MIT launches initiatives to accelerate learning research, applications

“Our collective interest in teaching, outreach, and inspiring the next generation has been the most fulfilling part for me as a member of the MIT community,” says Belcher, who is the James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and a member of the Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research. “This new effort enables us to amplify, broaden, and accelerate our commitment to pK-12 education at the national level and beyond.”

Adds Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Professor of Learning Research in the MIT Media Lab and a leader in rethinking education to foster creative thinking and learning: “I love how MIT students are constantly working on creative, collaborative projects driven by their passions. With MIT’s new education initiatives, I’m hoping that we can develop new technologies, activities, and strategies to spread this MIT learning approach around the world, so that people everywhere, of all ages, can learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively.”

Enhancing residential education

Also announced was an important new tool for enhancing the use of digital learning on campus: the MITx Digital Learning Lab. Built gradually over the last three years, this program provides positions for postdocs who are enthusiastic about and trained in the use of digital learning tools, so they can work with faculty in their respective disciplines who want to develop new digital materials to make teaching more effective.

Barnhart says that this is one element in a broad effort to “reimagine MIT undergraduate education.” As part of that effort, for example, the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education is seeking ambitious proposals linking undergraduate education and the student experience at MIT. Building on work that many people are already doing, she says, the new and expanded programs “will ramp up the number of people who can spend time moving us forward and trying new things, and defining what the undergraduate academic experience will be at MIT, now and in the future.”

The use of digital learning on campus is already well under way through a program called Residential MITx, used so far by 4,800 students in 66 undergraduate and graduate subjects. Over 83 percent of MIT undergraduates have used these online resources in at least one of their classes, and more than 90 professors have made use of the system. Support is overwhelming: For example, 95 percent of students in physics courses that use MITx resources say professors should continue using the system for their classes.

One example of how digital learning tools can enhance residential education comes from recent research comparing outcomes in an introductory class in mechanical engineering, Course 2.01 (Elements of Structures). In the fall semester of 2012, just 10 percent of 2.01 students received a final score over 90. Three years later, with the same professor covering the same material but with the addition of MITx content, the fraction of students scoring over 90 jumped to 56 percent.

Students in these classes, Barnhart says, “use words like ‘transformative’ and say it’s so exciting, they couldn’t stop thinking about it and working on it. Others have said it’s exactly what they thought MIT would be like, to have these kinds of experiences.”

Continuing education

Online continuing education programs for those beyond their college years will also be expanded. “People graduate from college and they assume they’re set for life,” Sarma says. “But given the pace of innovation, really, if you got a computer science degree 10 years ago, are you still prepared for the real world? It’s just a matter of time before every employee at every company is expected to spend some amount of time every week just keeping up with technology. How do we do that efficiently? The same science applies there as well.”

As part of these efforts, MIT is collaborating with Boeing and NASA to launch a Systems Engineering and Architecture Online Program. Consisting of four courses, it will train professionals on models and methods to manage complex systems. Other continuing education online programs include Entrepreneurial Negotiations: The MIT Way and Internet of Things: Roadmap to a Connected World.

Many elements of today’s announcement have been taking shape over the last three years, Sarma says, but they will now be parts of an integrated whole that will help to coordinate the research and the lessons learned.

“I do believe that there are significant changes going on in the way teaching occurs,” Sarma says. “There’s a wonderful quote from Plutarch: ‘The mind is not an empty vessel to be filled, it is a fire to be kindled.’ That’s what we need to be doing.”

Material from a press release was used in this report.

Laura Ascione