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Are We Ready to Move Beyond Translations? Making a Multilingual Destination for Learning and Problem Solving

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation
@devaneygoblue

Last month, we launched three massive open online courses (MOOCs) in Arabic with our partners at Coursera. As a result, the nearly 300 million Arabic speakers around the world now have access to courses on Leading Teams, Programming for Everybody, and The Science of Success. This spring and summer, we will launch seven additional courses in Arabic delivered on the Coursera Platform.

We are also partnering with edX to translate courses into Spanish delivered on edX’s Spanish language platform. We will start this journey with Programming for Everybody and create additional learning opportunities to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking learners across the United States and around the world. Previously, we translated a course on Successful Negotiation into both Spanish and Portuguese through our partnership with Coursera and have reached more than 110,000 learners to date. All of these courses are made available to learners on Michigan Online.

Screenshot of the Michigan Online course description page of the "Leading Teams" course translated in Arabic.

Why does this matter?

Imagine a destination for lifelong learning, better yet, a destination for lifelong problem solving. Significant problems. Problems that matter to diverse, global populations.

What do you need to solve these problems? Knowledge, skills, and people. Scaffolding to support interactions. A sense of community. A shared purpose. To solve the most important societal problems, we need problem-solving communities made up of learners that reflect the diversity of the world around us. Unfortunately, most learning communities fall short on many dimensions of diversity.

So what is standing in the way?

In the current digital era, we often start by removing the barriers of time and space. We create self-paced, asynchronous, and near synchronous learning experiences. We develop tools to personalize learning, support collaboration, and close distance. We quickly find ways to lower these barriers with smart technology choices and shift our collective thinking about reach.

Next, we tend to look beyond our massive reach and see positive gains on many dimensions of diversity. At the same time, we realize that we can do much more. Relaxing time and space gives us a new lens and inspires institutions like the University of Michigan to think differently about our ability to expand our public purpose. As we build upon experiments in the only way we know how, informed by data and scholarship and in the interest of advancing learning, we see additional barriers in the form of access, belongingness, and affordability. We haven’t solved for higher education deserts, helped learners at all levels to see themselves in higher education environments, or sufficiently experimented with business models to reduce costs to learners. There is more to do here and experiments are underway.

But there is at least one more important barrier to lower in addition to time, space, access, belongingness, and affordability: Language.

In a world of near-limitless access to knowledge, and with learning tools that are improving every day, we understand that increasing access to learning opportunities is essential, but also insufficient. We must provide opportunities to learn together.

Language is one tall barrier that stands in the way. Since launching our first MOOC in 2012, We have surpassed more than 7.3 million enrollments with learners from nearly every country. This new network of learners objectively alters our community diversity. At the same time, we see significant opportunities to make larger strides forward in areas of diversity such as socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and cultural identity.

We believe lowering the barriers imposed by language is part of the solution. We know that more diversity leads to better problem solving. Just as we’ve designed experiments to lower other barriers, we are now pointing resources toward language. Translations are only the beginning. We need to imagine and design learning environments and enabling tools that engage and empower learners and facilitate sharing, understanding, and problem solving across this boundary type. We need a multilingual destination for learning and problem solving.

As we move beyond translations we will explore new modes of learner-centric design, including the development of original learning content in the language and context of specific communities, which will help all our learners develop cross-cultural competencies, and position our global problem-solving community to address grand challenges. It is these grand challenges that require problem-solving teams made up of curious learners that together posses deep knowledge, skills, and lived experience. These problem solvers are evenly distributed and language is a significant barrier to constructing the universal and compassionate public square our world so desperately needs.

In the near term, we hope to open our doors to more learners around the world in order to strengthen the diversity of our community. We will start with on-ramp courses and our Teach-Out series to provide new opportunities for learners to access our community and level-up in certain areas. Ultimately, we aim to facilitate opportunities for these learners to put knowledge and skills into action.

Imagine there’s no barriers. It isn’t hard to do.

We want aspiring problem solvers to be able to learn with and from each other, to create new learning experiences and tools that bring us closer together, to create new knowledge and a better world.

It’s important to note that the near-term benefits of translation will be realized close to home as well. Let’s go back to the example of courses translated into Arabic. The population in Michigan who identified as having Arabic-speaking ancestry on U.S. Census surveys grew by more than 47% between 2000 and 2013. With an Arab American population of more than 223,000, the State of Michigan ranks second among all U.S. States and is among the fastest growing Arab populations in the country. There are particularly large concentrations of first-language speakers in cities like Dearborn and Hamtramck. Michigan has also been one of the most welcoming states when it comes to accepting refugees, particularly those from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Creating these new learning opportunities in Arabic provides an immediate opportunity for U-M to impact the lives of Michiganders and to open channels for U-M to learn from the individual and collective experiences of an important constituency in our State. We also create new learning opportunities for U-M’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni in Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn as translated courses provide language-learners and bilingual students with valuable opportunities to practice new skills in domain-specific contexts.

We are excited about the potential of this new area of focus and hope to see more compelling projects initiated through a new call for proposals shared with University of Michigan Faculty and Staff. On March 8, 2019 we launched a new call for proposals designed to expand equity and inclusivity in U-M’s academic innovations. With this call we see opportunities to increase access to the scholarship, learning experiences, and technologies created at U-M. We invite proposals aligned with our mission of supporting diverse learners and the creation of inclusive and equitable learning experiences.