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”.
Online learners may soon have three new University of Michigan master’s degree options through a partnership with Coursera—one in the growing field of applied data science, a first of its kind in public health and an advanced program in construction engineering and management.
In a joint announcement today with the online platform, the School of Information said its Master of Applied Data Science under development will build upon the school’s leadership in offering programing courses online, including several on Coursera.
Online learners on six continents have enrolled more than one million times in the UMSI MOOCs, taking courses in programming, user experience research and design, web design and applications, public library management, and applied data science.
U-M’s Master of Public Health from the School of Public Health is among the first degrees in this area of study to be delivered on a massive open online course (MOOC) platform. This degree program emphasizes application of research methods and public health principles to improve population health.
The announcement at the Coursera Partners Conference also includes the debut of a new Construction Engineering and Management MasterTrack Certificate that allows users to take courses for certification or toward an advanced degree to be completed on campus for those who meet admission criteria.
“We are expanding our efforts to scale the great public research university through further investment in our flexible, personalized and networked model for global and lifelong learning,” said Martin Philbert, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.
“We intend to design two new fully online programs and augment our hybrid offerings. This will increase opportunities for learners around the world, enabling them to join our community in understanding and addressing global problems in pursuit of a more equitable world.”
To date, U-M has seen 6.5 million enrollments in its portfolio of more than 120 courses. Many MOOCs are for enrichment, some lead to certification, and others are part of micromaster programs, which allow students to take advanced-level courses online first, possibly leading to enrollment on campus for completion of a master’s program.
The School of Information leads in U-M’s MOOC space with nearly 40 courses online, including a micromaster’s in user experience research and design; a Coursera Specialization in Applied Data Science with Python; and course series on Python for Everybody, Web Applications for Everybody, Web Design for Everybody, and Public Library Management. UMSI has historically been known as a graduate school but four years ago developed a curriculum for undergraduate students.
“The development of this new degree represents progression toward our goal of extending access to professional education outside the conventional residential environment,” said UMSI Dean Thomas Finholt. “The demand for data scientists has grown dramatically in the past decade and it will continue to grow far beyond our capacity to accommodate students in a traditional classroom setting. UMSI continues to explore innovative ways to deliver the information-based knowledge and skills needed to meet the challenges of our increasingly data-intense world.”
The U-M School of Public Health has a 76-year history of offering master’s and doctoral level degrees and just this year launched a bachelor’s degree program. The school currently educates and trains more than 1,000 students a year.
The online program is expected to offer students and working professionals exposure to a variety of public health disciplines through a broad foundational curriculum that will equip them to tackle complex health challenges such as chronic and infectious diseases, obesity and food insecurity, health care quality and costs, climate change and environmental determinants of health, and socioeconomic inequalities and their impact on health.
Learners will have the opportunity to select from a wide range of specializations for focused expertise, including population health, program planning and evaluation, health analytics, genomics and precision health.
“Opening access to a global learning platform will increase public health knowledge and skills that are critical to our pursuit of a healthier, more equitable world for all,” said Cathleen Connell, interim dean of the U-M School of Public Health. “Through information sharing and capacity building, we can create a continuum of learning that reaches beyond the traditional degree program, leading to greater public impact.”
Meeting the demands of another growing profession has led to the development of a hybrid degree offering.
The Construction Engineering and Management MasterTrack Certificate is a new program co-created by U-M and Coursera. It allows learners to earn certification or take additional advanced courses, potentially leading to on-campus enrollment for completion of the Construction Engineering and Management Master of Engineering (MEng) degree.
The construction business is booming in the United States and is expected to continue great growth in the future, yet the industry suffers from a shortage of workers and managers.
Someone taking the Construction Engineering and Management MasterTrack Certificate can expect to learn from faculty at one of the top engineering programs in the world the skills of accounting, decision making and project management through an engineering lens. Participants will be prepared to take on a role as construction manager in as little as 6-7 months.
“We are deeply committed to leading the evolution of 21st-century engineering education for the benefit of the common good,” said Alec Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “Our new construction engineering and management master track certificate program is the first of its kind and is consistent with our strategic vision at Michigan Engineering to pioneer innovative educational models designed for global impact.”
MasterTrack is distinct from other programs of its kind in the way learning is structured. Learners have an opportunity to preview programs through open courses before engaging in smaller cohorts designed around high immersive projects and high quality feedback. They can join program-level learning communities and networks to pursue standalone digital credentials and pathways into top graduate degree programs.
“MasterTrack learners will enjoy rich applied projects, vibrant social learning environments, and the many benefits of frequent high quality feedback,” said James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation. “The advanced courses will provide immersive experiences built around applied projects that will benefit learners seeking advanced degrees as well as learners seeking to advance their careers.”
Coursera currently has four online master’s programs in computer science, business administration, accounting, and innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition to the Michigan programs, today’s announcement included two master’s programs in computer science from Arizona State University and University of Illinois, a master’s in global public health from Imperial College London, and a bachelor’s in computer science from the University of London.
“The University of Michigan took a bold step six years ago as one of Coursera’s four founding university partners. We are thrilled to continue working with this university to push the status quo by pioneering a new way to offer degrees that fits the evolving needs of students who demand degrees that are more affordable and are available when and wherever they are ready to learn,” said Nikhil Sinha, chief content officer at Coursera.
“The University of Michigan Master of Public Health and Master of Applied Data Science offered entirely online through Coursera will enable students to achieve top-caliber University of Michigan degrees with the flexibility and high quality online learning experience of Coursera.”
The Construction Engineering and Management MasterTrack Certificate will enroll its first learners in 2018, pending final approval.
The Master of Applied Data Science and Master of Public Health degrees are expected to launch in fall 2019, subject to approval.