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"Educational Innovation Moving Ahead at Full Speed,"
Vol. XIII, No. 1, September 2000

Lori Breslow


Educational change is afoot at MIT. While individual faculty, and even entire departments, have always undertaken educational experimentation and innovation at the Institute, I can’t remember a time in the decade I’ve been here when so much was occurring on the educational front. Prompted, in part, by the report of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning, supported, to a large extent, by grants made by Alex and Brit d’Arbeloff and Microsoft, and managed, in many cases, by the Council on Educational Technology (CET), educational reform is being pursued on a broad and ambitious scale.

What is particularly exciting, at least from my point of view, is the cooperation and collaboration that is occurring among faculty, administration, staff, graduate students, and undergraduates from many different corners of the Institute. For example, faculty from the departments of Aero/Astro, Civil and Environmental, Mechanical, and Ocean Engineering are working together under a Microsoft grant to construct a collection of online modules to teach fluid mechanics. The approximately 150 first-year graduate students at MIT, who had all previously enrolled in courses within their own departments, will be the beneficiaries of this work. Remarking on this kind of collaborative effort, one faculty member recently told me, "I’ve never talked to so many people outside my department about teaching and education in the 25 years I’ve been here."

The advantages of this kind of teamwork are potentially enormous: Resources can be shared efficiently; knowledge and experience can be leveraged so that the successes (and failures) of one experiment can be used to inform others; curricula can be created that will build upon and reinforce previous learning; infrastructure, including educational technology, can be planned so that it effectively services various constituencies. In a report of the 1999 symposium, "Redesigning More Productive Learning Environments," sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, author Carol A. Twigg writes, "In order to have maximum impact and to achieve the highest possible return on one’s investment, redesign efforts need to have a strategic focus." (Improving Learning and Reducing Costs: Redesigning Large-Enrollment Courses, p. 5.) In this time of educational reform at MIT, the differences between and the needs of individual departments and disciplines are certainly being kept in mind; at the same time, "maximum impact" and "high return on investment" have also been defined as important goals.

In this Teach Talk, I’d like to describe a particular project designed to create synergy among these educational initiatives. Called the Educational Change Seminars, it is an activity being sponsored by the CET. The aim of the Educational Change Seminars is to bring together all members of the MIT community who are interested in educational innovation, to provide opportunities for people to learn from and work with one another. As part of this effort, educators from around the country, including those who have been involved in the successful design of educational technologies, will be invited to campus. The hope is that this will facilitate a larger shift in MIT undergraduate education than any one individual project could accomplish alone.

But before describing the Seminars, let me give you a very short history of how these educational projects have developed.

A Burst of Educational Innovation

In the spring of 1999, Alex and Brit d’Arbeloff announced they were donating $10 million to establish the Alex and Brit d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education. The d’Arbeloff Fund, called "unique in its focus on the process of education itself," was established to support innovations in teaching science and engineering. In the late spring of 1999, a group of about 50 faculty, administrators, and students came together to look at undergraduate education at MIT, to identify its weaknesses, and to explore new approaches to better it. That meeting began an ongoing conversation that eventually led to the decision to use the d’Arbeloff funding specifically to improve the first-year educational experience at MIT. In December 1999, Rosalind Williams, then dean of Students and Undergraduate Education, distributed a request for proposals for d’Arbeloff funds. In the call for proposals, Williams quoted the Committee on the Undergraduate Program who had identified three goals for strengthening MIT’s freshman year: (1) increase the level of intellectual excitement; (2) increase the opportunities for "learning by doing"; and (3) foster mentoring relationships between faculty and students. The projects to be supported by the d’Arbeloff fund were to address those issues.

A subcommittee of the Council on Educational Technology agreed to serve as the grants review board. The CET had been formed in September 1999 "to provide strategic guidance and oversight of MIT efforts to develop an infrastructure and initiatives for the application of technology to education" (Tech Talk, September 29, 1999). The Council’s mandate, in other words, was to supervise and coordinate projects that would experiment with ways in which technology could enhance not only the quality of an MIT education, but the teaching and learning of science, engineering, and technology worldwide.

No sooner had the CET been appointed, than it was announced that MIT was entering into an alliance with the Microsoft Corporation to work on that same objective: to improve higher education through the research and development of educational technology. Microsoft was to allocate $25 million over five years to the new effort, called I-Campus. President Vest was quoted at the announcement of the collaboration as saying, "Education-focused research supported by Microsoft will lead to new learning environments for our students . . ." (MIT News Release, October 5, 1999). At the end of November, a call for proposals went out for projects to be funded by I-Campus.

By spring 2000, fourteen proposals from faculty and administration and five student proposals had been funded by I-Campus and d'Arbeloff, and three proposals had been given planning grants. Initiatives include, for example, building laboratory instruments that can be accessed via the Web, and using these to create six to eight new Wen-enabled laboratories in at least three different disciplines; experimenting with "Just in Time Learning" by creating modules to support project-driven needs in Mechanical Engineering; and moving first-year physics subjects away from the lecture/recitation format and toward a classroom model in which students will work with computers and desktop experiments in small groups. (For the full I-Campus proposals, please go to http://mit.edu/i-campus.)

