MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVII No. 2
November / December 2014
Issues in Considering the Future
of MIT Education
Four New Members Elected to
FNL Editorial Board
The Future of MIT Education
Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct at MIT: A Faculty Primer
Reflecting on "All Doors Open"
Are We Moving Toward a Two-Class
Research-Education Society at MIT?
8.02 TEAL+x: Students Say "Yes"
to MITx in 8.02 TEAL
Addressing Student Mental Health Issues
at MIT
Advising Undergraduates or Teaching a
CI-H/HW Subject? New Enrollment Tools Can Help
Transforming Student Information Systems
The A2 Problem Set in
Undergraduate Education
Work-Life Center Announces Senior Planning Benefit and Seminar Series
The Alumni Class Funds Seek Proposals for Teaching and Education Enhancement
Being "Nice" at MIT
from the 2014 survey "Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault"
from the 2014 survey "Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault"
Printable Version


Issues in Considering the Future of MIT Education

A large body of biography and autobiography describes productive scientific education and training as an apprentice process, critically dependent on the relationship between individual mentors and their individual students. Though these relationships take many forms, they absolutely depend on the human relations between particular individuals.
Among the most common answers to the question of what sparked your interest in physics, or chemistry, or science are “My seventh-grade chemistry teacher” or “My high school physics teacher.” In these narratives, it was the teacher as engaging human being, a person passionate about the subject matter that catalyzed the connection to the subject matter. Furthermore, the interest of the teacher in the student as an individual person was a key part of the equation.

Similarly, almost all faculty have experienced the flowering of students when enabled to work directly on a project that is “their own,” designing something or carrying out experiments, so that the data becomes part of their personal experiences.
In a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) with thousands of students, the human dimensions of the pedagogical relationship are sharply diluted. Similarly, the individual instruction in experimental skills and the student’s experience of the training are diluted as well.

Accordingly, the two central tensions that are clear in the Future of MIT Education report and in the summary on these pages are those between the direct encounter of students with dedicated teachers, and the deep value of direct hands-on engagement in the processes of science and engineering. Both of these dimensions are severely thinned by the MOOC model.

On the other hand, the apprentice mode above is not operating in introductory courses, and these have been the primary models for translation into a MOOC. As the material gets more advanced, as the direct transmission of experimental skills, perspective, taste, and critical judgment become more important, MOOCs are unlikely to represent any game-changing advance in pedagogy.

Thus, we need to learn much more about which dimensions of knowledge can be imparted without the personal dimensions of the teacher’s interest, and without the hands-on experience typical of a UROP project or a graduate thesis.

Unfortunately, even before the introduction of edX, research faculty and university leaders had not adequately described and explained the ways in which engagement in the direct activity of advancing knowledge enriches the teaching and learning environment. Research universities advertise this feature and claim it as their provenance, but that does not substitute for mechanistic explanation of how the research experience improves the instructional process.

Educational Outreach Initiatives

Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has emphasized important lessons about wealth inequality. MIT should be concerned about this growing inequality and its impact on expanding inequality in education. Leadership for us must be partly defined through our efforts to raise the quality of science and engineering education in institutions less well endowed than ours. This will require having some faculty who are knowledgeable about education, knowledgeable about the training of teachers and their institutions, and the training of skilled labor, rather than researchers. Hopefully this is being put in place to coordinate the edX experiences among different departments, though there is some danger that computational mastery will trump educational experience.

A number of broader educational initiatives are worth pursuing: Offering a Masters degree for STEM teachers; a Sloan School program for school management; a MOOC training or certificate program for people who would apply the lessons in institutions not yet so engaged. We should develop versatile materials that could be used by community colleges, high schools, and other universities.

Historically our texts have been influential. Digital-media materials have the potential to be even more impactful. They will not, however, succeed unless they are well produced. Especially for commodity topics, the lone-wolf author model is fading very fast. E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth was produced by a large team and an impressive budget. When e-texts like it are Web-connected and continuously improving through feedback and enhanced by artificial-intelligence-based personal tutors, students all over the world will use them.

To lead, we need a carefully crafted strategy that allocates time and money. More cooperation among us will be needed. Such a strategy must be informed by data more than opinion or anecdote. An NAS metastudy provides clear evidence that the traditional lecture will not survive for most courses. The study is very close to “an inconvenient truth” for the academy. Two MITx studies, [Study 1, Study 2] have concluded that online learning is effective and that digital modules coupled with a mastery model improves student learning. We can assert “They will never replace lectures!” but that will not change the future. We will be judged by how well we recognize and assess changing educational environments and make positive contributions. However, we also need to have the courage to defend and maintain the hands-on apprenticeship training needed to generate productive and creative scientists and engineers.

Editorial Subcommittee

Nazli Choucri
Woodie Flowers
Jonathan King