MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIII No. 5
May / June 2011
A Letter to the Class of 2011
A Call for Nominations to
Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board
An MIT Housing Dream Finally Comes True
Can Nuclear Disarmament Become a Reaility?
Faculty Governance @ MIT:
Strengths and Future Challenges
Faculty Priorities for MIT
Thanks to the 150th Staff
Technology Enabled Transformation
in the MIT Learning Experience
Interim Report on the HASS First-Year Focus Pilot Program, to be Renamed the HASS Exploration Program
Sam Allen New Chair of the Faculty
Preventing Utter Devastation in Tornado/Hurricane Prone Areas
MIT Subject Evaluations Now Online
MIT Class of 2015: Incoming Freshmen Stats
Center for Work, Family & Personal Life Changes Name
Sponsored Research Expenditures
(2001 – 2010)
Printable Version

Teach Talk

Technology Enabled Transformation
in the MIT Learning Experience

Daniel Hastings, Hal Abelson, Vijay Kumar

Last fall, Provost Reif charged the MIT Council on Educational Technology (MITCET) to develop a strategy that would fundamentally enhance the educational experience of students by:

  • Increasing the emphasis on experience-based learning that is hands-on, globally connected, and research-intensive.
  • Integrating living and learning through technology-enabled residence-based education that supports the very best in-person and on-line pedagogy.

Technology Transitions

The Provost’s charge comes at a time of major innovation at MIT, and also a time of significant transitions in information technology. There are currently three major technology shifts that could have enormous implications for higher education:

  • The continuing sophistication and lowering cost of networked communications: Audio and video conferencing in tandem with shared documents, even internationally, have become cost-effective and convenient enough that they are now a regular part of the operation of many firms. There is often no need for specialized equipment. For many purposes, people can participate in remote meetings using laptop computers and ordinary network connections.
  • The shift toward cloud computing infrastructures: Cloud computing is being driven by the economies of scale for data centers and support functions. For education, it is now possible to provide media services and interactive computing at global scale, even at modest cost – sometimes even cost-free with YouTube videos.
  • The shift toward mobility, away from laptop computers and toward smartphones and pads: Many people, including many students, now inhabit a world where they are always connected and where the boundaries between computer-augmented communication and face-to-face meetings have begun to blur.

    [According to an April 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, one out of every three teens in the US was sending more that 100 text messages per day, or 3000 texts per month []. The continued blending of real and on-line life presents opportunities, but it also raises troubling concerns. Prof. Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together is a perceptive and provocative study of this evolving world.] Educational technologists have begun to talk about the possibilities of “everywhere learning,” but the larger implications for residential education have hardly begun to be explored.

Opportunities for MIT

It’s difficult to predict how these three shifts will play out, even in the short term. But it’s apparent that they could provide opportunities for increased flexibility in MIT’s educational programs: flexibility for students, faculty, departments, and for the Institute as a whole, in a way that contributes to the richness and excellence of our educational programs.

Through educational technology, MIT could:

  • Address the varied abilities (capacity, preparation, interests, motivation) of its students through providing alternative pathways to learning, delivery, and resources including leveraging resources elsewhere.
  • Redefine the model of a semester from being a fixed-time or fixed-content construct to being one in which learning occurs in modules of varying durations with opportunities for varied experiences.
  • Move from teaching content to providing hands-on and research experiences powered by the inquisitive and entrepreneurial nature of MIT students and faculty.
  • Increase the quantity and quality of interaction among all of MIT’s constituents – students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
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In considering opportunities, we heard from faculty members that any initiative needs to carefully consider the affordances and implications of technology to faculty-student interaction. Students echoed the importance of faculty-student interaction. At the same time, a review of subject-level evaluations revealed that students value technology as an enabler for learning but not as a replacement for teaching.

Consider some possibilities:

Example 1: The increasing diversity of MIT’s student population is making it increasingly difficult to design subjects that are appropriate for all students. It’s common for a class in an entry-level subject to include absolute beginners, as well as students with considerable experience, although typically not enough experience to place out of the subject. Judicious use of on-line material could give departments the flexibility to create paths into the subject appropriate for both kinds of students, as well as “bridges” to serve as entry paths to advanced material in a manner that better accommodates individual student differences than does our current system of semester-subject prerequisites.

