A ‘mind and hand’ approach to online learning

A ‘mind and hand’ approach to online learning

MIT Open Learning

How the MIT motto yields successful learning outcomes in MITx courses

Photo by Jake Belcher


The MIT motto, mens et manus or “mind and hand,” reflects the educational ideals of MIT’s founders to promote both theory (mind) and practical application (hand). Today, MIT lives and learns by this motto, combining rigorous academics with a learning-by-doing approach to explore and solve real-world problems.

After more than a decade of making massive open online courses (MOOCs), MITx’s teams of faculty and instructors, Digital Learning Lab scientists, and learning design experts have found that the MIT motto is a core guiding principle for what we do: making online courses that are accessible to a wide and diverse audience, and that encourage learning by doing for positive learning outcomes.

More than 6.2 million unique learners from around the world have turned to MITx for their varied educational pursuits. From learning during lockdown and in the face of war to landing new career opportunities and earning accelerated MIT Master’s degrees, MITx learners have used their online learning experiences to better themselves, build specific skills, and advance their educational and professional careers.

“One thing MITx learners have in common is the desire to learn the MIT way — by doing,” says Dana Doyle, MITx program director. “Our faculty and instructors work to bring as much of the MIT learning experience online as possible, often pushing the envelope of online assessments to create new and engaging learning experiences.”

A practical approach to online education

MITx courses are informed by the on-campus MIT curriculum, which already reflects the mens et manus approach. For example, the popular MOOC 6.00.1x Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python is the online version of MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science’s 6.0001 / 6.100A course for undergraduate students. Online learners who enroll in MITx courses get access to the same rigorous academic concepts and practical application as MIT students in the classroom.

Many MIT faculty and instructors engage on-campus students in the course content through research-based teaching practices and real-world examples. Methods such as active and blended learning enhance the students’ connection between the content theory and its authentic practice. When developing online courses, MITx builds on many of these teaching practices. But there’s still a significant amount of work required to effectively adapt course content from the classroom to a global, asynchronous digital format.

Qualitative research done by Meghan Perdue, Digital Learning scientist, shows that MOOC learners have diverse goals and motivations. Unlike campus learners, MOOC learners are not always looking to complete a course with a passing grade. They may join only a portion of the course to learn a skill, refamiliarize themselves with a particular concept, or connect with others in their field. MOOC learners also have varying levels of prerequisite knowledge. Many of them use online courses to supplement what they’ve already learned from their formal education, profession, or everyday lives. This range of learner motivations and knowledge presents a unique challenge for designing engaging courses while maintaining the academic rigor of the content.

An important step in designing courses is determining how learners will interact with the course. Some questions MITx course designers often ask themselves as they begin to develop a course are “What do I want learners to know when they complete this course?” and “What do I want them to be able to do to show they have mastered the material?”

The doer effect

Research has shown that learning by doing — combining formative practice with instructional content — is more effective than passive learning. This evidence-based association, known as the “doer effect,” illustrates that learners who actively engage with the course content and receive feedback on their responses have higher learning gains than those who only passively engage by reading text or watching videos. MITx courses are structured to give learners multiple opportunities to practice what they learn.

Here are some effective learning design techniques used in MITx courses:

  • Scaffolding and support: A supportive course structure breaks down complex concepts into more manageable chunks of information to reduce learners’ cognitive load, which allows them to learn more effectively. Instructors can guide learners through examples step by step, pointing out what is important and encouraging learners to explain concepts to themselves. Eventually, learners will be able to approach these questions without the instructors’ assistance.
  • Learning activities and online assessment: Research has shown that spacing retrieval practice over time helps reinforce instructional material. When courses provide periodic self-assessments, learners can recall and retain more information. Learners can also be paired with their peers to grade open-ended assignments and interact with one another. A clear and pedagogically sound rubric helps peers grade appropriately and allows learners to use the feedback to improve their work.
  • Rapid feedback: Low-stakes assessments, such as practice problems or videos that prompt recall questions, produce instant feedback so learners can quickly shift their understanding and move through more material.
  • Interactive tools, simulations, and visualizations: Many MITx courses use tools that enhance online learning. For example, the Calculus Sketch Tool in Calculus 1A — designed by Jennifer French, Digital Learning scientist, and Martin Segado, Digital Learning research fellow — allows learners to hand draw curves and graphs. The tool then uses complex algorithms to interpret and automatically grade the sketches.
  • Reflective exercises: Exercises that encourage self-reflection build metacognitive skills so learners can better understand their own habits and any knowledge gaps they may have.
  • Application of knowledge: Including ways for learners to apply course concepts to new situations allows them to more deeply understand the material and its real-world applications.

By focusing course design on learning goals and outcomes, and incorporating scaffolding and engagement techniques, the online learning experience becomes more accessible to a wide range of learners.

While each person’s learning journey is different, the positive impact of “mind and hand” — from the MIT classroom to MITx courses — is clear. What was once an educational ideal conceived at a time when the Internet had yet to be invented is now an essential ingredient for online course design at MIT.

A ‘mind and hand’ approach to online learning was originally published in MIT Open Learning on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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