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
Printable Version

From The Faculty Chair

Faculty Roles After MITx Subjects Are Widely Deployed

Samuel M. Allen

Like most people in higher education, I have been thinking a lot about the effects of online learning tools on residential education at MIT. A lot has been written already about this topic, and it will undoubtedly come into sharper focus as the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education gets underway.

My initial focus of concern, as the idea of MOOCs took hold, was for the viability of colleges and universities when low-cost, high quality, online subjects become widely available. With the cost of higher education of increasing concern both on campus and in Washington, low-cost alternatives to a four-year residential Bachelors degree experience are likely to become very attractive. Should we be concerned about the long-term viability of MIT and other residential educational institutions? I’m not sure, but strengthening the on-campus student experience will always be an important goal.

In what ways do students gain added value by being campus residents during their undergraduate years? The report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, commissioned by President Vest in 1996 and completed in 1998, considers the foundation of an MIT education to rest on the “educational triad” of academics, research, and community (see The report covers the Institute’s mission, presents 11 shared principles that “define MIT,” discusses the components of the educational triad, and concludes with recommendations. In many ways, the report illuminates the potential “value added” by an MIT education. Here are some excerpts:

“If the goal of an MIT education is to develop the elements of reason, knowledge, and wisdom that characterize the educated individual, MIT cannot rely on structured learning alone.” (p.33).

…"community" refers to students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have come together on campus for the common purpose of developing the qualities that define the educated individual. Establishing a critical mass of intelligent people dedicated to excellence in everything they do is central to MIT's mission.” (p.33)

“… informal learning-by-doing through peer interaction at the community level can properly develop in students many qualities of the educated individual. Community interaction is an excellent preparation for life: paired with MIT's formal curriculum, it is a means to develop communication skills and the ability to think critically about societal issues, and it provides experience with cultural and intellectual diversity. Second, the accelerating changes of the information revolution are eroding the boundaries of place and organization. To add value to a technical education available elsewhere, MIT will increasingly have to rely on the value it can deliver by combining informal, community-based learning with structured, curriculum-based learning.” (p.34)

Extrapolating from the report of the Task Force, an online-only education will always be incomplete because it won’t engage learners in two of the three components of the educational triad.

The Task Force report contains many other gems that we need to keep in mind as MITx grows and matures. While a number of the report’s recommendations have been implemented, there is much left to inspire and inform discussion and debate as MIT and MITx move forward.

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From the earliest discussions at which I was present, MIT’s engagement with MITx was described as being driven primarily by the aim to improve the on-campus educational experience for our own students. I believe that MITx offerings have the capability of doing this by making some types of learning more efficient, and possibly providing both students and faculty with more time to interact.. We clearly need data on where those efficiencies will arise, and I know that is one aim of analysis of the early MITxofferings.

Will the added value be sufficient to provide a continuing flow of exceptional applicants to our campus as online instruction is available for a broad array of disciplines? To gain insight to these questions we need to examine some specific aspects of the MIT educational experience that are either very difficult or essentially impossible to reproduce online. Many in the MIT community are actively discussing these issues. Some of the features of on-campus life that can’t be replaced online include:

  • Living apart from their families and developing self-reliance
  • Forming deep friendships with on-campus peers
  • Learning from their peers
  • Having access to a broad suite of student support services
  • Being in regular contact with faculty who can serve as mentors and advisors
  • Engaging in research with graduate students and faculty
  • Taking advantage of myriad extracurricular opportunities, including athletics, the arts, and student government

I believe that the extent to which these sorts of activities are offered and delivered on campus, and the quality of the students’ experience, will determine whether or not we will continue to have a high-quality diverse applicant pool. And success at having a vibrant on-campus community hinges on the commitment of faculty and student life professionals to fostering and facilitating both professional and interpersonal development of our students.

What changes in faculty roles might be needed to provide the value-added I discussed above? Existing roles include classroom instruction, mentoring and advising, and providing our students with research experiences. Are faculty already doing enough? We are certainly busy enough already! But will incorporating more MITx subjects into the undergraduate curriculum lead to significant changes in the mix of faculty contributions to the “value added” activities?

In December 2011, when we first began to discuss MITx, some of us thought that if lectures to groups of students were to be replaced by MITx courseware, faculty time would be “freed up” for redeployment to working more intimately with small groups of students. I am less enamored with that view than I used to be, but I expect it will happen to some degree.

Getting an MITx subject launched is a full-time job, not only for the faculty instructor(s), but also for a team of people working behind the scenes. No doubt we are still on the very steep part of the learning curve for putting MITx subjects together, and with additional experience and platform development doing so will become more efficient. But I now doubt that faculty will find significant blocks of time opening up. Faculty will need to be more engaged with students, and in some different ways, as our on-campus students make regular use of MITx resources.

Our faculty is very diverse and currently not all of its 1,000+ members is engaged in delivering formal lectures. In SHASS, many faculty already teach small groups of students as the norm for subject delivery and student engagement with the class material. But in SoE and SoS it is very likely that some of the hours our students currently spend in lecture will be replaced by incorporating MITx content into the time they spend studying outside of the classroom. What changes should we make in how we account for the “units” assigned to each MIT subject? Does it make sense for the total units to include the number of hours per week of online instruction? Should the unit breakdown for each subject explicitly count hours of “face-time” with instructional staff?

I know I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered. Working out just what MIT faculty will do in the age of MITx and off-campus MOOCs will happen as such offerings become more numerous. But consideration of the likely roles needs to shape our thinking and planning.

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