MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXV No. 5
May / June 2013
A Letter to the Class of 2013
City Council Approval of MITIMCo Petition Only Beginning of MIT 2030 Review
The Magic Beyond the MOOCs
Memorial Resolution for Officer Sean Collier
Why I Decided to Transition to Professor Without Tenure, Retired
Stephen Lippard Wins Killian Award
MIT's New Modular Learning Management System: The Evolution from Stellar
Learning From Students
Housing MIT's Graduate Students: Framing the Inquiry and Shaping the Dialogue
How Online Education Might Impact the Future of Mathematics Departments
Steve Hall New Faculty Chair
Support for the Rising Complexity of MIT's International Students
Working Alone at MIT
Mental Illness as a Disease
Applauding Proposed MIT School of Education
MIT Professional Education: Call for 2014 Summer Short Programs
from the 2013 Student Quality of Life Survey (Undergraduates)
from the 2013 Student Quality of Life Survey (Graduate Students)
Printable Version

The Magic Beyond the MOOCs

Sanjay Sarma and Isaac Chuang

Of the great deal written about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in recent months, much has been positive, some frothy, some skeptical, and some outright negative. Online education is likely a game changer for those who don’t have access to residential education but will it – the question goes – replace residential education? That is the fear in some quarters (and the hope in others). Our personal view is: not in the foreseeable future. The edX platform, which has simulations, advanced assessment, and discussion forums, is becoming more capable every month, but there is essential magic in residential in-person education that is difficult to articulate, let alone replicate online. Meanwhile, independent concerns over the high costs of higher education are triggering a re-examination of the value of residential education. Online tools may be just the cure that saves residential education by increasing the value it provides, not the disruption that kills it.

The Magic of Residential Education

President Rafael Reif has consistently described edX as bringing “instruction” to students. Woodie Flowers, creator of two signature experiences that capture the magic of in-person education – MIT’s iconic 2.007 design class and the global FIRST Robotics competition – for over two decades has contrasted the transmission of codified content, or instruction, and the much deeper, immersive experience that we refer to as education. But references to the distinction go far back and include the writings of the sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. duBois (“The true college will ever have one goal – not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.” – in Souls of Black Folk, 1903) and John Dewey (“What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur.” –in Experience and Education,1938). Over the years, the same general dichotomy has shown up in different research efforts in education with different labels: first order versus second order learning, surface versus deep learning, cognition versus meta-cognition, novice versus expert learning, and so on. Rather than seeing MOOCs as distracting or threatening to today’s education business, we believe the need of the hour is for educators to figure out how this new tool might streamline first order learning and free us up to enrich second order learning.

An editorial in a recent Faculty Newsletter (March/April 2013) had this to say about MITx: “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.” It then lays out a series of thought-provoking suggestions. We believe this is the right tack.

A key benefit of online instruction is increased time for face-to-face interaction, making it possible to further enrich the residential experience. Fortunately, several colleagues at MIT have been in the vanguard of this line of thought.

David Wallace and Suzanne Weiner wrote about flipping the classroom in 1998 (“How Might Classroom Time Be Used Given WWW-Based Lectures?” Journal of Engineering Education, July 1998). MIT has been aggressive about reimagining the classroom experience using technology, whether it is the TEAL classroom, or iLabs, or Visualizing Cultures, or online tutoring in 6.01, or Dave Pritchard’s enrichment of 8.011 using LON-CAPA (an online system developed by Michigan State University). In many ways these were the precursors to today’s edX. Such early experiences at MIT and at other institutions inform our plans as we move to a world in which many more resources and courses will be available online.

The possibilities and implications are both exciting and daunting. Hal Abelson, Tom Knight, Arthur Steinberg, Gerry Sussman, and Jack Wisdom, for example, propose de-emphasizing classes and adopting a system based on apprenticeship. In an inspiring article in The Tech, Sam Shames, an MIT undergrad, makes the passionate case for problem-based learning – in which a problem is at the center of a class, and the learning occurs through online modules that are motivated by the problem. Cole Shaw’s Master’s thesis under the supervision of Dick Larson describes how traditional curricular structures can be replaced with guided learning pathways. A range of educational models is now within reach thanks to our advances in online learning. These models seek to enhance the still intangible pathways by which higher-order learning – the magic, the metacognition, the deep learning – occurs: mentoring, discourse, writing, project work, teamwork, serendipity, creativity, synthesis, and the delivery of nuggets of knowledge at the time they are most relevant.

Unfortunately, many innovations in education thus far have lived in silos. Is systemic change possible? We believe that adoption of modern teaching practices is possible at the level of an institution. Tom Magnanti, president of the new Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), has developed a cutting edge pedagogical approach at the new university by placing student learning ahead of other objectives. By reducing the number of traditional lectures, SUTD opens up extra time for active learning in classrooms that resemble TEAL, and with cohort groups that resemble MIT’s Experimental Study Group. Well before edX was launched, Tom asked if MIT could not deliver videos to SUTD, such as those by Walter Lewin, so that SUTD could flip their classrooms completely. SUTD’s high quality faculty, many of whom had received training in active learning at MIT’s Teaching and Learning Lab, would then be able to provide much more face-time to their students. In response, working with TLL, we developed a concept map for SUTD and produced a number of “video vignettes” that could be used to deliver modular content to augment their in-person teaching. Imagine how a new university such as SUTD could take advantage of edX now that it is up and running.

