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The University of Michigan Teach-Out Series

A conversation with James DeVaney.

March 13, 2017
 
 

James DeVaney (@devaneygoblue) is the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan where he leads the Office of Academic Innovation.  Earlier this evening James and his team hosted an event in Ann Arbor called the Academic Innovation Forum on Broadening the University of Michigan Community. 

James has graciously agreed to answer my questions about the new University of Michigan Teach-Out Series which was announced by U-M President Mark Schlissel at the event.  

Question 1: Earlier this evening your University President announced a new initiative called the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series. Can you give us the backstory? What problem are you trying to solve? What is the goal of the new initiative and why is it significant that U-M is introducing this new approach? 

A:  As you might imagine, many ideas and events contributed to today’s announcement to launch a new and potentially transformational approach to public engagement. Let’s step back 200 years, then leap to 1965, detour to 1970, and finally arrive in the Michigan League Ballroom earlier this evening.  As President Schlissel remarked hours ago at an event taking place during our institution’s bicentennial, “no celebration of U-M’s historic leadership in higher education can be complete without also looking forward, to imagine what our leadership will look like in future decades.” Let me add that no declaration of an audacious new plan can be complete without also looking closely at our history, to understand what our legacy has been for generations. 

Two-hundred years ago the governor of the Michigan Territory enacted a bill to establish a University of Michigania, also called a Catholepistemiad (a term invented by Augustus Woodward to mean “a system of universal science”). American higher education had a new blueprint for the modern university. The University of Michigan was, from the very beginning, an experiment. This particular experiment placed great value not only on the creation and preservation of knowledge but also on developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future. Public engagement had a new champion in higher education.

Jump way forward to a turbulent decade in the 1960s and 1965 to be specific. In response to an escalation of military action in Vietnam, a number of U-M faculty members were considering a walkout. An alternative was proposed and U-M faculty led the nation’s first Teach-In. Through this novel teaching and learning experiment, faculty sought to address a particular problem: how to best activate public concern and share their expertise with local communities in a timely way. 

At 8pm on March 24, 1965, the first Teach-In began and lasted through 8am the next morning. It brought together more than 3,000 faculty and students and included lectures, seminars, and informal exchange between experts and participants. The idea of the Teach-In quickly spread to campuses across the nation.

Take a shorter detour, this time to 1970. U-M returned to the idea of the Teach-In to address growing public concerns about environmental protection. A four-day long Teach-In filled Crisler basketball arena and ultimately led to the national event of Earth Day. Perhaps it is common to fill basketball arenas in the month of March in 2017. But this was something new for social learning and public conversation well before the age of MOOCs. 

Now travel again with me to March 13, 2017 to the Ballroom in the Michigan League. Like the 1960s, we live in complicated times with significant degrees of uncertainty. Compounding these challenges is increasing digital polarization where our conversations often fail to puncture echo chambers and capture the full benefits that come from diverse perspectives. 

So this evening, almost 52 years to the day of the 1965 Teach-In, we launched an important new initiative that we are calling the University of Michigan Teach-Out Series. 

What’s the problem are we trying to solve? Well, given that many celebrated the birthday of Dr. Seuss earlier this month, we might look to his inimitable clarity to understand why activating public concern is vitally important to an institution committed to developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Our faculty are responding to the uncertainty of today as they did with the Teach-In. First they have defined a problem. How can we bring more people together to learn about timely topics, engage in vibrant discussion, and collaborate constructively to develop solutions to bring positive change to our world? Today we launch the Teach-Out Series inspired by U-M’s pioneering legacy with the Teach-Ins and so many other examples of innovation in teaching and learning and a commitment to public engagement. 

Teach-Outs are global community learning events, each focused on a specific current issue, where people from around the world will come together to understand these topics and identify the best ways to respond. Learners and experts will ask questions and explore solutions to the most pressing issues of our day. 

President Schlissel remarked this evening that, “the U-M Teach-Out series is in full keeping with the highest ideals of our past and our commitment to furthering our societal impact in our third century.”

The goal of this free and open program is to activate public engagement by bringing U-M to the world while bringing the world to U-M.  We're building on U-M's longstanding commitment to public engagement and our leadership role as a pioneer in online education to create new opportunities for learners to explore the problems, events and phenomena most important to society.

Two days after the 1965 Teach-In, a report appeared in the Michigan Daily, U-M’s student run newspaper, “As telegrams and calls of support come in from universities all over the country, and as administrators continue praising Wednesday’s teach-in, the all-night, all-morning protest may become a milestone in University political action and initiative.” 

A milestone indeed. One of many on a rich timeline of experimentation at U-M, an institution deeply committed to its public ethos and relentless in its focus to broaden access to a global community of learners. 

Question 2: We spoke recently about the mission and motivation of the Office of Academic Innovation. How does the U-M Teach-Out Series fit with your overall strategy? How did this new effort come about? 

A:  We're starting to see the benefits of an experimental and collaborative mindset that first led us to embrace the uncertainty of MOOCs in 2012, resisting premature conclusions about the new era of academic innovation and supporting faculty in new and novel approaches to teaching and learning. This mindset led us first tot to prototype rapidly in a nascent MOOC space, next to open access to U-M through new models like the MicroMasters programs, and now to transform public engagement through the Teach-Out Series.

I should note that with small children at home it’s not clear to me which is the greater number: enrollments in U-M MOOCs (now over 5.6M) or the number pages of Dr. Seuss stories I’ve read during and after bath time. So it’s quite possible that the beloved author has influenced our overall strategy, “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you’ll try.” 

