Nov/Dec Faculty Newsletter released

Touches on the future of online learning in the age of MOOCs, a sexual assault response primer, and mental health issues

This month’s edition of the MIT Faculty Newsletter touched on many of the same issues that have been at the forefront of recent student concerns. The newsletter highlighted faculty positions on issues including online learning and the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, MIT’s response to sexual assault on campus, and mental health at MIT.

Online Learning and the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education

Sanjay Sarma, Karen Willcox, and Israel Ruiz, the Task Force Chairs, summarized some of the findings and recommendations of the task force, focusing especially on the potential impact of tools that MIT develops on other campuses, including high schools.

Recommendations specific to MIT’s educational model included “infusing greater flexibility into the core undergraduate curriculum, including the General Institute Requirements (GIRs); expanding the use of diverse pedagogies such as project-based and blended learning models; introducing modularity into the curriculum; and studying new approaches to the assessment of students.”

The letter highlighted some of the recommendations which have already been undertaken, including the on-campus MITx Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, which in brought students who had previously taken an online course.

An editorial published in the newsletter highlighted the difficulties on online education. “The two central tensions that are clear in the Future of MIT Education report … are those between the direct encounter of students with dedicated teachers, and the deep value of direct hands-on engagement in the processes of science and engineering. Both of these dimensions are severely thinned by the MOOC model,” the editorial said.

However, the editorial also noted that the large MIT GIRs — which most commonly use online tools — are the classes that don’t have much “hands-on engagement” to begin with. Nevertheless, the piece questioned whether MOOCs themselves would transform teaching.

“As the material gets more advanced, as the direct transmission of experimental skills, perspective, taste, and critical judgment become more important, MOOCs are unlikely to represent any game-changing advance in pedagogy.”

Nevertheless, a letter from Saif Rayyan and John Belcher provided some data on last spring’s experiment in incorporating online elements into the 8.02 curriculum. Rayyan and Belcher announced an overwhelmingly positive response to the use of online tools, particularly the online problem checker, which “reduced [students’] stress about the homework, and raised their self-confidence.”

A recommendation of the task force, addressed in the newsletter, is to couple advances in teaching with changes in campus construction. The report recommends “establishing a working group on spaces for future student life and learning to bring together stakeholders from around campus to envision, plan, and create spaces for the future of MIT education.”

Sexual Assault Prevention

Following up on the release of the sexual assault survey, an article in the newsletter offered a “Faculty Primer” on addressing sexual misconduct, which provided background on Institute laws and regulations, as well as guidance to faculty members about what to do if students report sexual assault.

In a letter, Edmund Bertschinger and Sarah Rankin wrote on some of the recent changes to MIT policy as a result of new national laws, which require, among other things, that MIT employees take part in an education program, and that MIT publish statistics on all campus crimes.

The letter also outlined suggestions for faculty to whom students had reported sexual harassment. Recommendations included:

Listen and avoid judgmental questions — never blame a victim; be flexible, if possible, when it comes to class or lab assignments and deadlines; refer the student to MIT Medical’s Violence Prevention and Response team; inform the Title IX Office.

Mental Health

Several letters addressed the issue of mental health at MIT, with one reflecting on the “All Doors Open” initiative and highlighting student responses and feedback, and another detailing some resources for students and faculty.

Feedback from students indicated that many found the “All Doors Open” initiative to be a very positive experience which allowed them to engage in dialogue around topics which often go unspoken. Individual accounts highlighted particularly effective attempts to engage the community: students appreciated a faculty member who took the time to ask students about what made the class stressful, or noted that encouragement from others helped decrease feelings of isolation.

“All Doors Open” also sparked dialogues about “the need to increase interaction and break down barriers that exist on campus,” and the “fear of failing and imposter syndrome,” which create serious sources of stress.

While specific actions to further the initiative, which took place to reflect on recent deaths in the community, were not discussed in the newsletter, student feedback and recommendations were highlighted.

“One student proposed developing training exercises for faculty to help recognize signs of distress and to identify those who may need help.”

Additionally, the letter addressed requests for more direct communication. “A number of community members told us that we need to be more forthcoming in naming the problems we are trying to solve, that we should acknowledge suicides if they occur, and we should not be afraid to use the word if we want to find ways to help,” said the letter.

Other issues covered in this month’s newsletter include access and affordability of an MIT education, and being “nice” at MIT.