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Festival of Learning highlights innovation

Digital technologies, such as virtual reality, drive better outcomes for MIT students and global learners.
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Keynote speaker Po-Shen Loh is a Carnegie Mellon University associate professor, founder of online education platform Expii, and coach of the U.S. International Math Olympiad Team.
Keynote speaker Po-Shen Loh is a Carnegie Mellon University associate professor, founder of online education platform Expii, and coach of the U.S. International Math Olympiad Team.
Photo: Allen Yannone

The third annual Festival of Learning, organized by MIT Open Learning and the Office of the Vice Chancellor, highlighted educational innovation, including how digital technologies and shared best practices are enabling educators to drive better learning outcomes for MIT students and global learners via online courses. “As a community, we are energized by all the transformation and innovation happening within the education space right now,” said Krishna Rajagopal, dean for digital learning, open learning, as he kicked off the festival.

The educator’s role: to engage and inspire learners

Keynote speaker Po-Shen Loh, Carnegie Mellon University associate professor, founder of online education platform Expii, and coach of the U.S. International Math Olympiad Team, surprised a morning audience of about 400 people in Room 10-250 when he held up a small red die and asked why opposite sides of the die always add up to seven. Loh then began a lively, Socratic interaction with the audience that blended math and physics with engaging humor. What Loh’s inquiry consciously didn’t include was digital technology.

“If we’re all here in this room together,” explained Loh, “we should be taking advantage of this unique opportunity to interact dynamically with each other.” Loh rejected the idea that an educator is someone who simply transmits content to learners. “The teacher’s role is not just to convey information, but to be a cheerleader and a coach inspiring learners to pursue knowledge on their own initiative.”

Loh then held up his smartphone. “Today, every person has an enormous amount of power to do good if they leverage technology.” He described how he founded Expii as a student-directed online learning platform in math and science that would allow users to tailor educational content to however they preferred to learn. As an example, Loh mentioned that teenagers love YouTube because it allows them to decide for themselves how they’ll pursue their own interests; he mentioned the viral Baby Shark phenomenon as an example. Expii followed a similar “personalized engagement” model: “Expii is built in such a way that anyone can contribute and anyone can learn in the ways they want to learn,” said Loh. The takeaway for educators was clear: Making space for personalization can drive engagement.

Loh concluded his hourlong talk by explaining that the accelerating pace of technological change, and the way that change impacts learning and work, have made the capacity to keep learning both urgent and essential: “You need to learn constantly today, no matter who you are and where you are in life,” he said.

Virtual reality in education

Next, D. Fox Harrell, professor of digital media and artificial intelligence and director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality, kicked off the panel “Virtual Experience, Real Liberation: Technologies for Education and the Arts.” He moderated the panel and presented research on how extended-reality technologies such as virtual reality (VR) can be used to enable people to understand systematic social phenomena, such as dehumanizing the other in war, racial and ethnic socialization, and sexism in the workplace. Harrell argued that technologies of virtuality can play a role in serving the social good by reducing bias and helping people critically reflect upon society.

Harrell highlighted research projects on “how to use computer science to impact social issues” such as police brutality and global conflict resolution. VR, for example, is being used to allow people to engage with those on opposite sides of global conflicts virtually, providing them with insights into aspects of their shared humanity and fostering empathy.

Panelist Tabitha Peck, professor of mathematics and computer science at Davidson College, shared her research on using VR to combat implicit bias and stereotype threat, a situation in which individuals are at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong. By enabling users to inhabit another person’s body virtually, noted Peck, “a person is offered different perspectives that can impact behavior.” In one example, a domestic abuser was subjected to verbal abuse in a virtual world. “He broke down and cried after,” Peck said, and the experience became an important part of his treatment and recovery efforts.

Eran Egozy​, professor of the practice in music technology and co-founder of Harmonix, next described how he has spent his career tackling a single question: "Can we create a musical instrument which shortens the learning curve for music-making, enabling learners to get to a point of enjoyment faster?” The extremely popular culmination of Egozy’s efforts at Harmonix was “Guitar Hero,” and he detailed the development of the blockbuster game. Egozy ended his talk on a high note, asking everyone in Room 10-250 to pull out their smartphones, connect to the internet, and use their phones to perform as an orchestra in an audience-participation experience called "Tutti." With Egozy waving a baton in the front, and each section of the auditorium assigned a different, smartphone-enabled instrument, the audience played a three-minute musical composition called “Engineered Engineers.”

Finally, in the panel’s Q&A session that ended the morning festivities, Harrell prompted Peck and Egozy to explore how each of their systems play parts in broader ecologies of users, designers, collaborators, caregivers, artists, and more. Technologies of virtuality, he asserted, are not panaceas on their own, but can act within networks of people and systems to serve the greater good.

Afternoon expo and workshops

The festival also featured 26 exhibits developed by faculty and staff. Visitors had the opportunity to experience the Institute’s hallmark approach to pedagogy — hands-on learning — from observing their own brain waves and writing equations seemingly in mid-air to learning about digitally-certified diplomas and exploring autonomously-driven vehicles. One exhibitor was Residential Education, which uses digital tools to drive improved educational outcomes for on-campus courses. Meredith Davies, senior education technologist, explained “we’re here at the festival to educate MIT faculty on the various ways they can use innovation to improve learning. We advise MIT faculty on how they can leverage research-based teaching practices and tailor digital tools to the needs of their learners.”

The festival concluded with three afternoon workshops. MIT Senior Learning Scientist Aaron Kessler explored the origins of learning science as a bridge between cognitive psychology and other fields such as sociology, political science, computer science, education, and economics. Associate Dean Kate Trimble led a well-attended workshop that looked at new ways to envision experiential learning at MIT. And Tabitha Peck’s workshop explored body-illusion dynamics in virtual reality.

“It’s been great being here today at the Festival of Learning and seeing so many engaged people with so many different ideas about how to improve education,” Poh-Shen Loh said. “What’s really struck me is the high level of enthusiasm everyone has shown for doing things better.”

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