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The Promise of Technology-Enabled Education

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 4, No. 1, January 2007

Here's my ed-tech nightmare: "students all over the world just sitting in front of a box viewing the same lecture."
      – Charles M. Vest, MIT President Emeritus and Professor of Mechanical Engineering, speaking at the iCampus symposium, "Learning Without Barriers," December 2006

Many of us love technology, though sometimes it can be frustrating, particularly when it doesn't perform as we'd like. (See "The Challenges of Engineering – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly") But whether or not you were the first on your block to purchase a cell phone, an iPod, or a robotic vacuum cleaner, when it comes to higher education, we need to ask the question "Does technology make a difference?" In my view, technology *is* making a difference and has the potential to make a *tremendous* difference. Let me tell you why I think so.

In early December 2006, I attended a major symposium at MIT entitled "Learning Without Barriers / Technology Without Borders." It brought together many leaders from the academy, industry, and government from across the country and beyond to focus on technical education. Among the speakers, MIT President Emeritus and soon-to-be President of the National Academy of Engineering, Charles M. Vest, reflected on the role of openness in innovation, education, and research in a future increasingly dominated by globalization. At one point, he displayed a slide to describe his ed-tech nightmare: "students all over the world just sitting in front of a box viewing the same lecture."

What is it about this scenario that is so troubling? It's the lack of engagement. New technologies in and of themselves don't create new learning experiences for students. Just as access to the Internet has not automatically given students a quality education, new technologies only provide the medium for educational innovation and enhancement. But what a powerful medium and what a wonderful opportunity it offers us.

Recent Symposium

The symposium I mentioned included moderated conversations and panels among presidents of premier technical universities, directors of research of leading information technology companies, and government representatives concerned with national competitiveness to discuss roles of research universities, the high-tech industry, and government to meet the demands of effective technical education. Keynote speaker John Seeley Brown, former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation, described how increasingly pervasive information technology changes the relationship between learners and knowledge, and how this change creates significant new opportunities for improving technical education.

I moderated a panel entitled "Educational Technology Exemplars from US Schools of Engineering." Hearing examples of outstanding technology-enabled experiments at MIT and our peer institutions around the country was inspiring. I admit I'm biased, but these types of exciting innovations made possible through technological advancements continue to fuel my optimism about the future of engineering and engineering education. Celebrating the culmination of the MIT-Microsoft iCampus Alliance, the symposium afforded an opportunity to showcase some of MIT's most successful innovations in this arena, including the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA), OpenCourseWare (OCW), and iCampus. Although I've written about all of these briefly in the past, let me say more within the context of technology and educational innovation.

The Singapore-MIT Alliance

SMA is a collaboration among MIT, the National University of Singapore (NUS), and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). SMA is one of the most ambitious interactive distance education collaborations in the world, using state-of-the-art synchronous and asynchronous technologies to achieve seamless instruction across 12,000 miles and 12 time zones, simultaneously teaching students in Singapore and at MIT. A program like this, without modern technology, would have been unimaginable just a decade or two ago.

Over 65 faculty, drawn from all five MIT Schools, but mostly from Engineering, have participated in SMA. Anchored in Singapore but with a broad regional reach, SMA has graduated nearly 700 students (with degrees in Singapore), drawn primarily from India, China, and other countries in the region. SMA has provided MIT opportunities to experiment with distance education and demonstrated that we can educate students effectively at a distance. Most of the SMA courses have been offered simultaneously to students at MIT and in Singapore. The classroom performance of these two student groups has been indistinguishable. SMA has also brought together faculty from multiple departments in unusual ways to educate MIT students and foster interdisciplinary research and education. While these results have certainly been gratifying, we had them in our sights when we launched SMA. However, we have also benefited from an important, perhaps unexpected, byproduct: through their SMA experiences and through the dedication of extensive resources to education through SMA, many faculty have improved their teaching, even in their traditional on-campus classes.


OCW provides the MIT faculty's teaching materials for almost all of MIT's undergraduate and graduate courses on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world. Five years after MIT announced OCW, 1,550 MIT courses, nearly a third in engineering alone, are now available online. Those materials, including those on translation sites, currently attract more than 1.2 million monthly visits and have received over one billion hits.