Consider, also, how student life could be enriched. A student building an electric car for the MIT Electric Vehicle Team might benefit from modules on electric motors and electric batteries, made available on-demand online. Students in the MIT International Science & Technology Initiatives could become student ambassadors to learning groups around the world involved in MITx courses on edX, and act as mentors. A student doing a semester abroad may benefit from taking a course online so that she doesn’t delay her graduation date. In fact Pedro Reis and Ken Kamrin are doing just that in the i2.002 pilot class, available online to students while away from MIT (cf., Semester from Anywhere). Or a student who takes a year off to do a startup may take the online class on differential equations or philosophy to keep her intellectual instincts honed.

In short, we believe it is time for the conversation about MOOCs to ascend to a higher question: How can we use online education to make the onsite experience even more valuable? The Office of Digital Learning was set up in part to facilitate that very conversation.

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The Office of Digital Learning

President Reif installed us (Ike Chuang and Sanjay Sarma) as founding Associate Director and Director, respectively, of the new Office of Digital Learning (ODL) in December 2013. We report jointly to the Provost and the Chancellor. The mission of the ODL is to bring online learning to new level within MIT – for both residential and external use. The two of us believe deeply in the magic that occurs on campus, and are committed to enriching it.

ODL has benefited greatly by bringing OCW (OpenCourseWare), led by Cecilia d’Oliveira, and OEIT (Office of Educational Innovation and Technology), led by Vijay Kumar, under one roof, and with their support, we have created a new organization called MITx, led by Dan Carchidi. MITx develops MITx courseware, which can be deployed for both residential and global deployment. We like to think of MITx courseware as the “movie” while edX is the “theatre” in which the movie plays. We remain committed to the historic missions of OCW and OEIT while also developing workflows that build on shared efficiencies. We are creating a single, seamless organization for supporting faculty to develop and deploy online learning material.

Curriculum development for the online world gives MIT opportunities to experiment in a number of ways, and to reach an especially diverse audience. This spring we helped Mechanical Engineering launch 2.01x, the first modular (in this case, half-semester) MITx on edX class; 2.01x also blazes new trails by employing Matlab for select assessment problems. This fall, we will help the Philosophy Department launch its first philosophy class, testing the effectiveness of large-scale peer-assessment capabilities in a traditional MIT humanities subject. We are also interested in helping seed experiments in the interface between online and onsite learning. Esther Duflo is teaching The Challenges of Global Poverty, 14.73x, simultaneously to MIT students and to a world audience. The worldwide student body for her class has more active female students (53%, self-reported) than male, distributed over 153 countries, with 73% outside the U.S. Locally, at MIT, over a dozen classes have created residential MITx components, using the edX platform, enhancing onsite courses with pre-lecture problems, online project problems providing instant feedback, interactive statistics tutorials, and even quiz-review preparation videos, for example. Over 1000 students at MIT have already used this experimental residential MITx system.

MIT’s effort in online education has also opened up a vast array of intellectual questions. To help us address these questions, ODL launched eight MITx task forces in January of this year, consisting of faculty, students, and staff.

These task forces are looking at how to produce engaging videos, how gaming can be incorporated into online learning, how online assessments might evolve, how learning environments might look in a world with online education, how hands-on experiments can be incorporated in the online world, how concepts and learning pathways will come together in the online world, how graduate students can benefit from and play a role in this world, and what basic research will be possible with this grand new effort. The task forces will be reporting on May 17 at a half-day ODL retreat. The retreat will, among other things, help us launch experiments to evolve our thinking further. In the second half of the same retreat on the 17th, over 50 faculty members developing MITx courses will meet in a Special Interest Group (SIG) event. Overall more than 100 colleagues will come together at the retreat and contribute to our collective mission.

The MITx task forces are different from, but complementary to, the Institute-wide Task Force launched by President Reif this April. Sanjay Sarma co-chairs this task force with Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz. The activity is organized into three working groups:

  1. Working Group on MIT Education and Facilities for the Future
  2. Working Group on the Future Global Implications of edX and the Opportunities It Creates
  3. Working Group on a New Financial Model for Education.

Karen Willcox, Associate Head of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, chairs the first working group, while Sanjay Sarma chairs the second, and Israel Ruiz the third. Each working group has faculty, students, and staff members. The Institute-wide Task Force has been charged with charting a long-term strategy for MIT and is expected to report in a year, with a preliminary report this fall.


After many years of incubation, online education is here in force. While the attention has been riveted on the first order learning it addresses, we believe that online education should really bring second order learning into focus. The timing could not be more propitious: new teaching approaches such as active learning are now increasingly well understood, and our desire and ability to adopt them are relatively high. External pressures on higher education provide another impetus. We believe that online tools, properly harnessed, will enrich the essential magic of the residential experience and enable a new, possibly more effective, model for higher education in the to come. We have much work ahead to understand how online and classroom learning can be closely coupled. The key will be to approach the challenge in a balanced way, in which we use the aspects of online instruction that are an advantage while also enhancing unique aspects of residential education. MIT has taken leadership in education innovation before, and is poised to do so again. We thank Dan Butin and Katerina Bagiati, who contributed to our thinking.

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