Cathy Hearn, Fall & Winter Course Advocate
This is the fourth blog post in a series on the School of Education’s 2018 Winter Cohort initiative. In the first post in this series, Professor Donald Peurach introduced the 2018 Winter Cohort: a learning experience in which University of Michigan graduate students collaborated with online learners from across the globe to complete content from the School of Education’s MicroMasters program in Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement.
In this post, Cathy Hearn takes the 2018 Winter Cohort as case study for the ways in which we can harness educational innovations to further the causes of democratizing and diversifying higher education. Through the 2018 Winter Cohort, the course team strove to provide an accessible, flexible experience, enriched by the perspectives of peers from across an impressive range of national, cultural, and professional settings.
Democratizing Higher Education
The rise of online learning brings with it the prospect of dramatically widening access to education. When this education is designed and delivered by a team at a world-class university, we are talking not only about access, but also about quality. Online education from institutions like the University of Michigan has the potential to provide equal access to a high-quality educational experience to anybody with internet access and a smartphone or computer, where in the past, access to such resources was hindered by barriers of a financial, geographic, social-cultural, or other nature.
Approximately 11% of the University of Michigan student population are foreign nationals (2015); by contrast, our 2018 Winter Cohort learners came from across five continents. While we did not collect financial data, this geographic range—coupled with the fact that online learners could take the course for free or at a low cost—likely meant our class was more socioeconomically diverse than most at the University of Michigan. Further, our course provided learners across the globe with an opportunity to access knowledge, advanced largely in well-resourced American research institutions, and adapt this learning in support of their local settings.
In my view, two important priorities across all higher education teaching should be: (1) the inclusion of students taking non-traditional pathways, such as those working full-time or those with children, and (2) the support of learners with diverse learning preferences, including those with learning disabilities. As expected, the majority of our off-campus learners outside of Ann Arbor held jobs alongside their studies, and many spoke of families and other commitments. We also found a significant segment of our Ann Arbor-based learners were also working in addition to their studies. Potentially, they were attracted by the fact that we held class sessions for Ann Arbor-based learners triweekly, and a start time of 5 p.m.
Learners were keen to share the ways in which they used our online resources in ways that better suited their lifestyles and learning preferences: from creative use of technology to visualize their learning, to downloading lectures so they could listen to course content like a podcast during a busy commute. When asked how they viewed the experience, learners characterized it in a variety of ways. They reported that the cohort experience was:
- “very flexible and highly practice-based,”
- like “learning with a group of colleagues who had worked together for years,”
- like “working in a network learning hub,” and
- like “creating a professional team of change warriors.”
One of the strengths of this learning experience was that learners felt the agency to shape their experience into a form that matched their preferences and aspirations.
The Value of Diversity
Opening up our classroom to learners from across the world meant opening up our learners to a diversity of perspectives that served to nuance, challenge, and enrich the learning experience. While diversity manifested itself in a variety of ways, it ultimately amounted to a richness of thought and perspective that would have proved difficult to replicate in a fully residential environment.
While many of the master’s students at the School of Education are early-career professionals, most with experience in K-12 settings, we found a tremendous diversity of professional experience—both in terms of sector and years served—among our online learners. Our learners benefited from the expertise of professionals working across a variety of sectors and roles, including: vocational and adult educators, policy professionals, educational technology entrepreneurs, and seasoned teachers and administrators from K-12 settings. In interviews and surveys, learners consistently spoke to the benefits of these diverse perspectives, for instance:
“I valued the different professional backgrounds of my team members. Being able to connect with individuals from different areas, with different educational backgrounds and professional experiences, was particularly valuable.”
Another of the more visible aspects of our course diversity was in national origin and cultural background. Learners noted several advantages to collaborating with others from across the globe, for example:
“The opportunity, in collaboration with colleagues, to consider improvement science from an international comparative perspective.”
As the University of Michigan continues to establish its status as a university with a positive global reach and impact, I hope we continue to recognize the fact that our international learners are valuable contributors to a richer learning environment for all students.
I’m keen to note that while aspects of identity such as race or socioeconomic status are rightly central to many discussions of diversity in higher education, several of our learners chose to disclose their identities to course colleagues in terms of their professional backgrounds or countries of origin. Since our learners were not required to upload profile photos, disclose financial information, of use their names in their edX user identities, racial and socioeconomic aspects were less immediately apparent in the online portion of our class. In this way, we have discussed the possibility that phenomena such as implicit racial, gender or (dis)ability bias were perhaps slightly mitigated by these features.
