Catherine Drennan - Innovation in the classroom

‘Future of Education’ symposium, held before the inauguration of President L. Rafael Reif, examines the evolution of teaching and learning.

Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office
September 21, 2012

For all the innovations that come out of MIT’s labs, a symposium held on the morning of President L. Rafael Reif’s inauguration underscored the many ways in which the Institute is pursuing innovations in the classroom as well.

Perhaps the best-known of these efforts, the online-learning initiative edX, was spearheaded by Reif during his tenure as MIT’s provost, and formed a significant focal point of the event, “The Future of Education,” held before an audience of several hundred in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on Friday morning. But it was hardly the only topic discussed: More than a dozen MIT speakers on three panels talked about additional ways to integrate technology into the classroom; the value of giving students hands-on research experience, including projects that take them overseas; and the benefits of student collaboration, among other topics.

“This is the new classroom,” said Anant Agarwal, edX president and MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science, showing the audience a picture of Mongolian students in a group study session based on edX course materials.

When MIT launched MITx, the predecessor to edX, Agarwal said, “We had absolutely no idea what was going to work or not work.” After an initial review of student experiences, Agarwal says, the edX group does have a better sense of what students respond to, including the idea that “instant feedback is an absolute game-changer.” Online interfaces that let students know if they are understanding concepts or tackling problem sets correctly, for example, can keep students motivated and connected to course materials.

There may be great value in constructing online courses that incorporate some of the principles of gaming, Agarwal said, especially since so many of today’s students are familiar with gaming. EdX does this by, among other things, giving students awards of “karma points” for helping other students — wherever in the world they may be located.

In that vein, some MIT researchers specialize in creating online games that serve as teaching tools, noted Eric Klopfer, associate professor of education at MIT and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program. Last year that program helped create the popular online game “Vanished” for the Smithsonian Institution, spurring students to learn about natural history.

Such games constitute “hard fun,” Klopfer noted, explaining, “You’re having fun because it’s hard,” which increases the satisfaction of success for students. Technology has also been usefully integrated into the brick-and-mortar classroom in places such as MIT’s Freshman Chemistry Lecture, where the lectures involve elements such as short video clips. Such seemingly modest tweaks encourage engagement by women, among other effects, noted Catherine L. Drennan, a professor chemistry and biology at MIT, and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Small changes make a large difference,” Drennan said.

In the world

Many of the educational innovations discussed on Friday were not enabled by new technology, however, but by the recognition that students are often at their most creative and productive when applying classroom knowledge to real-world problems.

MIT’s D-Lab, for instance, offers classes intended to blend technology with international development. Amy B. Smith, senior lecturer in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and the founder of the D-Lab, presented multiple examples of MIT students whose coursework has shaped their careers — including Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Amos Winter, whose lever-controlled wheelchairs have been adopted globally. In Smith’s vision, such efforts help compose an “infinite classroom” in which “students can engage directly in co-creation with other parties.”

MIT’s heralded Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which also involves younger students directly in research, often globally, is another vehicle for this kind of engagement, noted J. Kim Vandiver, MIT’s dean for undergraduate research and a professor of mechanical and ocean engineering.

“If you ask people why did they want to come to MIT, one of the most frequent answers is UROP,” Vandiver said. Indeed, he added, “when students come in with a big idea,” often the best thing to do is to “support them, give them resources, and get out of the way.”

Still, Sanjay E. Sarma, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the MIT-SUTD Collaboration, questioned whether MIT is doing enough to encourage students to be entrepreneurial and start companies.

While noting that MIT alumni have founded more than 26,000 firms, Sarma challenged faculty and administrators to push students more in this area, asking, “How much do we encourage students to take leaps of faith?”

Money matters

On a different note, Rosalind Williams, the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at MIT, reminded the audience that progress involves more than just technological innovations, but also making policy decisions beneficial to much of society.

Williams outlined what she termed the “two big challenges” to the future of education. One is the cost of higher education — which, she said, “it is not a given that technology will lower.” While the edX project is nonprofit, other online course ventures, Williams pointed out, are for-profit entities

The other issue, Williams said, is “inclusion — being open to all students from all backgrounds.” MIT has made huge strides in undergraduate gender diversity over roughly the last four decades, she noted, with nearly half of undergraduates now women, but the Institute “needs to keep thinking about these challenges.”

In brief concluding remarks, before his formal inauguration ceremonies were to begin, Reif offered his own summary of the varied presentations. “The interesting conclusion we are reaching … is that everybody is right,” Reif said. That leaves, he said, an open question, which he said he intended to address at further length in his own remarks at inauguration on Friday afternoon: “How can we put all this together?”