MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXV No. 4
March / April 2013
What's Next with MITx
MIT 2030 and the Kendall Zoning Issue
Should MIT Create a School of Education?
Faculty Roles After MITx Subjects
Are Widely Deployed
In Good Company: Professional Help Can Alleviate the Weight of Depression
Dialog on Right-Now Talks
MIT Freshman Mentoring and Advising:
The Role of the Faculty
Undergraduates Support Faculty Mentorship of Every MIT Freshman
Survey of Graduate Alumni: Career Trajectories, Entrepreneurship, and Professional Skills
Why I Live With Students . . . .
30th Anniversary of the Writing and Communication Center
Workshop: Leadership Skills for Science and Engineering Faculty
Underrepresented Minorities
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What's Next with MITx


President Reif, then Provost Reif, announced MITx on 19 December 2011. Many are getting on board, while others remain skeptical, but one happy consequence is unquestionable: we discuss how we teach more now than ever before.

Perhaps everything that needs to be said has been said in one conversation or another, but not everyone has said everything accessibly, not everyone has heard everything, and new things will need to be said, so we anticipate that the faculty will have a lot more to contribute to the discussion and debate in future volumes of the Faculty Newsletter as we work our way through a turbulent decade full of big thoughts. Meanwhile, what is said has begun to exhibit nuanced tones:

Maybe the big benefit is a great chain of teaching. Instead of faculty and TAs, everyone is a TA, helping, at the low end, to teach a subject just learned, and at the high end, to provide the big picture and access to what is new and exciting.

It is tempting to rail against crowd teaching, horrified by the idea of evaluation by someone not on the faculty, but maybe we are forgetting the educational benefit provided to the evaluators. Many say they learn a subject best when they teach it, so why not have everyone solidify their learning by teaching.

Electronically facilitated, every MIT student could spend time teaching material just learned to those just learning, deepening understanding on both sides.

Maybe the big benefit is the inverted classroom. Instead of live lectures, students watch the material presented, in a way that exploits the medium, in 12-minute chunks, separated by gating questions that test understanding. Then, class time becomes discussion time.

There are points of irony here. One is that textbooks have been around for a long time, and textbooks abound in established subjects, so why haven't we inverted the classroom using books? Part of the answer may be that we humans prefer, and perhaps learn better, when knowledge comes in through spoken language. It is said that Abraham Lincoln read law books to himself out loud, driving his law partner nuts. Lincoln said he thought he understood it better that way.

Another point of irony is that our humanists may be ahead of MITx, rather than left out. After all, they have always had what looks like an inverted classroom centered on discussion. Their MOOCs are BOOKs, authored by the likes of, say, Homer, Thucydides, Sophocles, and Plato, and a little more recently, by Dante, Voltaire, and Shakespeare, with many of their works augmented these days by clips from theater and film.

Maybe we should focus exclusively on projects. Projects are empowering because they leave students feeling they have learned something.

We do have to be careful here, however. Learning bits and pieces of a subject is not the same as mastering a subject. Bits and pieces are enough for some of what we do, but mastery of the material in our line of work, and understanding what mastery means, is important too.

Maybe you can educate, as well as train, with a MOOC. It is easy to say you cannot teach people how to think with a MOOC, but you cannot defend the point convincingly until you explain what it means to learn how to think. Some say it is a matter of guided experience, typically working as a kind of apprentice, and it is hard to imagine how experience can be acquired through a wire.

Hard to imagine does not mean forever impossible, however. Many of us remember when the idea of carrying around a computer was hard to imagine, therefore seemingly impossible. If learning to think involves guided exposure to real and surrogate experience, and if that experience produces a repertoire of story fragments and the means to exploit them to solve new problems, then it is interesting to note that computer-based story telling, guided by student models, is a long-term research interest of some of our participants in the Intelligence Initiative.

Maybe we are not being bold enough. Most of our discussion centers on improving what we are doing now. So maybe we are exploring only those parts of the space closest to where we are. What about doubling the size of the undergraduate student body, enabled by more efficient, MOOC-based teaching? What about outsourcing the freshman year, enabled by MOOC-based teaching?

Maybe UROP is all that is of value outside the humanities. If so, why not offload all the undergraduates? Let us just bring students in every third term (treating the summer as a third term) for intensified UROP experiences, thus tripling undergraduate MIT exposure.

There may be many stable points in the larger space of possibilities. If we do not think about the whole space, we may end up stable on a hillock instead of a mountain.

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Maybe we are asking the wrong question. We ask: Can we adapt everything we teach to the age of MOOCs and MOOC it out to the hundreds of thousands?

That is the kind of question that leads to caricature: “Ok, you have just read Act 3 Scene 1. Before you go on, when Hamlet says `To be or not to be, that is the question...', he is referring to (1) the threat of bad weather in the strait of Oresund; (2) the possibility of invasion by avenging Norwegians; (3) a potential consequence of family stress.”

Are we missing an opportunity if we do not turn the question over, and ask instead: “What are the 50 or 100 skills, concepts, and experiences every MIT graduate should know, understand, and have?” We have asked before, but perhaps this time we should ask without constraining ourselves to what can be gotten through a faculty GIR vote or how long it would take to get through it all.

With a list of 50 or 100 in hand, we can ask, with current and foreseeable technology, how can we best equip our students with the right skills, concepts, and experience in four plus forever. Then, we can situate ourselves to seize online opportunity, and as President Reif said, solve the unsolvable, shape the future, and serve the nation and the world.

Editorial Subcommittee
Jonathan King
James Orlin
George Verghese
Patrick Henry Winston

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