'Teach-Outs' Tackle Hot Topics

The University of Michigan uses the MOOC model to spark conversations about current controversies.

The global political landscape over the last year or two has been nothing if not eventful. As a result, schools want to educate students on quickly evolving current events, in ways that get them involved and expose them to a wide range of perspectives on hot-button issues.

The approach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor was to design a series of MOOCs called “teach-outs”—a revival of the “teach-ins” that its faculty held in the 1960s to express concern about the U.S. government’s role in the Vietnam War.

The first teach-out, “Democratic to Authoritarian Rule,” was delivered over three modules by six history and political science academics. Offered on March 31 via MichiganX, UM’s presence on the edX MOOC platform, the event delved into the changing political landscape in areas such as India, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

The university offered three more teach-outs over the six weeks that followed. “Fake News, Facts, and Alternative Facts” was delivered by three communication studies professors. “Reach Out and RELATE: Communicating and Understanding Scientific Research” was delivered by an engineer, a professor of health behavior, and two neuroscience scholars. “The Future of Obamacare” was delivered by a professor of health management and public policy. All three courses attracted nearly 6,000 participants from more than 130 countries.

Unlike the teach-ins of the 1960s, teach-outs are delivered as MOOCs, which allows them to reach a much larger audience, explains Arun Agrawal. Agrawal, a professor of political science in UM’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, taught part of the “Democratic to Authoritarian Rule” teach-out. “University professors and university researchers, this is what they do,” Agrawal says. “They work with students in the effort to educate, provide information, engage, and inspire.”

UM faculty decided to develop the teach-outs in late January, announced them in mid-March, and launched the first on March 31. This initial experiment shows that teach-outs can be “an agile model for the creation of these unique, just-in-time teaching and learning opportunities,” says James DeVaney, the university’s associate vice provost for academic innovation.

DeVaney adds that faculty from the Ross School of Business have expressed interest in this initiative, which could inspire future teach-outs on business topics.

Many students often learn about current events primarily through fragmented information delivered over social media, says Agrawal. “What we’re offering instead in the teach-out is a story, a narrative,” he adds. “It’s a way of thinking about and connecting different facts so that they make sense. And I think there are many people who are hungry for this kind of engagement and thoughtful conversation.”