This is not to say that the only educational innovation going on at MIT are those projects being funded by these two sources. There has been the establishment of the Educational Media Creation Center (EMCC) to support the production of media and Web-based educational materials; the VaNTH (the acronym stands for the five schools participating, including the MIT-Harvard Health Sciences and Technology program) Engineering Research Center, whose goal is to improve bioengineering education; a new orientation toward engineering education, called CDIO (conceive, design, implement, and operate), devised by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and, as I wrote at the beginning of this article, a host of other efforts in many parts of the Institute. MIT is a hotbed of educational experimentation!

Will the Whole be Greater than the Sum of its Parts?

Each of the projects now underway at MIT is exciting in its own right, but as Helen Samuels, special assistant in the provost’s office and staff to I-Campus, has written, "The sum total . . . is potentially transformational" (e-mail message, May 3, 2000). The challenge is to create a shared vision of an MIT education. The Educational Change Seminars provide one way &endash; though by no means the only way &endash; to meet that challenge.

Last May, approximately 40 people involved in the I-Campus and d’Arbeloff initiatives met to begin that work. The idea was to bring people together so they could share techniques and technology, brainstorm how to solve problems, and cross-fertilize each other’s initiatives. Participants were divided into small groups and asked to identify educational themes common to the projects. Common themes could be about, for example, innovative pedagogical methods; new ways to organize and present content; shifts in the relationships between students and instructors, between students and students, or between students and the outside world (e.g., MIT alumni); or changes in the physical location of where learning occurs. In other words, a "theme" was one component or characteristic of the educational process that was ripe for change. In all, seven themes were identified, and I’d like to describe each briefly. For each theme, I’ll first give examples of the ways in which the MIT community is working to make gains in that area, and then I’ll identify some of the difficulties that may lie ahead.

Interactive learning in the classroom. This term encompasses a wide variety of educational innovations, including learning by doing, project-based learning, and projects in which students work in small groups and teams. The common element underlying all is that instead of asking students to only sit, listen, and take notes in class, these techniques require students to actively engage with the subject matter and with one another. For example, Professor Kip Hodges and his team will debut a subject this fall called "Mission 2004." Fifty freshmen will be put into groups of five to work together for the entire semester to answer the question, "Is there life on Mars?" Students will be required to use a variety of sources from an array of disciplines in order to answer that question. Along the way, they will learn teamwork and Web-based skills.

There are many challenges for using interactive methodologies in science and engineering classrooms. Will content be sacrificed in order to give students the time they need to explore? How do we make sure that both more advanced and weaker students are not shortchanged when we use these interactive methodologies? How can we measure if we have successfully taught skills like communication and problem solving? (As will become clear below, assessment and evaluation need to be an integral part of each of these experiments.)

Learning outside of the classroom. In "Organizing for Learning," an oft-cited article in the literature on higher education, Peter Ewell, senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management System, identifies two "compelling insights about learning" that are particularly applicable here:

  • Every student learns all the time, both with us and despite us.
  • Direct experience decisively shapes individual understanding.(AAHE Bulletin, December 1999, p. 4).

Many in higher education (myself included) have been myopic when it comes to seeing opportunities for learning outside of the classroom. (Others would argue, I suppose, that the classroom is the last place learning takes place!) But MIT faculty and students are exploring novel sites for learning. For example, Professors David Mindell, Deborah Fitzgerald, and Evelynn Hammond are working on a project that will take students into factories and laboratories to see first hand the work of scientists and engineers.

But, again, moving learning outside of the traditional classroom brings with it a host of its own problems. For example, how can we be sure that these activities are worth the time of both faculty and students? What kind of supervision is needed in order to guarantee that these are quality learning experiences? And, how can activities outside the classroom be integrated with what goes on in class?

Integration across the curriculum. The fluid mechanics proposal described above is the best example of how one subject can be used to meet several different curriculum needs. But other projects are exploring the concept of modularity, which has tremendous potential for integration across the curriculum. By breaking down a curriculum into smaller parts, each of which has its own integrity conceptually, instructors are given the opportunity to "mix and match" modules to meet an assortment of needs. This flexibility can help instructors tailor curricula to students who come to a class with different abilities, with different interests, and with a different level of preparation. In the VaNTH bioengineering consortium, for example, engineers and learning scientists are working together to create a series of modules that can be used in a number of different courses to fulfill a variety of functions. The very nature of bioengineering &endash; particularly its interdisciplinarity &endash; makes modularity an especially useful format for that discipline.

Yet as the module designers have undertaken this work, they have been confronted by a series of questions: How "big" should a module be? (By that I mean not only how much material should be covered, but how are the conceptual boundaries defined?) Should there be standards in place both for the format of the modules, as well as for the platforms used to create online material? And what criteria should be used to determine the right "level" for the modules? Should they capture the most elementary, basic knowledge of the discipline? Does more advanced material lend itself more readily to modularity? Are both equally fair game? The concept of modularity holds a great deal of promise, but as we actually begin to construct modules, we find the challenges, well, challenging.

