Teach the World: Listening to the Learner

By Rupal Nayar

On April 3rd, 2019, Thomas Friedman kicked off the 2019 Coursera Partners Conference quoting Dov Siedman: “When you press pause on a machine, it stops. But when you press pause on human beings they start — start to reflect, rethink assumptions, and reimagine a better path.”

For the dynamic world of online learning, The Instructor Track at Coursera’s annual conference was a testament to this pause — a moment to reflect on the learner. Their values, hopes, and dreams.

In service to the learner, the conversations centered on two themes:

1. Teach the world — reach all learners

In the next decade, ~700 million learners will graduate with no access to higher education, most of them in the developing world. Moreover, STEM training must work to close a persistent gender gap. If it does, the World Economic Forum predicts a $300 billion boost to women’s earnings over the next ten years. The significance of reaching all learners was an underlying theme for the instructor track. Chris Impey Associate Dean, College of Science, University of Arizona highlighted ASU’s micro-campus model. A micro-campus is a remote “hub” in a foreign country, usually in the developing world, offering affordable education to local students. A dual degree from U.S. & local universities, a “flipped” classroom model with content and lectures from the U.S., and discussion or labs with the foreign co-instructor ensures affordable localized tuition.

In parallel to reaching all learners, Benjamin Morse, Design Manager at the University of Michigan, spoke about the addressing topics of macro-economic importance for global learners in a timely fashion. Covering a diverse array of topics such as Listening to Puerto Rico, Self Driving Cars, and Solving the Opioid Crisis, the University of Michigan’s Teach-Outs series brings together people from around the world to learn, engage, and develop a timely call to action. In two years, 23 Teach-Outs on Coursera have engaged more than 76,000 participants. In an interactive exercise, the audience brainstormed multiple interesting Teach Out ideas such as Science: Literacy and Misconceptions.

Over the course of the two days, the topic of teaching all learners evolved to the idea of a “Global Campus” as Shawn Miller, Director for Learning Innovation, Duke University discussed “Coursera For Duke” and how it supports the objective of teaching the world. “When we have Coursera as a platform for teaching the world and our own Duke students,” Shawn emphasized, “we can conceive of new types of innovative projects and engage with faculty meaningfully.” Statistics faculty at Duke flip their intro courses with Coursera content, building on the material for active team-based learning. Moreover, Coursera for Duke content is offered to all students as part of their co-curricular learning ecosystem.

2. Teach the world — develop “learner-centered” experiences at scale

“Can we deliver a quality, research-based degree, at sufficient scale?” asked Prof. Paul Aylin, Co-Director GMPH at the School of Public Health, Imperial College of London. With an ambitious vision to take a successful, selective on-campus research program online comes the responsibility to balance quality, rigor, and scale. This value represented an indispensable theme for faculty, course teams, and Directors. Professor Paul shared how a robust pedagogic approach underpins design at Imperial. Especially for their upcoming online degrees on Coursera, interventions such as small research groups with academic supervision, energized community forums, and weekly webinars are key for a rigorous online learning environments.

Franka Luk, Education Innovation at Leiden University shed light on Leiden’s research on emotional obstacles experienced by online learners. “Injustice and passivity are negative achievement emotions experienced by online students, which mitigate against intended learning outcomes.” Evidence-based appreciation of the motivating and demotivating factors that affect how students interact with e-learning is invaluable for faculty and course teams (for MOOCs as well as degrees).

Finally, Professors Xueni Pan and Marco Gillies from Goldsmiths University of London brought us to a close on the 4th of April with a forward-looking discussion on learner-centered VR applications. As children, we develop intuitions about our human-scale world by interacting with it: picking things up and playing with them. VR has the potential to let us develop similar intuitions about scientific phenomena. The University of London leverages various VR applications as part of their online learning offerings such as BioBox, an approach to physically interacting with molecules, and Medical Social Skills Training, a safe place for doctors to practice challenging patient encounters. “VR is not a better way to learn abstract knowledge. It is a way to learn things you can only learn through experience,” emphasized Professor Gillies.
Uplifting all global learners with rigorous online learning experiences is a core tenet of our community’s work. We are grateful to the thousands of instructors and course teams who enable us to reflect, rethink assumptions, and reimagine a better path for learners. You inspire us to always consider learners first.

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