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“An Apollo 13 moment”: Open Learning VP Sanjay Sarma on education in 2020 — and beyond

MIT Open Learning

 In a year that has been defined by the global public health and economic crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a reckoning in the U.S. with the realities of systemic racism, Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma and Open Learning’s Senior Director of Development and Strategic Initiatives Tom Smith connected about what this moment means for education and our organization.

In this wide-ranging discussion, they reflect on MIT going remote this past spring, supporting learners on a global scale, the potential of VR/AR and education research to shape how we move forward, and MIT education in 2020 and beyond. This conversation took place on June 24, 2020 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tom Smith: We thought this would be a good time for us to get together and share with our supporters and friends what’s going on at MIT, what’s going on at Open Learning

You know, we’re obviously not unique in the world in battling three crises at the same time — the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic fallout thereof, and race, equity, and inclusion issues in education.

In fact today’s news is underscoring all three of those issues. The U.S. Covid cases are maybe the highest to-date since April; the International Monetary Fund has said the economy is going to shrink by 4.9 percent globally; and relative to these topics, you can’t separate race and equity from how they’re related to the economic fallout and the health impact of Covid-19.

They certainly live on their own, all three of these crises are worth all of our time, all of our energy, but we have to battle them at the same time, so I’ll try and piece them apart to give you a chance to think about some of them. How does that sound?

Sanjay Sarma: Yes that great sounds great. I mean, this is a very, very complex and tough situation.

TS: It’s also tough not to back away from a challenge. MIT in general and Open Learning specifically have come to the fore. Let’s start with things that are going on in the MIT campus. Both with your hat of being on the MIT senior team and running Open Learning, give us an idea of some of the things going on across the Institute and specifically at Open Learning.

SS: Well we have in the course of four months gone from business as usual to transitioning 1,251 courses online, getting students to take them remotely, professors producing content from their kitchen tables with an oscilloscope and equipment on top all jury-rigged. In these crazy times, MIT is at its best. We’re really good at adapting and engineering a workable situation.

That was one piece of it; then meanwhile, we’re trying to figure out what was going to happen in the summer, trying to figure out the state of the disease for our own community — for our own faculty, staff. For grad students, many of whom were here. For international students, some of whom went home, some of whom could not because of visa situations and travel bans because of Covid. So a very complex situation.

We managed to thread that needle and I think again, that’s really MIT at its finest.

Now we’re trying to figure out what happens in the fall. We’ve decided that we will bring some undergrads back. We are ramping up research so grad students will return, but this will take into consideration the spread of the disease and infection rates and how close people can be and compliance to Massachusetts regulations and our ability to test.

The incredible thing is MIT is at the forefront of vaccine technology. We’re at the forefront of technology for contact tracking and tracing, privacy-preserving approaches, and genetics, so that we can do testing. We have all the tools really in our chest to take this on, perhaps more than most schools, but nonetheless we have to do it in a way that is safe and equitable especially given that Covid hits certain people worse than others.

We have gone through a very complex planning process and it’s very likely that online learning will play a huge part. We’re also trying to figure out all the other things we need to do to make the fall as good as it can be under the circumstances. [Read more about MIT’s decisions for the fall].

TS: Tell us about the teams that existed before the Covid pandemic hit and how they’ve been affected, mainly the Open Learning Residential Education team and the Digital Learning Lab scientists and fellows, and a group that didn’t exist — this group of volunteers that has raised their hands now to help students cope.

Digital Learning Lab fellows gather at the MIT Media Lab.

SS: We have at MIT an incredible team for producing online content but we also have a team called the Open Learning Residential Education team. Using this online content, they make it possible for faculty and students to conduct classes on campus in a different way: more hands-on learning, more discussion, things like that. They’ve been doing this for years but then once the crisis hit they pivoted and started working on trying to bring the rest of MIT online.

The good news is about 350 of our faculty had already engaged with Open Learning, so they already had the muscles to do this and when Residential pivoted they helped make it possible for them to go on Zoom, or if they already had MITx courses, to deploy those.

We also have an incredible team called the MITx Digital Learning Lab. These are lecturers, postdoctoral scientists, who have a foot in Open Learning and a foot in the department. They made it possible for the faculty to very quickly go online and they actually have become real heroes.