Throughout the 2018 Winter Cohort initiative, our team consistently engaged in critical evaluation and reflection. We recognize with pride that we worked hard to embrace and valorize the incredible diversity that our course attracted. At the same time, the process had us asking important questions of ourselves:
- Are our course materials too US-centric, or can they be made more relevant for our learners from global contexts? Are there ways that we can empower learners through the creation of such content?
- How can we make sure that we are accessing learners who could stand to benefit the most from our course? How can we support learners in developing the skills necessary to persist and succeed in a demanding online course?
- Are there ways that we can ensure that our courses can be easily adapted by learners with different learning preferences or ability statuses?
Online and hybrid courses like ours provide exciting possibilities for welcoming an ever-wider range of learners to a world-class education. Pushing ourselves to ensure our courses welcome, reflect, and embrace this diversity means pushing ourselves to create a stronger learning experience for all participants.
Read these other blog posts from the 2018 Winter Cohort of the University of Michigan’s Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement MicroMasters program:
- Join Us in Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement
- Celebrating Leading Educational Innovation and Improvement!
- Four Keys to Managing Collaborative Teamwork in a Socially-Engaging Online Course
Connect with the School of Education MicroMasters team: @UMLeadEdHub.
This article was originally posted on 3/6/2018 on Inside Higher Ed
James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation
Six years ago, inspired by a big idea to democratize higher education, the University of Michigan (U-M) became a founding partner of Coursera. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) were born. While the issuance of MOOC death certificates by skeptics is only rivaled in frequency by those filed by South Park writers for Kenny, MOOCs consistently find ways to survive and indeed thrive in nurturing environments.
MOOCs are far from dead. Rather, they appear to hatch derivatives. Sean Gallagher of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy refers to this as “the new ecology of credentials”, a landscape transforming rapidly as we move from the early knowledge economy to the digital, AI, Gig economy. Which leads those of us close to the action to reflect often upon the original big idea for MOOCs. Typically stating a goal to “democratize” is followed by “access to” something. In hindsight, it’s clear we hadn’t fully considered the potential of what we might be democratizing. What, in fact, are we scaling? Is it content and courses? Curriculum and credentials? Communities and college towns?
With today’s announcement, we are now much closer to saying “all of the above”. MOOCs may have initially provided learners an opportunity to simply peer into the university. Now MOOCs and MOOC derivatives (e.g. Teach-Outs, specializations, MicroMasters, MasterTrack, etc.) are helping universities to expand how they think about engaging with the world. For U-M, this is entirely consistent with top institutional priorities around academic innovation, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and public engagement. We are the global, inclusive, public research university.
The real innovation of the MOOC era is not the unbundling of academic degrees that first captured massive attention, but rather the re-bundling that results from serious academic R&D – the creation of new communities and credentials for all levels. In announcing Michigan’s new degrees this morning at the Coursera Partners Conference, Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda contextualized these latest innovations as evidence that, “the future of work and the future of learning are converging.”
Today U-M announced the intent to design two new fully online master’s degree programs and a new online cohort-based pathway to advanced degrees and career advancement called the MasterTrack Certificate. Let’s consider this latest re-bundling effort within the broader context.
U-M seeks to address global problems in pursuit of a more equitable world. If we can agree that global problems do not fall neatly into the academic disciplines, it should follow that the increasingly diverse needs of learners would be difficult to address through a set of unmalleable academic offerings. If we are serious about diversity, we need to be equally serious about inclusivity as we design new programs, and laying a foundation for learners with vastly different starting points, learning styles, and learning objectives.
So in 2012 we began to adopt ‘unbundling’ as part of our language. Many chose the fear narrative and heard unraveling. We chose the opportunity narrative and have been re-bundling ever since with an evolving mix of learner-centric offerings. Because experiments regularly fork into new experiments, it is easy to lose focus. As we move at a rapid speed, we find it is critical to anchor in our vision for a preferred future – one that points U-M in the direction of expanding access, designing for inclusivity, personalizing at scale, and reimagining two-way public engagement. We took a major stride toward this future today by announcing two new degrees and pioneering the MasterTrack offering. Along with our MOOC portfolio, our expanding Teach-Out Series, and our MicroMasters programs, learners have more opportunities than ever to be a part of a Michigan learning community.
