Digital learning technologies can enable students to grasp concepts more quickly and fully, to connect theory and application more adeptly, and to engage in learning more readily, while also improving instructional techniques, leveraging instructor time, and facilitating the widespread sharing of knowledge. Digital technologies will enable this in new and better ways and create possibilities beyond the limits of our current imagination.

The Institute has historic opportunities to reach more people, to infuse the magic of MIT into online and blended learning environments, to reshape residential MIT education by leveraging the opportunities of the digital education revolution, and to impact lives and society in ways not previously thought possible.

Institute-Wide Task Force Report on the Future of MIT Education, July 2014

An emerging frontier

Think back 10 years ago. Smartphones were gaining traction, as phone, email and calendaring technology were beginning to converge, eliminating the need for paper address books and enabling new connectivity. GPS devices and digital cameras were emerging but still cumbersome, rudimentary, distinct instruments. iPods had a firm foothold, and were beginning to miniaturize and incorporate tertiary features. Access to the internet still required a computer. Siri, Twitter, Snapchat, Fitbit, Facetime, and NFC payments were, at best, fantastical musings of the average consumer, and often the stuff of science fiction.

Digital learning today is where smartphones were a decade ago. Adoption is taking hold, and the technology has proven its value along some dimensions. We are on the frontier. We can see new possibilities in front of us. Still more possibilities are beyond our imagination. A decade from now, capabilities we currently think of as emerging and others that we can barely imagine will be as ubiquitous as the smartphone is today.

Proven benefits to learners and educators

Even in the current, nascent period, digital technologies have already proven benefits to learners and educators.

Digital learning technologies help students:

  • Learn more efficiently: Digital assessments offer students rapid feedback on their understanding, allowing both students and instructors (who can access this information) to concentrate their efforts on where further understanding is most needed. Adaptive hinting, which provides guidance to incorrect responses, corrects misperceptions immediately and helps students to figure out problems real-time.

  • Learn more fully: Rapid assessment, simulations, visualizations, games, annotation technology, and videos with multiple instructors provide a richer learning environment toward a fuller understanding of concepts. Annotation technologies, discussion boards, and online support provide additional forums for discussion, debate, conjecture, and edification.

  • Learn with mastery: The ability to pace learning to one’s preference, to review material, and to be assessed on a section before moving to another leads to mastery learning.

  • Learn the best way: Active engagement, hands-on experiences, discussions and flipped classrooms allow students to experience learning that applies best practices and directly employs current theories of learning.

  • Learn anytime, anywhere: Asynchronous classrooms allow students to “go to school” where and when they are most ready to learn.  This helps graduate students access advanced information needed for their thesis research when they need it.  It gives flexibility to undergraduates to study abroad or pursue an internship.  And, it allows lifelong learners to continue to pursue an education, while meeting work and family commitments.  Digital learning makes education more accessible and affordable to students on campus and also worldwide.

MIT 6.01 classroom and TEAL
 MIT 6.01 classroom and TEAL

Digital learning technologies help instructors:

  • Leverage time better: Digital learning provides quick feedback to instructors on where students are struggling, allowing teachers to provide additional instruction and answers to common questions, either online or in person.  Automation eases or eliminates routine grading, freeing course teams to spend more face-to-face time with students.

  • Spread knowledge widely: Digital platforms allow instructors to reach more students, often by orders of magnitude than via on-campus courses.  Instructors can disseminate new ideas more quickly, touching more people and impacting more lives.

  • Engage a worldwide audience: Digital platforms allow instructors to meld worldwide participants into campus teaching, creating global conversations – resulting in richer teaching experiences, from architecture and entrepreneurship, to climate change and innovation, and beyond.

  • Build learning modules quickly: Digital learning empowers instructors to build courses using the best content previously developed by other instructors and colleagues, whether within the same department, or even at other institutions.  This “digital abstraction” for modular learning content is the real meaning behind the “digital” of digital learning.

  • Improve instructional techniques: Through evidence-based research, instructors can measure how people learn most effectively and respond with scientifically grounded strategies for educating students.

Future Possibilities

We are excited about the implications of digital learning. Early results show benefits to students and to faculty, and students really like the immediate feedback that digital learning enables.

To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires imagination and marks real advance in science.  --Albert Einstein

We can envision and are actively developing further improvements to digital learning technologies: richer assessments, more nuanced feedback, customized pathways, increased modularity, more sophisticated simulations, enhanced peer interaction, and many other possibilities. Still more exciting are those advances that we have yet to imagine, and that will revolutionize teaching and learning.

One thing is certain: change is upon us.  We choose to meet this challenge directly, to seize the opportunities it presents, to build a better way to learn and - by doing so - to create a better future for students and instructors at MIT and beyond.

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