspectives from the broader public.

“The Teach-Outs released thus far on edX: ‘Democratic to Authoritarian Rule,’ ‘Fake News,’ ‘Stand Up for Science’ and ‘The Future of Obamacare’; on Coursera: ‘Hurricanes: What’s Next?’ have included participants from over 130 countries,” Hilton said. “The first Teach-Outs have begun to tap the power of global conversation.”

Students have also contributed to creating content for the Teach-Outs and sharing their growing understanding of these issues with the greater community, according to Hilton.

“In the current Hurricanes Teach-Out, students in Professor Samson’s Extreme Weather course contributed questions for extreme weather experts, and they also helped research and respond to participants’ questions in the Teach-Out discussions themselves,” Hilton said.

LSA senior Alanah Bratley, who is taking Professor Samson’s Atmospheric Science class, submitted a question to extreme weather experts: “Does the amplitude of the storm surge play a role in determining the category of the hurricane?”

Bratley explained the topics Samson covers in the course, including how hurricanes form, the different types of categories and the effect these storms have on infrastructure and economy.

In light of the recent surge of hurricanes making landfall, Bratley emphasized that she appreciated the content, stating, “I think the professor did a good job presenting all of this information to us and making us aware of factors other than just how (hurricanes) occur from a meteorology standpoint.”

Physics professor Timothy McKay also noted the influence of students’ roles as both learners and instructors in Teach-Outs.

“The ‘Reach Out and RELATE’ Teach-Out was largely led by the RELATE team — a group of UM graduate students who came together in the wake of the March for Science to help scientists learn how to share their research with the public,” McKay said. 

Arun Agrawal, professor of environment and sustainability, taught the first Teach-Out — “Democratic to Authoritarian Rule” — in response to the growing issue of threats to global democracies. In an email interview, Agrawal highlighted his course’s success in reaching such a wide range of students.

“We had roughly 1,650 learners enroll in the teachout with an age range of 16 to 81 years,” Agrawal wrote. “They came from more than 100 countries/regions, and 400 of them engaged with course materials and issues actively by contributing remarks and comments.”

McKay commented on how international students were able to contribute their own experiences to the conversation. “Many individuals shared stories of how democratic norms decayed and disappeared in their countries, and how they sometimes returned.”

Revamping the the Teach-Ins of the 1960s on a 21st-century educational platform has proven to reach a much broader audience. James DeVaney, associate vice provost of academic innovation, underscored the success of having Teach-Outs on massive online open courses through edX and Coursera.

“We recently surpassed 6 million enrollments in U-M (MOOCs) since launching our first in 2012,” DeVaney said. “We are comfortable with reach. With our Teach-Out experiments we are seeking to go beyond reach and increase diversity, improve interactions and create more inclusive learning environments.”

Using the edX and Coursera platforms as a foundation, Devaney emphasized the series’ goal to change the University’s approach to public engagement.

“We are well on our way to moving beyond a broadcast model and toward creating a sustained model for two-way engagement with lifelong learners from around the globe,” Devaney said.

After the first several Teach-Outs, Hilton noted a few changes that will be made to improve the series, such as having more rapid-response style courses and having a more timely release schedule.

The “Hurricanes: What’s Next?” Teach-Out models this instant approach, since according to Hilton, Samson covered hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria within one week in the middle of hurricane season.

“In contrast to Teach-Outs with a somewhat longer development timeline, this type of Teach-Out aims to provide an immediate opportunity for informed discussion during, or immediately after, culturally-significant stories emerge,” Hilton said.

The program is always looking for fresh ideas and relevant topics for future Teach-Out events. Hilton emphasized their continuous efforts to collaborate with University students and faculty to discover diverse topics and create engaging campus events to foster meaningful discussion.

According to McKay, some of the upcoming topics include conversations about internet freedom, sleeplessness, privacy and reputation.

DeVaney mentioned the program’s goal to engage other institutions in these current Teach-Out conversations like they did several decades ago when the teach-in series was born.

“We hope history will repeat itself and, with the affordances of today’s technology, U-M and institutions around the world will help global citizens to level-up to understand and solve society’s most important problems,” DeVaney said.