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Enter the Compassionate Public Square for the Information Age

This article was originally posted on 5/1/2017 on Inside Higher Ed

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Like many institutions, the University of Michigan was inspired by the early aspirations of the massive open online course (MOOC) movement to democratize education and, in our case, to advance our mission as a public research university. We thought better of a big toe dip, saw reason for a deeper commitment to experimentation, and dove in head first for a swim. Many pushed for swimmers to pick a stroke and stay in their lanes. We prefer the flexibility of freestyle and open swim.

As with any new space, there is no shortage of uncertainty in the world of MOOCs which has led many institutions, as well as those outside the academy with more casual interest, to move on to other things. We remain critically inspired in Ann Arbor for a number of reasons and here I will briefly offer two explanations. First, we chased mission from the beginning and not revenue. Second, when those inside and outside the academy sought to force a definition upon MOOCs, to assign us to a specific swim lane, we resisted, and persisted. Our values based decision-making and conviction around open experimentation are leading to rewards. We were right to dismiss the notion of the MOOC as a single monolithic. We were wise to pull MOOCs into our overarching approach to mission aligned academic R&D rather than pivot our academic strategy to MOOCs. And we will be careful not to overstate our early successes or forget that we remain in a mode of experimentation.

While I continue to encourage patience to those who care to listen and resist any temptation to prematurely write the history of the MOOC, I do believe we are now entering a period of enlightenment. We are now seeing the MOOC evolve beyond minimum viable product and can point to a sizeable wave of second order experiments that move us closer to a future where anyone committed to lifelong learning and listening can fully participate.

Let me provide a concrete example of today that foreshadows a sharp trajectory toward a new compassionate public square for the information age. While the idea of the compassionate public square should supply you with rich imagery of the open and natural flow of people through shared spaces, the future we are building together is anything but pedestrian.

Teach-Out SeriesLast month U-M launched a new Teach-Out Series. Our multiple motivations for the Series are captured in a recent conversation. While it is early in the life of this latest experiment, I’m confident we are onto something big. But let’s back up for a moment. Rarely does a movement roll out without a hitch. One unfortunate aspect of the rise of the MOOC was the acronym itself and, more precisely, the letter “C”. Framing matters.

There are good reasons to anchor something new in something we think we understand. But in so doing we may also inadvertently limit our collective imagination. By framing MOOCs as a new kind of “course”, we immediately pushed people to think in terms of semesters, credits, and the construct of the somewhat industrialized unit of knowledge exchange and interaction that we call courses.

Five years into the MOOC experiment, the Teach-Out may help us truly break free. We are allowing ourselves to think less about taking experiences online and more about what is only possible when we remove many constraints of time and space. Forget replicating the college campus online. It’s a losing proposition. What we have in front of us is an opportunity to do something completely different. This is what many of us imagined the MOOC would be in the first place. With the Teach-Out, we combine the global reach of MOOCs with just-in-time teaching and learning. Accidents in history and an urge to define a new product for the market tethered MOOCs to the credit hour economy. The credit hour economy may not be long for this world and I would argue, even more vigorously, that we are ready to break free from a single definition of the MOOC.

The Teach-Out speaks to our sensibilities at Michigan in that there is vast opportunity to turn our research mindset on ourselves and reimagine lifelong and lifewide learning, residential communities committed to discovery, and public engagement in an information age. We began to think in less constrained ways five years ago. Through experimentation, it is now more obvious that we can think boldly about the ways we engage with the world.

Reflecting on our history and in consideration of our institution’s future, U-M’s President, Mark Schlissel, sees in the Teach-Out series an opportunity for even more impactful public engagement, “Throughout our 200-year history, the University of Michigan has excelled in research and teaching, leading the academy with our broad portfolio of scholarly work. To extend our leadership during our third century, I want to help us disseminate our work and share our expertise in a more conspicuous, and public, manner. One opportunity to do so is through our new U-M Teach-Out Series, which leverages academic innovation to reimagine public engagement for the century ahead. Efforts like these will advance our mission as a public university by better connecting U-M’s broad intellectual power to areas of society where research and understanding can make a difference in lives and communities. There is no shortage of problems that demand our attention and our rigor. And the more we can use our work and expertise to influence decision-makers at all levels, the better our world will be.”

