DSLx initiative to offer online mini-courses that teach ‘soft skills’

The Division of Student Life (DSL) is in the process of launching its DSLx Life Learning initiative, which aims to teach MIT students “soft skills,” according to the website.

The Life Learning initiative aims to teach MIT students skills such as communication, leadership, and empathy, as a complement to MIT’s intense focus on technical skills, beginning with a “Teach It Yourself” (TIY) contest for MIT students that will run through February. The goal of DSLx is to provide a central hub of life-education resources to the MIT community, according to program director Sally Susnowitz. It will revolve around a website that collects and organizes pieces of microlearning — mini “how-to” tutorials in the form of short videos, listicles, and infographics.

“Success in professional and personal life largely depends on ‘soft skills,’” the website reads. “MIT students need to learn soft skills, which are arguably harder to master than technical subjects: how to inspire others, listen and communicate, think and plan ahead, understand their own values, manage themselves and their time, respect other people’s views, and much more.”

If the vision for DSLx seems broad, it is because the initiative is an open and experimental project. “We’re building a framework, and then asking the MIT community members to populate the framework with content,” said DSL Director of Communications Matthew Bauer.

The TIY contest calls on MIT students to create and submit microlearning material, and will generate content for a prototype website that the program staff is currently developing. Examples of content that DSL is seeking range from general (“meeting new people”) to targeted (“writing effective emails to MIT professors”).

DSLx is “intended to complement campus resources with the added flexibility of being available whenever and wherever MIT students want to learn,” Susnowitz said to The Tech. Her vision is for DSLx to eventually become an MIT-wide initiative, with input from the entire MIT community of students, alumni, and faculty.

Susnowitz has worked on bringing DSLx to fruition ever since she joined the DSL at the end of 2014. The goals and microlearning topics sought by the initiative, she added, have changed significantly since the project’s conception, in part due to conversations with students in focus groups at the beginning of this academic year.

The Tech posed the question of how DSLx will prove to be significantly different from existing resources such as GRTs, academic advisors, and student discussion forums. Nemanja Marjanovic, a Graduate Community Fellow involved in DSLx, cited his own difficulties in accessing the resources he needed when he initially came to MIT.

“There were so many resources,” he said, “but they were all scattered, and getting to them could be quite annoying, to be honest.” He hopes that the new initiative will provide a more comprehensive guide for students to find the advice and answers they’re seeking. “The envisioned content on DSLx Life Learning,” Susnowitz added, “will help us reach all students, including those who prefer to learn at their own pace.”

Asked what made her feel that the DSLx initiative was so vital, Susnowitz cited her previous experiences as Director of the Public Service Center. In that role, she communicated with “thousands of students,” including many who were studying abroad.

“What created a real interest in me,” she said, was hearing students, both on campus and abroad, ask for resources in helping them handle a wide range of situations and “wishing that we had materials we could direct them to.” She believes that a more effective and immediate way of accessing student resources has become increasingly pertinent as more and more students pursue international experiences.

The DSLx team is “planning on this [initiative] being a success,” Bauer said, and is confident in their ability to “make adjustments as [they] go along.”. Susnowitz justified this belief by citing the abundance of precedence in professional companies, where, she said, videos and other microlearning tools are “commonly used to improve their staff.”

She has not, however, found any precedence for this forum of life learning resource distribution in any universities, possibly making DSLx the first of its kind. In developing the initiative, Susnowitz said that the team took inspiration from the success of MITx, and has worked extensively with the Office of Digital Learning.

Mass publicity for DSLx and TIY among the MIT community has been fairly low; Susnowitz attributed this to the team’s decision to wait to publicize until after a “critical mass” of material has been received for the website.

Bauer noted the difficulty of describing exactly what they’re looking for from the community, and that the TIY contest is also an experiment on “how to approach the community.” At the current stage of the project, Bauer believes that it would be more effective to build a “base of student contacts and personal networks” than to send out daily, undirected emails to advertise the contest and the initiative.

The DSLx team currently comprises a mix of administrators from various departments, as well as a few students. In the future, Susnowitz hopes to involve members from a wide variety of MIT organizations, such as the UA, Panhel, and the Alumni Association.

The DSLx initiative is largely funded by alumni donors, with the most prominent donation coming from Burt and Michele Kaliski, who have donated to MIT’s public service in that past with the hope of “augmenting learning in a technological environment that connects people across distances, borders, and geographies,” according to their DSLx profile.

Asked about how the team will gauge the success of DSLx, Bauer replied that “it’s too early for benchmarks,” adding that “as long as people are engaged with it … we can know that it’s fulfilling what we hope it will be.”