Digital Learning

MIT Unveils Multiple Initiatives To Improve Digital Learning from PreK to Continuing Ed

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will significantly expand research programs looking into online and digital education at all levels, from preK through residential higher ed and lifelong learning. The expansion is the result of a 2014 institute-wide task force focused on the future of education at the institution and was announced in a letter from MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

"Guided by the task force recommendations and seizing the new opportunities of integrated learning science, today we announce significant advances in several areas, under a new leadership structure," Reif said in his letter.

Notable efforts announced in the letter include the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili, pronounced "mightily"), the pK-12 Action Group, an initiative designed to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning from prekindergarten through grade 12, a program aiming to improve faculty innovation support in residential education and a new effort to improve MIT's continuing education programs.

To oversee the new programs, MIT has created the position of vice president of open learning, reporting directly to Reif and to be filled by Professor Sanjay Sarma, dean of digital learning.

"MITili will combine research in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, economics, engineering, public policy and other fields to investigate what methods and approaches to education work best for different people and subjects," according to a news release. "The effort will also examine how to improve the educational experience within MIT and in the world at large, at all levels of teaching."

The cross-discipline and institute-wide initiative will build from a core of the integrated science of learning to produce quantitative and qualitative research into how people learn. Findings will then be applied to teaching on campus and online.

MITili will be led by John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a researcher on the frontiers of learning science.

"What's exciting is that technology is making one rethink all the fundamentals of teaching and learning," said gabrieli in a prepared statement. "There's very little objective evidence that the standard forms of teaching are as effective as they could be." The new initiative's research "will look at both fundamental mechanisms of learning that are relevant to education and also be involved in evaluation or assessment of ways in which we think we can improve learning."

"By applying a strong research basis to existing campus efforts in scaling educational access, we can continually improve those learning experiences," added Professor Eric Klopfer, director of the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program. "Research can guide those improvements to go well beyond efficiency and investigate ways that we engage more diverse audiences, excite and motivate the public about complex science and engineering concepts and create generations of inventors and problem solvers. On campus this provides the further benefit of creating a venue where the MIT community can share expertise and improve our own knowledge and skills in this critical domain."

The pK-12 Action Group will act as an advisory committee, chaired by Professor Angela Belcher, to connect and amplify multiple independent initiatives aimed at students in grades preK-12.

"Our collective interest in teaching, outreach and inspiring the next generation has been the most fulfilling part for me as a member of the MIT community," said Belcher in a prepared statement. "This new effort enables us to amplify, broaden and accelerate our commitment to pK-12 education at the national level and beyond."

"I love how MIT students are constantly working on creative, collaborative projects driven by their passions," added Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Professor of Learning Research in the MIT Media Lab. "With MIT's new education initiatives, I'm hoping that we can develop new technologies, activities, and strategies to spread this MIT learning approach around the world, so that people everywhere, of all ages, can learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively."

The MITx Digital Learning Lab was also formally announced along with the other initiatives. The learning lab has been building momentum gradually over the last three years and pairs postdocs familiar with and excited about digital learning tools with faculty in their disciplines to create new tools to improve teaching.

"Online continuing education programs for those beyond their college years will also be expanded," according to a news release.

"People graduate from college and they assume they're set for life," said Sarma in a news release. "But given the pace of innovation, really, if you got a computer science degree 10 years ago, are you still prepared for the real world? It's just a matter of time before every employee at every company is expected to spend some amount of time every week just keeping up with technology. How do we do that efficiently? The same science applies there as well."

Reif's full letter is available at

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].