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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 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.

Gallery Tool Unlocks Peer Feedback Possibilities for MOOC Learners

James Park, Design Manager

Rebecca M. Quintana, Learning Experience Design Lead
@rebquintana

During our team’s work on the Storytelling for Social Change course with University of Michigan (U-M) faculty member, Anita Gonzalez, we recognized a need to really bring to life a tool that would allow learners to share their text- or image-based work for the course with other learners in an easy and open manner and to also receive robust feedback on their work from other learners. Because of the nature of our learners’ work in the course, and because of the different expectations and experiences we wanted them to have, we sought an alternative to the course platform’s peer-review tool. This alternative had to be one where work and feedback could both be shared more freely and in a way that prioritized high-quality interactions (especially dialogue) over numerical scores and one-way assessment. Ultimately, we ended up with a Gallery that would facilitate this sort of learner interaction and empower learners to share work—or multiple works—without fear that criticism of their work or the particular “rules” of the peer-review tool would impede their  successful progress in the course.

The Gallery tool is not only being used in the Storytelling for Social Change course, but also our Python Basics course, which introduces the basics of Python 3. For Python Basics, we wanted learners to have an opportunity to practice their Turtle programming skills and to submit their work for peer feedback. We wanted a lightweight option, something that would allow learners to share their work in a “low-stakes” environment, without the formality and restrictions of peer-graded assignments. The Gallery Tool allowed us to create a forum for learners to upload their drawing(s) and create prompts, which ask their peers for specific feedback about their drawing. We set the tool up to allow learners to filter on type of drawing, such as abstract, animal, building, logo, and nature.

We are already seeing a tremendous range of subject matter in the Gallery, including spider webs, pyramids, U-M logos, nature scenes, and many, many abstract drawings. Learners are asking for feedback on topics such as how to create color effects, how to create specific shapes, and areas for improvement. Interestingly, learners are also asking questions of other learners that relate to skills they have demonstrated in their drawings, such as “How do you fill a shape?”

Abstract drawings of turtles and a multi-colored spiral

Figure 1: Two Turtle drawings, published in the Python Basics course using the Gallery Tool

 

What does the Gallery Tool do?

Submission page for gallery tool

Figure 2: The Upload Submission screen learners see before submitting a piece for peer feedback.

Learners can upload a text- or image-based artifact, or a link to an artifact in another medium, to the Gallery, where they will be able to also provide a synopsis of the artifact and some relevant questions they would like to pose to a potential reviewer. In turn, they will have the ability to browse other learners’ work and provide feedback on it, taking into account the very questions that their colleagues have posed in association with the work. The Gallery is very much a place of reciprocity, and it thrives on learners contributing and receiving meaningful thoughts and reactions from others.

A collaboration across Academic Innovation teams

The creation of this tool was very much a joint effort across Academic Innovation teams, namely the Online Tools Team, who did the heavy lifting of designing and building the tool, the Design Management team, and the Learning Experience Design team. Our former colleague Steve Welsh provided a lot of early guidance on the tool’s design from a learning-experience perspective, and Anita Gonzalez also contributed helpful ideas about its purpose and execution, as well as a thoughtful early critique of a prototype. Together, members of all of these teams met regularly to assess the Gallery’s features, design, and future efficacy when employed in the context of our courses.

One personally eye-opening aspect of the development process was the careful balance of designing a robust tool that would be truly effective in Storytelling for Social Change—which was natural, since it was the impetus for the tool in the MOOC context—but easily adaptable for other courses and contexts from both the pedagogical and programming perspectives.

What’s next for the Gallery Tool?

We can see lots of potential for use of this tool in future projects. Essentially, this tool is a forum for learners to participate in a “show and tell” of their work, because it allows them to share creative artifacts and receive feedback from peers. Some courses ask learners to complete a final project. The Gallery Tool would be a great place for learners to share sketches and drafts, and receive responses to questions about their work before they submit their project for summative evaluation. Learners can also browse through previous examples, before beginning work on a challenging project. Some of our courses are hosted on two platforms simultaneously. Since the Gallery Tool works through Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) integration, the tool could be a bridge between both versions of a course. Learners on Coursera would be able to share work and interact with learners on edX, and vice versa. In sum, Learning Experience Designers and others at Academic Innovation are excited by the flexibility that the tool affords, and are eager to use the tool in situations where learners would benefit from the opportunity to share and showcase their early work with a receptive and constructive audience.

 

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