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OEIT's role in fostering open education: an interview with Vijay Kumar

The director of MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology discusses OEIT's role.
Vijay Kumar, director of MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (OEIT) and a senior associate dean.
Vijay Kumar, director of MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (OEIT) and a senior associate dean.

Last month, IS&T interviewed Vijay Kumar, director of MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (OEIT) and a senior associate dean, about concepts propelling the open-education movement. This month we wrap up the interview with a look at how OEIT is helping to foster open education at MIT.

Q. You've said that OEIT acts as incubator for educational technology innovations. How do you decide where to focus?

A. We look at how to leverage technology to support curricular innovation and improve student learning. That takes several forms.

OEIT helps to develop interactive content, as well as applications and tools. One of the areas it focuses on is bridging research and learning, that is, bringing the tools, excitement and practice of research to learning.

The most prominent illustration of this is the STAR program — STAR stands for Software Tools for Academics and Researchers. STAR/OEIT staff develop interactive visualizations, so that students can, say, grab a DNA molecule on the screen, interact with it, and explore its properties. They can selectively manipulate images for learning. This technology has become part of the introductory biology and genetics courses, among others.

If our faculty develop applications as proofs of concept, we help to build them out with a view toward sustainability. A good case in point is NB, a browser-based collaborative annotation tool that Professor David Karger and his group developed with the support of d'Arbeloff grants. OEIT worked with the NB development team to move the application from a research project to a production-quality application. More recently, OEIT has helped transition NB to an open-source project, building a stronger developer community that can support NB long after the students on the original development team have graduated.

OEIT also helps to make sure that these educational applications run reliably and can take advantage of enterprise services offered by IS&T.

Q. Interactive content is one area of focus for OEIT, but you've also talked about the importance of concepts. Could you elaborate on that?

A. OEIT is very interested in linking content to the curriculum by developing concept-based applications and infrastructure.

A project we're working on that's getting a lot of traction is called the MIT Core Concept Catalog (MC3). The focus is on allowing students and instructors to create linkages within and across courses.

There's an excellent project that illustrates this, called crosslinks. It was initiated by Professors Karen Willcox and Haynes Miller and PhD student Chad Lieberman in the AeroAstro and mathematics departments and it connects to OpenCourseWare (OCW) and OEIT's efforts.

Crosslinks provides student-generated, topic-based linkages between different courses taught at MIT. It relies heavily on the stable subject resources offered by OCW.

In this wiki-like environment, students can learn about a given concept in three stages. Let's say it's a math concept, like linear approximation. They can find courses to learn about the concept, find courses where they can study examples of the concept, and find courses where the concept has been applied. It follows a learning taxonomy. Because we have OCW, these things become much more doable.

OEIT is now developing crosslinks 2.0 to make it easy for faculty to identify and author concepts, create linkages between concepts, and make these linkages programmatically available to other applications.

In efforts such as this one, OEIT is not just creating tools; it's also working to develop elements of the infrastructure needed for sustainable online programs.

Q. Open education includes fostering communities of innovation and practice. How does OEIT play a role here?

A. An interesting example is a project we worked on with the Math department to develop an Education Collaboration Space (ECS). It was a place for instructors to share examples, resources, insights and best practices for teaching communications-intensive courses.

This became a good model. In fact, the Math faculty got a grant from the National Science Foundation to extend this model to other pedagogies. Let's say you have 10 faculty teaching TEAL. Can they share their lesson plans, their approaches, and so on?

The goal is to take productive innovation and share it more widely. And that sharing can happen in different ways.

Q. How does OEIT promote this kind of sharing?

A. We do this through forums like Crosstalk, a venue for sharing ideas and experiences on technology, teaching, and learning, and through events, like the Ed Tech Fair, that showcase some of the ways faculty, students and staff are using technology to advance teaching and learning. Last May we helped to conduct a symposium on online education with over 100 faculty attending.

Through the Gallery of Educational Innovation on the OEIT website, faculty can describe their motivation and experience with educational technology. This is important because peer voices matter. Our goal here is also to provide faculty with examples of applications and resources based on different pedagogies, such as active learning, or different technologies, such as visualizations and video. We also publish EdTech Times, a blog about academic computing and educational technology.

Q. What's the next big thing on OEIT's radar?

A. Certainly an important area is learning from and providing meaningful support for MITx and edX. We're going to be building applications and capabilities to help faculty develop online offerings across the curriculum.

We're going to learn a lot from the kind of scaled and specific efforts that these initiatives represent. The question is how are we going to bring those learnings back to serve MIT education as a whole? This is what Dan Hastings, the Dean for Undergraduate Education, calls the backflow.

The idea is that we should be able to bring back tools and applications that get identified through MITx and edX and make them work for students here. And sometimes making it useful here means making sure it works with Touchstone, that it can take advantage of the Data Warehouse and other IS&T services.

We can also highlight learnings from edX and our online experiments through the venues I mentioned earlier — the Ed Tech Fair and other events, the OEIT gallery, and our blog.

In the end, our work is about enabling sustainable educational innovation. We not only partner with faculty in creating content or making things that work, but also in making sure that the applications — or the learnings from them — can be shared more widely by our faculty. That's what we're all about.

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