Example 2: The Institute is increasingly experimenting with activities in service education, short-term internships, and entrepreneurial project courses – experiences that may not fit comfortably within the confines of semester calendars and class schedules that must juggle four or five subjects at once. Typically we’ve dealt with this by scheduling these experiences during IAP, when “classes won’t interfere with education.” With advances in communication and improved on-line materials, it could be practical for faculty and departments to create subjects that include “expeditions” that take students off campus for two or three weeks during the semester. Students could continue in their other classes during those weeks, or make up missed work asynchronously.

Going further, students on international exchange or a co-op placement might still be able to participate in an MIT on-campus course during the time they are away. Similarly, we could accommodate intense on-campus experiences, such as letting students spend a couple of weeks in an immersive UROP project and make up for the missed work later.

Example 3: Many members of the MIT community could be effective tutors and coaches for students working with online interactive materials. As tutors, they would check that students are making regular progress and answer questions. This could be done in an hour or two each week without interfering with an individual’s primary appointment. MIT is almost unique in the range and talent of our academic research staff, and it was part of the genius of UROP to engage them in our educational mission. But we could go much farther: we could provide every MIT student with a personal tutor in each core subject.

Example 4: The strength and uniqueness of MIT’s educational program rests on our integration of teaching and research. Given the increasing sophistication of interactive educational materials, we could imagine a transformation where the primary educational role of the faculty would be mentoring students in small-group settings. That would be a fundamental change in the MIT experience, and a controversial one. But it’s a direction that information technology can open to us if we want to go that way.

Example 5: Online homework can provide students with immediate feedback on their understanding. It can also provide immediate feedback to faculty. You could give a homework assignment and, on the very next day, see an analysis showing where students are gaining understanding and where they are having difficulties. You could then incorporate that information as you plan your next class. Such “digital dashboard” efforts are being pioneered at CMU. [W. Brown, M. Lovett, D. Bajzek, J. Burnette, “Improving the Feedback Cycle to Improve Learning in Introductory Biology Using the Digital Dashboard,” Proc. Assn. for Advancement of Computing in Education, World Conference on e-Learning, 2006; M. Lovett, O. Meyer, C., "The Open Learning Initiative: Measuring the effectiveness of the OLI statistics course in accelerating student learning." Journal of Interactivce Media in Education (2008).]

Experiments in Modularity

MICET has identified the theme of modularity as a key enabler of ideas like the ones above. Rather than trying to dictate specific initiatives, our goal is to foster an educational system at MIT that is more modular and flexible both in time (not always organized into one-semester chunks) and geography (not always on campus). We will be funding a small number of department-initiated experiments aimed at demonstrating the benefits of modularity and possible ways to achieve it.

The focus is on initiatives that could have broad scope and applicability across the Institute. Funding for these experiments is being provided through the generous support of the Class of ’60 in addition to resources from two DUE offices, the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology and the Teaching and Learning Laboratory.

Following a series of discussions with departments to solicit ideas for specific activities/experiments to begin in fall 2011, we are now reviewing proposals for prototypes from Mechanical Engineering, EECS, Chemistry, and ESD. The ideas include:

  • Web-based, video-intensive, user-friendly bridges between modular concepts in early-stage courses and the same concepts in (a) upper level courses and (b) specific experiments in laboratory courses. 
  • A set of continuously available courses in areas of well defined core knowledge (e.g., programming) via online tutors for self-learning.
  • Some part of a course to be done remotely. Group interaction can still be encouraged via Facebook-like sessions.
  • Scaling the reach of a course through a combination of modularized content, various new technologies, and teaching methodologies to include students from around the globe.

In thinking about next steps, we're motivated by the following questions:

  • How will the proposed activity make things more flexible for MIT students, what is the impact on the student experience, and how will educational technology be used effectively?
  • What will we learn from each prototype, and how it will scale and transfer?
  • How does the activity fit into a long-term vision for where the department sees itself as moving in its educational offerings?

We look forward to reporting to the faculty on the progress on these initiatives as they unfold over the next year, and on soliciting further proposals. In the meantime, we welcome your comments.

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