Why we open learning with MIT’s Vice President for Open Learning Eric Grimson

Why we open learning with MIT’s Vice President for Open Learning Eric Grimson

MIT Open Learning

What he’s learned from MIT students, how OL supports MIT’s mission, and what the future holds for open learning

Courtesy of the MIT Image Library. Photo by Jake Belcher.

Earlier this year, MIT President Rafael Reif appointed Eric Grimson (PhD ’80) as MIT’s interim Vice President for Open Learning. In addition to serving as VP for Open Learning, Grimson is Chancellor for Academic Advancement at MIT, Professor of Computer Science, and the Bernard M. Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering.

Grimson’s connection to Open Learning (OL) began in 2012 when he co-taught two of the earliest MITx courses: 6.00.1x (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python) and 6.00.2x (Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science), which remain among the world’s most popular online courses. After a few months at the helm of OL, we asked him how the role has him thinking about MIT’s mission, his experience teaching at MIT, and what opportunities he sees ahead.

Photo. Headshot of Eric Grimson.

Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: How has teaching at MIT changed the way you think about education?

A: One of the things I’ve learned from teaching at MIT is that there are no bad questions. There are only good questions. There may be ill-informed questions, but there are no bad questions. I remember that when I think about education–if somebody raises a question, I should think not only about answering it but also what was in my lecture that they needed to ask the question in the first place. Is my explanation a little confusing? Is it missing some piece of information? Did I forget something along the way?

MIT students are incredibly smart, incredibly interested, and incredibly curious. When they ask a question it often exposes something about how we’re presenting material that causes me to think about how I should change things.

Q: How does Open Learning fit into MIT’s mission?

A: My own view is that Open Learning is central to MIT’s mission. We have a mission statement, which, paraphrasing, in essence says MIT’s mission is to educate students, create knowledge, and apply that knowledge to the great challenges of the nation and the world. That last piece makes us different from most other universities where it’s just educating students and creating knowledge.

How does Open Learning fit into that? What we’re trying to do is take the knowledge we create here and think about how we then use it to meet challenges in the world. To me that includes helping people around the world. It comes back to the notion of OpenCourseWare or MITx — we want to take what we know about a field, what we know about how to teach, what we know about the science of learning and get it out there so that it improves things around the world.

It also applies internally. A second part of Open Learning’s mission is in fact to change the way we think about doing residential education. If we’re going to educate students, we need to do that the best way we possibly can.

Q: What opportunities do you see for Open Learning to expand on its work and mission in the next few years?

A: We’re still in early stages of thinking through some of this, but there are three areas where I would like to see Open Learning put some serious energy. The first is to better embed Open Learning more centrally within MIT itself. I said that it’s part of the mission–there are parts of the Institute that already engage with Open Learning wonderfully, use our digital learning experts, use our staff in great ways, and there are parts that don’t yet. Open Learning should be part of every department, part of — I won’t say every course, but most courses.

The second one is K-12 education. We started understandably focused on college-level education, it’s what we know how to teach. Yet if we lose a student in sixth grade because someone tells a young woman that girls don’t do math, and they believe that, we’ve lost. How do we reach K-12 education in a way that is really effective, that brings what we know about teaching to help change the way things are taught around the world? There are lots of Open Learning programs like RAISE and J-WEL and other things that are really focused on that and we can do more.

The third one is: how could we be even more effective in workforce upskilling? Open Learning is already doing a lot of work in this space, through xPRO, Horizon, Bootcamps, and other efforts. But it’s one of the great challenges of our time — there are people whose jobs are changing or will need to move into a different career. It would take a change for the Institute as a whole, but I think MIT should think about how we could help with the transition that’s going on in the country and around the world, of moving to a much more information-based society and helping people make that adjustment. Those would be the three.


Why we open learning with MIT’s Vice President for Open Learning Eric Grimson 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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