The final thing is Dean for Digital Learning Krishna Rajagopal and Sheryl Barnes, who lead residential within Open Learning, and Janet Rankin who leads the MIT Teaching and Learning Lab — together they created websites called Teach Remote and Learn Remote so that students were offered additional resources to learn remotely and faculty could quickly move to teach online.

There was also another brilliant idea from our colleagues. Dean Krishna Rajagopal and others decided that students needed coaches — not so much for classes but more to give them some support, listen and connect with them, and help them think through problems they were facing. The Office of the Vice Chancellor and the Division of Student Life announced the Student Success Coaching program and put out a call for volunteers, and within a week or ten days they had 600 coaches. These Student Success coaches have been a very important connective tissue in keeping MIT and Open Learning connected with these students and keeping students going.

TS: So that’s looking out at MIT and on campus, and the switch virtually for everybody. Let’s shift a little bit to our outreach programs that reach the rest of the world — some of the things that Open Learning is pretty well noted for. Give me your favorite issues and stories about what’s happening with our mostly open and free resources, and other education opportunities for people who are going virtual all over the world.

SS: Before Covid, which seems like a year ago, we already had had 210 million people visit OpenCourseWare to date, and almost 10 million course enrollments from 4.5 million unique individuals in MITx courses. edX, which is the platform on which we run our MITx online courses, and is owned by MIT and Harvard, had already received a hundred million enrollments. They just celebrated that recently. They’ve issued a couple hundred thousand certificates, 800 course runs so there’s a staggering amount of work that happened before.

And then Covid hit and suddenly you had 1.6 billion students separated from their educational institutions on the one hand but on the other hand, parents trying to figure out what to do. So we just reacted very quickly and the results have been very impressive.

OpenCourseWare is seeing a massive uplift in learner traffic. MITx has had more than 500,000 enrollments within a few weeks in the last couple of months.

We also very quickly launched Full STEAM Ahead so that learners and in particular, younger learners, in pre-kindergarten through high school, could get great educational content while they were waiting for their school districts to transition online.

TS: Let me ask you about two other Open Learning efforts that aren’t new but changed how they were doing things, and that’s the Jameel World Education Lab, J-WEL, and our Bootcamps programs. These are entities where people come together and share an experience and we’ve had to transfer both of them to virtual experiences. Tell us about those transformations.

SS: These viruses figure out how to attack human beings where it hurts the most — which is to say, we’re social animals. Anything in-person had to go virtual, and the first was Jamil World Education Lab, J-WEL. They had a global convening in March and we decided we’d go online, and they absolutely hit it out of the park. We had Dean Krishna Rajagopal, in the midst of taking MIT online, sharing his insights with all our member universities and more than 250 online attendees.

Bootcamps was hit pretty hard because Bootcamps by our definition are always intended to be this in-person complement to our online courses. And of course, suddenly we can’t do it in person. But Erdin Beshimov, the head of Bootcamps, and his team very quickly pivoted and now we’re doing Bootcamps online.

I think it’s a bit of an Apollo 13 moment — really innovating and coming up with some really great ideas. We can’t recreate the in-person experience, so we have to pinpoint the critical elements of the in-person experience and calibrate them to the strengths of the virtual environment. Perhaps we will reinvent the way in which online video conferencing is done for the classroom or discover a better way to do coaching online. We’re learning some new ways to do stuff which will actually persist post-Covid.

TS: Speaking of new ways to look at things, less than a year ago you helped launch the Center for Advanced Virtuality headed by Professor Fox Harrell. They are now working on virtual experiences to drive home the unconscious bias that exists in the classroom. Can you talk about that a bit?

SS: Unconscious bias is something that I hope we all know about, but basically our appearances impact each other’s perception. We launched the Center for Advanced Virtuality last year because we knew that virtual reality and augmented reality — these are very important aspects of the online experience. Fox Harrell and his team have been using virtual reality to expose one’s own unconscious bias. It’s sort of an immersive game that teases it out but it is quite impressive in its efficacy. It also shows us how we need to come to terms with these biases.

Virtual reality and augmented reality are going to have a very rich future in online education as a whole, so that’s the other thing. They’re also doing very interesting work on synthetic media, misinformation, and how to make the public aware so it’s quite a fascinating area of topics that they’re taking on.

The MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality recently launched a website, In Event of Moon Disaster, to educate the public about deepfakes, their uses, and misuses. The website’s centers around a short film that uses deepfake technology to rewrite the history of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, created as a case study of what is possible.

