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Cynthia Breazeal named senior associate dean for open learning

Social robotics and artificial intelligence pioneer will oversee business units and help to guide innovative learning initiatives.
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Portrait photo of Cynthia Breazeal, seated, wearing black clothes against a dark background
MIT Open Learning Senior Associate Dean Cynthia Breazeal
Photo: Jason Grow

Cynthia Breazeal has joined MIT Open Learning as senior associate dean, beginning in the Fall 2021 semester. The MIT professor of media arts and sciences and head of the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab is also director of MIT RAISE, a cross-MIT initiative on artificial intelligence education. At MIT Open Learning, Breazeal will oversee MIT xPRO, Bootcamps, and Horizon, three units focused on different aspects of developing and delivering courses, programs, training, and learning resources to professionals.

With experience as an entrepreneur and founder of a high-tech startup, Breazeal has a nuanced understanding of the startup spirit of MIT Open Learning’s revenue-generating business units, and of the importance of connecting MIT’s deep knowledge base with the just-in-time needs of professionals in the workforce.

“I appreciate the potential educational and training impact of exciting new innovations in the business world. Each of these programs addresses a specific market opportunity and has a particular style of engaging with MIT’s educational materials,” says Breazeal. “Horizon offers organizations a self-paced introduction for newcomers around emerging technologies; xPRO offers a deeper dive in the form of digital courses; and Bootcamps are short, intense, innovation challenges with an entrepreneurial mindset. I’m excited to work with these teams to grow and expand their respective programs.” Breazeal sees exciting opportunities to develop solutions that combine different offerings around a particular technology innovation theme.

“We could not be more thrilled to welcome Cynthia to Open Learning in this new capacity,” says Acting Vice President for Open Learning Krishna Rajagopal. “She has a tremendous depth and breadth of experience — in research, teaching and education, technology and innovation, entrepreneurship and strategic planning. We are excited to collaborate with her across the organization as she brings her expertise, perspective, and passion to shaping the vision for Open Learning.”

Breazeal is globally recognized as a pioneer in human-robot interaction. Her book “Designing Sociable Robots” (MIT Press, 2002) is considered a foundational work in the field. Her research has explored many aspects of social robotics and AI, with a focus on education, agency, and inclusion in the design and use of these technologies. Breazeal continues to head the Media Lab’s Personal Robots research group, whose recent work focuses on the theme of "living with AI" and understanding the long-term impact of social robots that can build relationships and provide personalized support as helpful companions in daily life.

In May 2021, MIT launched RAISE: Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education, an initiative under Breazeal’s direction to empower more people to participate in, and benefit from, AI. A collaboration between the Media Lab, MIT Open Learning, and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, RAISE is involved in research, education, and outreach efforts to develop new teaching approaches, tools, and activities to engage learners of all ages.

“My personal passion comes from a long research agenda in developing AI-enabled technologies and experiences that support human learning. I’ve seen how people of all ages emotionally engage with human-centered, personified AI agents,” says Breazeal. “I also see how this not only can help people learn new skills and concepts, but even attitudes that serve learning such as creativity, curiosity, and having a growth mindset. These are wonderful things, but there is also a potential for a darker side of the same AI coin. The responsible design of innovative technologies is very much at the forefront of my mind these days, and how we at MIT can be a positive force for increasing equity, access, and opportunity through innovations in digital learning, education, and  training.”

In addition to directing RAISE, Breazeal is also looking forward to being more involved with MIT Open Learning’s strategic initiatives, such as the pK-12 Action Group and MIT ReACT.

“I’m a true believer in Open Learning’s mission to transform teaching and learning at MIT and around the globe through the innovative use of digital technologies. In my own work, I’m excited about the possibility of the role of AI and learning science to transform how people of all ages learn with technology in increasingly engaging, creative, and effective ways. I’m excited to play a role in helping to realize Open Learning’s mission in collaboration with the brilliant, committed people at MIT who have so much to offer the world.”

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