Institutions like ours have long been committed to public engagement. Town-gown success stories and challenges abound. Research universities are especially adept at supporting their campus communities bound together by a commitment to discovery. Over time, we’ve made important strides to make great universities more open to the world and to rethink what it means to be a part of a university’s community. As a result, our constituencies have grown. This growth has been important but by future standards it may appear relatively flat. With MOOCs and Teach-Outs we may be on the verge of a hockey stick moment. The sudden, sharp, and upward shift of data points will require entirely new measures of public engagement and societal impact.

The cacophony of voices currently questioning the impact and relevance of public universities may soon find harmony through massive public engagement that leads to massive societal impact. We think the creation of the Teach-Out model will ultimately be viewed as an inflection point in this important story.

Enter the compassionate public square for the information era. Town-gown relationships will remain critically important but it’s time to think bigger. Like physical world public spaces with flows of people, culture, and mercantile exchange, which are often neglected when trends shift, our virtual public squares with flows of ideas need constant attention.

Only with focused attention will we create a compassionate public square that is virtuous, vibrant, and vital. How do we reverse digital polarization? How do we support a free-flowing exchange of ideas? How to we accelerate the flow of insight to application? How do we ensure that our open spaces are in fact inclusive? What might we borrow from physical spaces that bring us together and the minds of Olmsted and Jacobs and the rest? How should universities participate in the sharing economy? How should we think about the ideas of selectivity and openness as we discover new opportunities to engage with the world? These are questions we seek to explore as we reimagine public engagement and our potential for societal impact.

A vigorous debate has emerged around safe spaces and speech on and around college campuses. There are important questions to address and I’m confident that strong institutions will explore them carefully. In parallel, we can continue to build the environment we know we need. A compassionate space is virtuous, vibrant, and vital. Because the public square we are building is part virtual, it can also be vast. The potential is immense if we build it carefully. To paraphrase Sara Armstrong, a very talented colleague from U-M’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT), to build a community carefully is not to walk gingerly past controversial topics, but rather to commit ourselves to build a community that is full of care.

It is difficult for me to know what your safe space looks like and for you to understand mine. To do this well is to embrace a massive and distributed listening exercise. And we should. But on the way to understanding each other in the long run we can immediately dial up compassion in the short run. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, tells us that empathy isn’t enough anymore. More specifically, the capacity for empathy that concerns Bloom is the capacity to put yourself in the shoes of others. In making his case against empathy, he makes a compelling argument for rational compassion.

My potentially dangerous oversimplification of this view in the context of the opportunities ahead for universities goes something like this. Compassion is more inclusive than empathy, more immediately actionable than a call for safe spaces, and is more uniformly applied toward alleviating suffering whereas empathy can be used for good or evil. Or in our university context, a compassionate space that is virtuous, vibrant, vital, and vast, can only serve to elevate public discourse, not distort.

The result is splendid. The compassionate public square creates conditions that demand understanding. The citizen who participates is not only engaged and informed, but equipped with compassion. In our moment in history where instantaneous global connections among people with differing views are commonplace – a moment that could be tragically short-lived if we do not create the conditions for pluralism to thrive – I challenge you to come up something more essential than a compassionate humanity.

The Teach-Out model presents new opportunity. It is born of the teach-ins of the 1960s and the MOOCs of the early 21st century. The time elapsed between origin story chapters is at once an eternity in Silicon Valley and a blink of an eye in the long view of the academy. A positive story of strange bedfellows will someday replace “this will never work” with “of course it did”.

We seek a future where everyone participates. Today everyone can’t. Our institutions have mastered models for discovery as evidenced by a broad and impressive portfolio of research and scholarly work. The fact that many still ask if selectivity and openness are mutually exclusive means there is work to do in maximizing the impact of our institutions on society. I suspect it is in our lifetimes when we cease to acknowledge the tensions between these terms as we move much closer to a future where everyone can participate.

The Teach-Out model is a concrete contribution to the compassionate public square for the information age. U-M will continue to expand this work by unbundling our expertise from the disciplines and rebundling around the problems, events, and phenomena most important to society. We will invite other great institutions to join us in this effort. And we will expand a community of engaged citizens that seeks to understand each other and the world around us.

The compassionate public square for the information age is anything but pedestrian.

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