TS: The Center’s research brings to mind the work that John Gabrieli and Parag Pathak are heading up in the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative [MITili]. I think some of their education work is relevant to the discussion today, as well.

SS: Yes. There are a lot of intersections here. The School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative — that’s run by Josh Angrist and Parag Pathak — researches what works on a policy level to help schools, students, and families make education more equitable. Questions like do charter schools work or does school diversity help disadvantaged students. That’s one part of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative.

And then we have the eminent cognitive neuroscientist John Gabrieli working on human learning effectiveness. He’s conducting a number of research studies but one in particular that speaks to the issues of the day is mindfulness in students. He found that mindfulness training in middle schoolers changes their brain activity, makes them feel less stressed, and helps them focus. The great thing is it’s easy to do, doesn’t cost anything, and really benefits their wellbeing — something that is especially important for young students in this very anxious time.

[MITili’s grant program also funds research on a range of questions related to online learning and learning effectiveness.]

TS: This is something that everyone should definitely try. So I want to shift gears again and ask you about Team 2020 and Task Force 2021 — two entities that MIT President Raphael Reif and the senior team at MIT have put together. Can you give us an idea of what those groups are doing?

SS: Yes. So Team 2020 was charged with figuring out options for the rest of the year. Questions like what to do with residence halls or how to take 1,247 out of 1,251 courses online. How do you do that? How do you handle that teaching? Getting students geared up to learn online and simultaneously getting faculty involved in teaching online.

What I’m leading is what we are right now calling Task Force 2021 and Beyond. The basic idea is once Covid is under control, once we vanquish this foe, what is the future? How do we, as MIT, respond to this new future? We know that travel is going to be completely changed. We know that commercial real estate is going to change. New research directions will pop up. We know that, for example, our ability to do international research will change in some parts of the world.

So how does MIT respond to this new reality — that’s the task force that we’ve launched, co-led by me and Rick Danheiser, the faculty chair. We have incredible leadership and more than a hundred faculty, students, staff from across the Institute working on these questions and an alumni advisory board as well.

Sanjay Sarma discusses the work of MIT Task Force 2021 and Beyond at community forum held on July 23.

TS: It sounds fabulous. It gives me some solace to know that that’s going on, quite frankly, it’s great forward thinking. Now, thinking more about equity relative to education, I know that Justin Reich is doing a MOOC on MITx about becoming a more equitable educator. Fox Harrell and his team have the VR program we already discussed about bias in the classroom. What can we think about on the topic, what impact is Open Learning able to make?

SS: The social equity problem, racial equity issues worldwide, and especially in the United States, have several hundred years of history. It’s a very difficult problem to solve and that one that needs to be solved.

Education is a central piece of it but, even there, it’s very complex. If there’s a digital divide and some zip codes have the wherewithal to access this online education and some don’t, we might actually make it worse. So we have to do what we can, but be very thoughtful. Then there are other things like what Fox is doing with virtual reality. We can take on the question of race perception, how we view each other, and we can take on the question of giving people a sense of what it means to live through an experience and evoke empathy. We’re going to do what we can, and we have extraordinary colleagues working on some of these questions, but it’s a tough problem. I don’t want to minimize it but we have to take it on more.

TS: It is a tough problem and a lot of things we talked about today are tough problems. It’s a challenging time but we’re facing it with strength and motivation and energy. I appreciate that in you and all the teams that work here at MIT and Open Learning. Can you think about some positive things we can take from this moment that give us some hope, some light at the end of the tunnel?

SS: I absolutely think so! These are difficult times obviously, and tragic times.

But I actually am more hopeful now and the reason is that there’s something about proximity being taken away from human beings and human beings missing each other. I think we’re discovering some sort of a humanity that we had taken for granted. I think society has a unique opportunity to address some of these questions, when it comes back together.

So I’m actually really positive. More people are reading. More people are listening to each other. More people are Zooming. I’m meeting friends on Zoom that I didn’t have the time to phone before this pandemic.

We are longing for each other. So the silver lining to all this is, I think, is that we can take a very positive view of social structures and the connective tissue when we are back together. Using online as a medium for communicating and a sense of community has become more important in all this.

TS: Thanks for that. Thank you for your positivity and your energy and creativity as we go forward. Your leadership is vital today.


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