With plans to offer materials from 1,800 MIT courses by 2008, OCW has contributed to higher education in remarkable ways. [See impact statistics cited in "Educating the Engineer of 2020 and Beyond – The National Discourse."] We had expected that OCW would be a valuable resource for university educators including our own faculty at MIT. However, the use has far exceeded our wildest imagination, and the facts and figures only begin to tell the story. As examples, the chairman of a high school science department in Toms River, New Jersey, now utilizes OCW materials and the video lectures of MIT Professor Walter Lewin about electricity and magnetism to excite his students about physics. Kenn Magnum, a high school computer science teacher in Chandler, Arizona, has utilized materials from several OCW computer science courses to educate himself and his students. With more than 100 course offerings from the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Magnum uses MIT OCW as an invaluable professional development tool for his after-school Artificial Intelligence Club. In Colorado, a father is using the lectures and course materials of noted MIT mathematics professor Gilbert Strang to teach his 10- and 12-year-old daughters. Captain Kevin Gannon, a Leadership Trainer at the U.S. Navy's Southwest Regional Maintenance Center at the San Diego Naval Station, has used OCW materials to train the 3,000 sailors and civilians under his command; and VR Bill Humes, a U.S. Navy Aerospace Engineer and Researcher at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, has made fighter canopies stronger and safer using information from the site.

We have hundreds of stories from around the U.S. (and the world) about the impact OCW is having. The staggering outpouring of positive responses indicates that technology can make a difference, a BIG difference. At MIT, we have demonstrated that the OpenCourseWare model is an affordable and accessible way to transform education, and our global audiences of users hold MIT accountable to create and share high-quality materials. Judging by our experience working with and talking to users from around the world, we believe there are tremendous positive implications to open sharing of educational materials. Some of us at MIT are now considering the possibility of creating a version of OCW for secondary education that would help close the achievement gap in science and engineering education in the United States that concerns us all.


Last but certainly not least, let me turn to MIT's fruitful seven-year alliance with Microsoft. Known as iCampus, the alliance has sponsored approximately 60 cooperative projects among 400 MIT students, faculty, and researchers, as well as researchers at Microsoft. Indeed, 20% of MIT's engineering faculty have participated in an iCampus project. iCampus's intention in the broadest sense has been to use technology to improve higher education. The creation and dissemination of educational Web services, the reinvention of the higher education classroom, and the investigation of significant emerging technologies for education – all have had tremendous impact at MIT and beyond. Here are a few highlights:

  • iCampus has touched 150 courses at MIT with a combined enrollment of over 7,200 students.
  • The promotion of IT–based "active-learning" systems has transformed classes such as freshman electromagnetism (MIT's highest enrollment subject) and introductory computer science (a subject taken by half of all MIT undergraduates). Others include architectural design and Shakespearean drama.
  • iCampus has supported research on exciting new technologies, including pen-based computing, "magic paper," speech recognition technology, and emerging fields such as synthetic biology.
  • Student-run projects have ranged from designing wireless sensors to monitor water quality to integrating computer games with exercise bicycles.
  • iCampus has also pioneered a few global learning web-based services, including shared services for writing instruction and essay evaluation (iMOAT) and iLabs.
  • iLabs allows students to access novel online, real-time laboratories (including a Microelectronics MEMS testing device, chemical reactors, a wind tunnel, and a heat exchanger) from dorm rooms and other locations 24 hours a day. The iLab concept has given students a new framework for carrying out experiments and for relating it to underlying theory, permitting faculty to integrate laboratories more effectively with the lecture material. The iLab project has engaged collaborations with 13 companies, and iLab remote laboratories have been disseminated and evaluated across the world with university partners. In fact, over the last two years of iCampus alone, more than 60 campuses have adopted iLabs.

Who might have imagined these far-reaching developments and the broad contributions of so many talented individuals as we initiated iCampus? Indeed, we have been very pleasantly surprised and gratified by many of the innovations and by the unintended consequences of SMA, OCW and iCampus. These successes clearly demonstrate that technology can make a difference – a significant difference – in improving education and, even more, in creating new paradigms for educational innovation and delivery. Of course, these novel programs and others being developed at our sister institutions in the United States and abroad need to be sustainable and to be widely disseminated. An iCampus-commissioned report addresses these important issues.

Openness is critical

One lesson emerges from the developments at MIT: the importance of openness and of the broad engagement of those both developing and using these technology platforms. Openness and engagement foster widespread, and sometimes unexpected, innovation and harness the creative energy that we all possess. In speaking of the creativity of today's youth in his iCampus symposium keynote address, John Seeley Brown asked how educators will take advantage of the abilities and tendencies of our youth to "remix" and "remash" material. Charles Vest gave as an alternative scenario to his "ed-tech nightmare" the model of OpenCourseWare and noted that providing open access to resources permits intelligent and creative people everywhere to make innovative use of them. SMA, OCW, iLabs, and other innovations through iCampus not only illustrate the power of openness made possible by technology, but also serve as a symbol for what openness is and should be. Openness is a powerful way to raise the quality of education at all levels. The promise of technology-enabled education is an opportunity that we not only can't afford to miss, but that we actually need to embrace.