Sanjay Sarma, the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has been appointed MIT’s first director of digital learning, effective immediately. President L. Rafael Reif announced Sarma’s appointment today in an e-mail message to the MIT community.
In his new capacity, Sarma will work closely with the Institute’s faculty, staff and students to assess how new models of online instruction — such as the edX online-learning platform; MITx, the Institute’s course offerings on that platform; and other online tools that enhance students’ educational experiences — might become integral parts of MIT students’ on-campus education. These tools can also allow global learners access to MIT-quality instructional experiences.
"As director of digital learning, Professor Sarma will serve as a convener and synthesizer," Reif wrote in his letter to the MIT community. "He will explore, collect and build on the wisdom and experience of individuals and groups across our community, and lead us in shaping a coherent vision. On the subject of blending online learning and residential education, he will also serve as experimenter-in-chief, assessing what is working best in MIT’s current educational model, what we could do more effectively and what kind of changes we should pursue, from the way course content is delivered to the way we shape the campus itself. Throughout, he will work hand in hand with our edX team, led by Professor Anant Agarwal, and our edX partner universities, especially in interpreting the huge flow of edX data about how people learn."
While edX is a vehicle that can be used to teach entire courses online, Sarma will examine how this tool — and others like it — might support parts of courses on campus, augmenting traditional teaching at MIT. For example, professors might use online platforms for certain types of interactive lectures or instruction, freeing up classroom time for experiments, lab work, or further discussion of topics introduced through online instruction. Students could watch such online lectures at their own pace, repeating segments as necessary to boost comprehension.
Additionally, modules covering specific topics could be deployed for use in multiple courses, and experiments with blended uses of online and traditional methods will be explored. MITx will also pilot courses on a newly released “edX edge” platform, intended both for internal deployment of subjects as well as experimental deployment more globally.
In his new capacity, Sarma will report jointly to Chancellor W. Eric Grimson and Provost Chris Kaiser. Isaac Chuang, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, will serve as associate director of digital learning.
“Sanjay’s appointment will prime the creativity of faculty across the Institute — many of whom are eager to experiment with these new educational tools,” says Grimson, the Bernard Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering. “With him guiding the process, I have no doubt that the collective ingenuity of our faculty and students will shape the future of online learning at MIT — and beyond.”
Sarma has been a member of the Institute’s mechanical engineering faculty since 1996. His work in the classroom has earned him multiple MIT awards for excellence in teaching, including the Den Hertog Teaching Excellence Award, in 2001, and the Joseph H. Keenan Award for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, in 2002. He was named a MacVicar Fellow in 2008, an MIT honor reflecting outstanding undergraduate teaching, mentoring and educational innovation.
“I know that MIT’s faculty and students bring a rich and diverse set of views to the question: How can new media make education more fun, efficient and effective?” Sarma said. “I look forward to learning from the community, and to helping implement the ideas that will emerge.”
MIT’s OpenCourseWare office will report to Sarma. MIT remains committed to sharing the full breadth of the Institute’s curriculum freely and openly through OpenCourseWare for the benefit of educators and learners worldwide. OCW staff will continue to work closely with faculty across MIT to fulfill this mission, and OCW leadership will work with the director of digital learning to determine how best to make OCW and MITx serve complementary functions.
In taking on his new appointment, Sarma will step down from his post as the director of the MIT/SUTD Collaboration Office. That position, which fosters MIT’s ongoing partnership with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, will now be held by professor of mechanical engineering John Brisson, who holds a teaching position at SUTD and is currently a cluster lead of SUTD's freshman curriculum.
“I am delighted that Professor Brisson has agreed to accept this role,” Kaiser said. “He is deeply familiar with both MIT and SUTD, and he will bring invaluable experience and knowledge to his new work.”
Both MITx and edX have been portrayed as vehicles for bringing MIT courses — along with content from edX partners, which now include Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Texas system — to learners around the world.
But MIT’s senior leaders, including both Reif and Grimson, have long described these online-learning initiatives as a means of enhancing and enriching the educational experience of the Institute’s own students. “Our goal is to use this as a platform to strengthen the residential student experience,” Grimson told an audience of MIT students last April 4 at a forum he held with Reif, then MIT’s provost.
At that forum, Reif said that the introduction of online-learning elements into MIT’s curriculum could lead students to “experience increased face-to-face interactions” with each other and with instructors.
Online exercises can also give instructors data on which topics students find easy and which are more challenging, permitting greater focus on problem areas during in-person lectures and recitations. This data might also be used to offer an individual online learner instruction that is, to some degree, tailored to his or her learning style. (For instance, some students benefit greatly from seeing the graphical representation of a mathematical answer to a given problem.)
As part of its mission, edX is collecting and assessing data on how students learn both in-person and online — data that could profoundly shape Sarma’s work as director of digital education. Under his guidance, feedback from both online learners and MIT students will shape the incorporation of online-learning tools into MIT courses on campus.
An innovative educator
Together with his colleagues at MIT, Sarma has long worked to develop new instructional techniques for mechanical engineering students. More than a decade ago, those efforts included the use of computer-based teaching tools to promote active learning and hands-on intuition in the classroom — work that ultimately led to the launch of OpenCourseWare in 2002. He has also used laptops to engage students in interactive design exercises, quizzes, numerical analysis and data acquisition.
Sarma has developed or co-developed two new courses in the Department of Mechanical Engineering: 2.31 (Introduction to CAD, CAM and FEM), in which students prototype, build and then perform destructive testing on parts; and 2.998 (Special Topics in Mathematics with Applications), which addresses mathematical topics not covered in traditional mechanical engineering curricula. He also implemented a kinematics-based approach to teaching dynamics in 2.003 (Modeling Dynamics and Control I), and has worked to modernize MIT’s traditional manufacturing course, 2.008 (Design and Manufacturing II).
Sarma holds a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, awarded in 1989; a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University, awarded in 1992; and a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, awarded in 1995. His research has focused on RFID, sensors, and computer-aided design and manufacturing, among other topics. Sarma was the co-founder and former chairman of research at MIT’s Auto-ID Center.