We’re just getting started. And the world future of work and future of learning show no signs of slowing down. Given what is known and all that is uncertain, our goal is to build a global, inclusive, public research university that is future proof!
As we move toward this future, it’s clear that there is a time for acceleration and a time to struggle through experimentation – advancing learning and recording failure along the way as only Universities do.
And now, an adorable tangent on barriers to entry, speed and pace.
My six-year-old daughter is beginning to love soccer. Before each practice, I ask her how she will train today. She pauses predictably, smirks and tilts her head to the right, and with one eye visible responds, “like a cheetah-rocket!” Never heard of one? Well, for those who haven’t spent time with a six-year-old lately, these are two things that are, like, really fast. So when you put those two things together, it would stand, that you get something even faster.
When my daughter first showed signs of doubt that she could compete with the “big kids” (seven and eight-year olds are Goliath to a six year old David), we focused on getting in the game. She needed to belong. We talked about the way she would enter the pitch. After some epic brainstorming, she refused to choose between ‘like a cheetah’, and ‘like a rocket’. “A cheetah-rocket would be faster, Dada,” she stated decisively. She’s now in the game. She wants to try and she know she can. She’s ready to learn.
I think about our learning curve on the soccer pitch often as the higher education industry evolves with competing narratives of opportunity and fear.
At the moment, I’m helping my daughter to gain confidence. Soon I’ll need to help her understand that learning is hard and that part of the human experience is to struggle through new lessons. We’ll need to slow the game down to understand each component. Speed and learning don’t often go well together.
We are steadily lowering the barriers to entry in higher education. We unbundle to grant cheetah-rocket speed to all. Access, belonging, opportunity, personalization. As we re-bundle, we need to create new opportunities that advance learning rather than enable the tyranny of convenience. This will take serious experimentation in order to establish the best mix of learning opportunities and credentials for the economy ahead.
With my daughter, I need to help her slow down and understand the fundamentals at her own pace in order to lay a sound foundation for learning. Similarly, MOOCs provide a foundation for self-paced learning. As we continue to experiment, we need to make sure this foundation is flexible.
Importantly, for universities in this moment, it turns out that speed as a lever goes in multiple directions. Universities need to continue to gain comfort with good risk taking. A burst of cheetah-rocket speed now and then can help us to accelerate experimentation in pursuit of our ultimate goals. Yet we also need to apply good methods and R&D principles to make sure we pace ourselves when appropriate and ultimately reach our desired destinations. Do we have the confidence to set the right pace and embed good pedagogy as we continue extend our reach? We have made significant progress in expanding our reach, but we haven’t yet cracked the code on embedding good pedagogy at scale. This will be a primary focus in the next wave of experiments.
For U-M, we’ve envisioned a preferred future that allows us to be more global, more inclusive, more public. Many ways in. Several ways through. Clear outcomes and value.
Today we took another step forward in the great re-bundling and it is clear that there is a long road ahead. Good things take time. As we continue to experiment and design learner-centric programs and learning communities, we intend to make design choices that support informed decision-making for learners, increase affordability, increase acceleration, increase frequency and quality of feedback, and replace a capstone mindset with project-rich learning experiences throughout.
Experimentation is far from over. As we launch this latest set of programs, several questions are on my mind:
- Given what we expect in the future of work, can we create pathways to continuous competency?
- How will our evolving product mix fit together for different kinds learners?
- Is there tension between access/on-ramps and deep learning?
- How should we incorporate real-world projects into rich, rigorous, and agile curricula?
- How will employers evaluate sub-degree credentials?
- What are the best ways to engage learners and employers in the design of learning experiences?
- Are we addressing the audiences that need us most?
So what are we democratizing? It turns out for U-M, our efforts are focused on scaling the great public research university in pursuit of a more equitable world. Neither MOOCs nor degrees are dead. Instead, we have entered an era of experimentation that will result in a new collection of credentials needed in a future where, as Mark Searle, Arizona State University Provost said so memorably in his keynote this morning, “universities are known for who we include not who we exclude”.
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