From The Faculty Chair
MIT 2030: The Education Part
MIT 2030 has gotten a lot of exposure in the past year. According to the MIT 2030 Homepage, “MIT 2030 is a long-range planning process designed to help MIT make thoughtful, well-informed choices for the renewal and evolution of its facilities and physical environment, based on a continuously refreshed understanding of the Institute’s academic, research, and community priorities.” I expect that most faculty have seen the impressive “fly-over” virtual tour video that shows current and projected views of our campus and its surroundings. MIT 2030’s primary focus has been on the facilities and physical environment that are expected to result from an integrated plan to renew campus facilities and develop real estate adjacent to the current campus. While academic priorities are an acknowledged part of the MIT 2030 process, there has not been extensive campus-wide discussion of what an MIT education will look like in 2030.
Each semester, Academic Council devotes part of the weekly meetings to in-depth discussion of a particular “theme.” This fall’s theme is the role of technology in education, and the Council has heard about innovative educational methods that are demonstrably better than traditional “chalk and talk” lectures in terms of learning outcomes and efficiency.
The reality of “distance learning” is here, for better or worse, and technology-enabled education is an ever-increasing part of the way in which knowledge is imparted on campus and internationally. Distance education has tremendous potential to bring higher education to remote parts of the world: MIT will certainly have a role in this, either through a coordinated effort or through a spinoff of successful on-campus educational innovations.
Because the world is at the threshold of rapid change in educational methods, we need to devote significant time and energy to discern what shape MIT’s educational programs will likely take in 2030.
Does distance learning pose a threat to MIT’s current emphasis on education within a residence-based learning community? Assuming that education-at-a-distance is widely available at relatively low cost, what incentives will future students have to invest in a residence-based educational experience? These are serious questions that need to become part of the MIT 2030 vision.
A residence-based education’s value will have to rely on the features that only face-to-face contact and immersion in a “24-7” shared experience can provide. Many aspects of what can be contributed by an on-campus MIT education have already been assessed at length in the landmark study by the MIT Task Force on Student Life and Learning published in 1998. The report’s introduction rings just as true today as it did 13 years ago:
“Information technology introduces new methods for teaching and reduces the barrier of distance, challenging residence-based education. Investment in science and technology has shifted from a national defense basis to one encompassing economic viability, environmental concerns, and health care. Finally, students who come to MIT will participate in an increasingly global economy, whatever their career choices, and more leadership will be expected of them. The Task Force was charged with determining how an MIT education should reflect these changes.”
The Task Force’s report and its recommendations bear further study and contemplation as part of the MIT 2030 project. Especially pertinent to the discussion of residential educational communities is this statement in Section 6, The Next Step:
“A cultural shift is needed at MIT. It is a shift
from demanding separation of student life and learning
from focusing on formal education
from a community divided by place, field, and status
from keeping research, academics, and community apart
We need to reflect on how successful we’ve been at achieving this cultural shift over the past 13 years, and how we can continue to focus our energies to strengthen MIT’s educational community. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that MIT’s future depends on it. From Section 2 of the Task Force report: “… MIT remains a campus-based university, and the value of maintaining it as such lies primarily in the degree to which its students learn from one another. Collaboration among students and interaction with faculty, whether they take place in formal or informal settings, are the distinguishing qualities of the academics, research, and community activities that take place at a campus-based university.”
Let’s return to technology-enabled education and its role in MIT’s future. How can developments in enhanced learning practices be leveraged to enhance the value added by a residence-based MIT education? The answer has to lie in creating and sustaining a unique on-campus learning community that successfully integrates elements of what the Task Force Report calls the "educational triad" – research, academics, and community.
I expect that for the foreseeable future MIT’s research expertise and infrastructure will continue to draw students to campus. Most research thrives when creative people come together to work on related problems, and personal interactions often result in serendipitous exchanges that ultimately lead to major advances. And for an individual to learn how to do research, there is no substitute for the on-campus experience of working with seasoned researchers.
No doubt by 2030, technology-enhanced tools that significantly enhance learning will be commonplace in MIT’s academic offerings. Let’s assume that using these tools eliminates a significant fraction of “chalk-and-talk” lecturing. This would free up faculty time that can be devoted to other activities that will change our day-to-day activities as educators. The question is, in what ways will faculty redirect their efforts to ensure survival of the residence-based educational model?
We will certainly have the opportunity to use more time to engage undergraduate students in “hands-on” learning and research. But we will also have to find ways for faculty to engage in community building to add value to the residential learning experience. A more robust system for advising and mentoring will be essential. More faculty will need to participate in mentoring, and deeper and enduring mentor/mentee relationships will be necessary. Faculty engagement with students will need to extend beyond the academic and research spheres and into the community sphere. The creation of options for more faculty to live on campus, or close by, will need to become a priority for MIT 2030 planning.
From our undergraduate and graduate student exit surveys, we repeatedly find that our students yearn for more interactions with faculty. That’s something that a distance education is unlikely to provide. We all need to brainstorm and discern possible scenarios for the MIT 2030 educational experience. These discussions need to inform the plan for developing MIT’s infrastructure and real estate over the next decade. I welcome your comments, suggestions, and engagement in future discussions of this important topic.