MIT chooses new digital learning lead

Sanjay Sarma to focus on campus education

5392 sarma
Professor Sanjay E. Sarma has been appointed as the new Director of Digital Learning. President Reif made the announcement on November 20.
Bryce Vickmark

Last week, President Reif announced the appointment of the first director of digital learning — Sanjay Sarma, Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Sarma will oversee efforts to enhance education with online tools, including OpenCourseWare and MITx (MIT’s contributions to edX, the venture started with Harvard).

While OCW and edX are best known for providing learning materials to the world for free, Sarma’s role will primarily be focused on improving education on MIT’s campus, where students can potentially benefit from both online material and in-person interactions. “I think that this gives us an opportunity to really improve learning,” Sarma said yesterday.

That opportunity includes experimenting with what’s known as the ‘flipped classroom,’ in which students participate in discussions, problem-solving sessions, or other in-person interaction during class. The knowledge traditionally conveyed via lecture is learned outside of class, through reading material, videos, animations, or sequences that combine all of the above, perhaps interspersed with quick questions to make sure the student is keeping up. Sarma says he wants to find the right balance between what happens in and out of class. “I don’t see it as a zero-one binary situation. Some classes will flip more, because they are more amenable to flipping.”

Some classes at MIT are already flipped, such as 8.01 and 8.02 (Physics I and II, respectively), the standard freshman physics classes. In the spring, 8.02 will meet its edX twin 8.02x, which is currently under development, according to Professor Deepto Chakrabarty. 8.02x will feature clips from Walter Lewin lectures and content developed by John Belther, who also helped develop Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL). It’s likely that 8.02 students at MIT in the future will be sharing this content with thousands of 8.02x students worldwide, learning from the same lectures that MIT students attended in years past, only on their laptops rather than in 26-100.

As of yesterday, Sarma did not wish to reveal just yet what other classes MITx would offer come 2013. “I want to make sure I am comfortable with the list,” he said.

But Sarma is interested not just in the new MITx but also in better pedagogy more generally. “Actually MIT has been innovating in education for nearly 100 years — more than 100 years,” he said. “Experimental Study Group (ESG) is an incredible innovation in learning. TEAL is an incredible innovation in learning. It’s very unique to MIT.”

Sarma is no stranger to innovation in education. According to MIT News, he has been promoting interactive teaching methods in mechanical engineering classes for more than a decade. Sarma wrote or significantly altered the curricula for several Course 2 classes, including 2.31 (Introduction to CAD, CAM, and FEM, no longer offered), in which students put mechanical parts they built themselves under destructive testing. He has also won a number teaching awards, including a MacVicar Fellowship in 2008.

For Sarma, digital learning is just another tool to help students learn more effectively. “I was talking to a colleague this morning about how you would teach entropy. I haven’t thought about how to teach entropy for 20 years. Whether it’s digital, or flipped classroom, or whatever, I have a reason to think about it. What I’m really excited about is the pedagogical innovation.”

“I’ve now met maybe 30 professors who for 10, 15 years have been producing online material for their students.” In his new position as a “convener and synthesizer,” as President Reif called it, Sarma will try to organize all of this innovative activity. “[Digital learning] will be shaped by the community. You’re going to have undergraduates, graduate students, professors, researchers — we will collectively take the great work that was initiated with the edX concept and tailor it to maximize education and learning,” Sarma said. He hopes to do that by “putting together a cohesive plan so that we can start scaling it” — scaling digital tools beyond the individual classes they were first developed for so that they can be used in more MIT classes or even by students across the world via edX.

But Sarma can also strike a slightly different tone from others involved in the new rush for online education, who are often out to “reinvent” or “revolutionize” learning. Sarma just wants to take full advantage of the resources available. He thinks it will take some work to determine the best way to use digital learning in a flipped classroom, and hopes that “we can move the needle so that we’re optimizing.” He ponders, “Does a video replace reading? I don’t know. Maybe a video will help. The idea is not to enforce a modality.”

For Sarma, “the technology, the format — all that is a way to present it.” It’s a means to an end. “The point is, let’s use digital learning to enhance learning at MIT.”