That was a key message to emerge last week at a two-day symposium attended by dozens of MIT faculty and staff, as well as Haitian university professors, administrators and technology experts. Hosted by MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, the MIT-Haiti "Best Practices for Reconstruction" Symposium looked at the long-term, sustainable transformation of Haiti’s educational system.
“Not only should we build facilities, but [we need to] build back better,” declared Michele Pierre-Louis, the former prime minister of Haiti and current executive director of the educational nonprofit, Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (FOKAL).
That means taking advantage of MIT’s strengths in technology-enabled education —including the OpenCourseWare platform that provides almost all of MIT’s course content online for free, said OEIT Director Vijay Kumar, who co-chaired the symposium with Michel DeGraff, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Linguistics. “We have a remarkable opportunity not to just patch things up,” Kumar said. “The MIT faculty has expressed a lot of support for that, and the symposium was a tangible way to bootstrap that effort.”
The symposium identified three priority areas in which MIT and Haiti should collaborate: building a network of partnerships that will create a science and technology educational infrastructure in Haiti; distributing MIT’s open-educational resources to Haitian partner universities in conjunction with a faculty development and support plan; and creating a national, openly accessible library of digital educational resources.
Alpen Sheth, director of policy at Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development, a consortium of universities that operate in Haiti and published the first report to examine the impact of the earthquake on higher education, believes that the initial set of goals identified during the symposium is crucially needed, and that MIT has the resources and experience to develop these successfully. “MIT’s involvement is unique in that many American universities are establishing local partnerships and often bringing select students to attend American universities rather than making larger, system-wide investments,” he says.
Building a partnership
The symposium began with presentations by Haitian professors and educators who spoke about Haiti’s current higher-education system, which is largely unregulated and underfunded. Participants then brainstormed about ways that MIT’s technical and educational expertise could address Haiti’s needs.
Thirty-five MIT faculty members shared their experiences with developing open-education resources that could serve as models for transforming education in Haiti. Speakers included Richard C. Larson, the Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems and Civil and Environmental Engineering, who spoke about Blossoms, a pilot program to develop a free repository of video modules for math and science teachers to use in high school classrooms around the world.
The participants then prioritized the possibilities presented by the MIT faculty, taking into consideration the challenges that must be overcome in order for those possibilities to become reality. Those obstacles include the need for funding and teacher training, as well as the unreliability of Internet service in Haiti.
Despite the financial, technological and policy challenges involved with the three target areas that were identified, the participants remain optimistic about the future. “MIT is a place that values getting things done,” said Chair of the Faculty Thomas Kochan. “We have a long way to go, but creativity, commitment and talent working in partnership will get us there.”
In terms of next steps for the three target areas, Kumar said that the participants must now focus on securing funding. Once that’s in place, they will work with FOKAL to implement pilot programs to inform the next stage of engagement, which could include opportunities for MIT’s students to become involved through internships and exchanges.