We are serious about experimentation and also about the need push ourselves in new directions to ensure that U-M is able to serve the public and continue influencing higher education. In this latest example U-M’s experimental mindset, our new Teach-Out series combines the best of just-in-time learning experiences and community events. They are designed to bring together a community of experts from the University of Michigan and the general public to explore, learn and discuss pressing issues on the national and international stage. Faculty will engage the public to foster greater understanding of complex problems. 

In the Fall of 2016, President Schlissel launched the Academic Innovation Initiative on campus and charged our community to launch a set of rich and interconnected experiments to explore the future of education at the University of Michigan, on and off campus, in formal and informal environments. The Teach-Out Series came about as a result of this campus-wide conversation as faculty looked to new ways to design just-in-time learning experiences for the U-M community and the general public to come together to elevate our understanding of today’s most interesting and challenging problems.

U-M has made significant investments in developing a new model for academic R&D that leverages academic innovation to shape the future of education and further realize our mission. This leads to innovation in pedagogy, technology, and models of delivering high quality educational experiences. In the context of the U-M Teach-Out series, this means we are seeking to leverage networked access to information, new modes of learning and the power of data analytics to transform public engagement. 

Question 3: Who are you trying to reach? How do you describe a Teach-Out to a prospective learner? 

A:  Universities have been talking about public engagement for a long time. But MOOCs have dramatically shifted our thinking about reach. Which public audiences can and should we reach? I expect the limits of our imaginations would yield a different response to that question in 1965 than it would in 2017. Now, like Dr. Seuss, we can dream big and inclusively in imagining our public constituents, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

We expect the Teach-Outs to provide new social learning experiences that combine the reach of MOOCs with the focus of well-timed community events to accelerate the creation of opportunities for public engagement in ways that fit naturally with the strengths of a great public research university.  

Teach-Outs are short learning experiences, each focused on a specific current issue. They are open to the world and are designed to bring together individuals with wide-ranging perspectives in respectful and deep conversation. While Teach-Outs will certainly evolve over time, we might describe them in the following way. Teach-Outs are events, opportunities, communities, and conversations. 

Like an event, a Teach-Out takes placed over a short, fixed period of time. Each of the first four Teach-Outs will open on a Friday and allow the global community of learners to engage in a timeline topic together through the weekend and into the next week. A Teach-Out is an opportunity, open for free participation to everyone around the world.  A Teach-Out will create new communities joined by large numbers of diverse individuals. Finally, a Teach-Out is designed to bring together individuals with wide-ranging perspectives in respectful and deep conversation. 

The first four Teach-Outs will explore historical transitions from democracy to authoritarian rule, fake news and tools for becoming a critical information consumer, communicating and understanding scientific research, and understanding the future of Obamacare.

Question 4: What do you hope to see happen as a result of this effort? Will there be more Teach-Outs? Do you have any concerns as you introduce the U-M Teach-Out Series with the world?

A:  In the immediate term we hope to create opportunities for citizens to be more informed, to create new opportunities for engagement between institutions of higher education and the global public, and to inform public debate around the issues most important to society. We also hope to develop a new mechanism that allows U-M to share its academic excellence and intellectual diversity with the world to address timely topics. 

In so doing, I would very much like to read headlines a year from now that describe how many institutions of higher education have joined U-M in offering Teach-Outs to address the problems, events, and phenomena most important to society. The 1965 Teach-In inspired 35 other universities to engage in similar learning events later that year. Similarly, this is a model that we are proud to pioneer and eager to share with other institutions. 

As with any bold experiments, there are concerns. I’m focused on two in particular.  First, any time you connect something special from the past to something novel in the present, there is risk involved. The Teach-In is a special part of U-M’s history as well as the history of public engagement in higher education. We want to honor that history appropriately as we start a new global conversation. I hope we can do justice to the legacy of the Teach-In as we look to lead in the decades to come. 

Second, I worry about pace.  When I read about rapid trends toward digital polarization, or a study that shows that people have trouble judging the credibility of information online, or about the limitations of the current debate around Obamacare and the impact of various options on the US healthcare landscape, I know there is urgency. Will we do enough to foster deep, respectful, and action-oriented conversations?

Here I’m reminded of perhaps my favorite Dr. Seuss story of all, a short masterpiece on conflict resolution called The Zax. One day the North-Going Zax and a South-Going Zax run into each other and proceed to engage stubbornly in perpetual argument without once seeking to to understand the problem or each other. A problematic philosophy is revealed which could provide a caption to any number of Facebook exchanges on current problems of the day, “Never budge!  That's my rule.  Never budge in the least! Not an inch to the west!  Not an inch to the east! I'll stay here, not budging!  I can and I will. If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!"

The result of course is as predictable as any number of exchanges you may have had on social media or at cafe in our current climate, “Of course the world didn't stand still.  The world grew. In a couple of years, the new highway came through. And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax. And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.”

With the U-M Teach-Out Series we seek greater understanding. We seek an engaged and informed global public. We seek renewal in social learning and interaction that borrows the best of technology and combines these practices with the core of what it means to be human. We seek bold, thoughtful, and creative solutions to today’s problems. 

An op-ed published in the Michigan Daily just prior to the first Teach-In closed with a prediction about the event set to take place on Wednesday, March 24, 1965, “Wednesday should be a day to remember.” 

And so it is. 

We hope the same will become true of March 13, 2017, when U-M sought to activate public engagement and empower individuals from around the world to engage in informed debate about our shared future. Afterall, as Dr. Seuss shared through bedtime stories a million times over, with the right access, agency, and encouragement one can go anywhere, "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose." 

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