New educational technologies. The potential for new technologies to change the landscape of education is, of course, enormous, and we have only scratched the surface of possibilities. Here is just a sampling of the tools MIT faculty and students are currently developing: Web-based "super lectures" that Mechanical Engineering students could download at their convenience; "virtual aircraft" that Aero/Astro students could use to explore design and operational concepts; the use of remote instrumentation to allow students in Civil and Environmental Engineering to examine various structures on the MIT campus; and the "Classroom Communicangineering students could download at their convenience; "virtual aircraft" that Aero/Astro students could use to explore design and operational concepts; the use of remote instrumentation to allow students in Civil and Environmental Engineering to examine various structures on the MIT campus; and the "Classroom Communicator," a multi-faceted system designed to increase the level of interaction and feedback between student and lecturer in the classroom.

It seems to me that, in general, the great gains being made by these and other educational technologies can be placed into three broad categories. Educational technology can:

  • Bring experiences or information to students that they would not be able to access because of the limitations of the human senses.
  • Break the constraints of time and space allowing for communication with a wider group of individuals than is available in the traditional classroom (or, for that matter, the traditional university).
  • Allow students to tailor their educational intake depending on their own preferences and needs.

Those involved in current projects at MIT understand, I believe, that these capabilities cannot be taken lightly. They will have tremendous consequences for our roles as teachers and learners, for the operation of institutions of higher learning, and for our very definition of what it means to be a "learned" person. (For an excellent discussion of current and potential impact of the Web on school and learning, see John Seely Brown’s "Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn," Change, March/April 2000.) We need to experiment, and we need to evaluate the results of those experiments. We can best maximize our resources and efforts in education in the same way that resources are best utilized in research: by proceeding in a methodical, organized way while remaining open to serendipity, to the unexpected, and to the unplanned for.

Distributed learning. Because educational technologies can break the boundaries of time and space, they allow us to spread learning far beyond the traditional boundaries of both the classroom and the campus. The concept of distance learning has captured the imagination not only of the academic community, but of entrepreneurs as well. Indeed, the strategy subcommittee of the CET has spent much of the last year considering MIT’s options in this arena. The Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA) is one example of distance learning at the Institute. A collaboration between MIT, the National University of Singapore, and Nanyang Technological University, SMA gives Singaporean and MIT students the opportunity to take master’s and doctoral-level courses in advanced materials, high performance computation for engineering systems, or innovation in manufacturing systems and technology. Classes are held simultaneously in Singapore and Cambridge with live video transmission over Internet 2.

Much print has been spilled debating the potential benefits and dangers of distance learning, but one thing is for sure: We still don’t have all the kinks worked out. Everything from getting handouts to students before class (photocopying 15 minutes before lecture won’t work anymore) to managing discussions has to be rethought. Faculty who have taught distance learning classes say they would benefit from training in how to manage this new kind of educational environment. We also need to assess what the benefits and costs associated with distance learning are (monetarily, in terms of manpower, and in terms of learning), so we can determine when those costs outweigh the gains and vice versa.

New kinds of learning communities. The M.ArchNet Project, supported by I-Campus, aims "to sustain and enhance a community of scholars by electronic means." In the opinion of the M.ArchNet’s creators, the power of the Web lies in its ability "to create and enhance learning communities that have a sense of cohesion, identity, and purpose, that have effective mechanisms for producing, accumulating, adding value to, managing, and distributing intellectual resources among their members and that allow all members to function as both contributors and consumers."

John Seely Brown, in the article cited above, also writes of the creation of electronic "communities of practices," which, he maintains, will lead to a new kind of "learning ecology," new complex systems in which learning will take place. What skills and attributes will members of this far-reaching electronic community need? And, more importantly for us as educators, how will we make sure that our students are equipped with those skills?

New methods of assessing educational methods and student performance. I hope it is clear from all that I have written above that we are moving into uncharted territory. Our job is not only to explore the territory, but to map it as well.

That means we need to build methods of assessment and evaluation into every project we undertake. But here lies more potential pitfalls, for the process of measuring effectiveness in educational enterprises &endash; particularly measuring anything as vague as "learning" &endash; is, to put it mildly, not easy. But that does not mean we should not do it.

These new ways of learning that we are experimenting with will also require new methods of evaluating student performance. If we wish students to learn how to solve novel problems, for example, we have to guide them in that process, and then we have to set up methods of evaluation that will allow them to demonstrate that skill to us. This will take some invention on our part, as well.


In this column, I’ve tried to describe the excitement and give examples of the challenges that lie before us. MIT has excelled in research because of both individual enterprise and powerful collaborations. That same model will serve us well in the educational sphere. We need to put energy, creativity, and commitment into individual projects while focusing on how those individual projects can be woven together into a more comprehensive understanding of and approach to undergraduate science and engineering education.

The Educational Change Seminars are one venue for accomplishing this goal. (Dates, times, and speakers for the Seminars will appear in Tech Talk as well as elsewhere.) We invite everyone to join us in these conversations.

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