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“A whole world of potential learners and potential knowledge to gain”

MIT Digital Learning Lab advances quality digital learning on campus and globally.
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Sara Feijo
MIT Open Learning
Martin Bazant and Joey Gu are seen through a clear writing board covered with mathematical equations.
MIT Professor Martin Bazant (left) and Joey Gu, lecturer and digital learning scientist, discuss lecture content for filming at MIT’s Lightboard studio.
Photo: Yvonne Ng

When Aya Khalifa came to MIT from Egypt for her master’s degree in chemical engineering, she adapted well to a new educational system thanks to class 10.MBC (Math Boot Camp for Engineers). This online resource was developed by the MIT Digital Learning Lab (DLL) and the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering for first-year graduate students who might need a refresher on the math skills needed for their core classes. 

“It exposed me to different ways of solving problems,” Khalifa says, adding that the resource was a “huge gain” for her academic progress. She initially took the course during the summer before her program officially started, but she also used Math Boot Camp for Engineers to revisit concepts throughout the semester. 

This online MIT resource is now also available as a massive open online course (MOOC) to any learner in the world. Through serving learners on MIT campus and online, the DLL advances quality digital learning initiatives at the Institute and extends MIT’s teaching and knowledge globally.

Digital learning on campus and beyond 

The DLL, a joint program between MIT Open Learning and MIT’s academic departments, is composed of academic staff and postdocs who collaborate on digital learning innovations. With their combined subject-matter expertise of their respective departments and instructional design innovation, DLL staff promote the latest findings in the learning sciences and educational technologies to develop and update courses.

“The DLL team does so many cool things — creative, hands-on, and informed by the best evidence in teaching and learning,” says Christopher Capozzola, senior associate dean for open learning. “From bringing cutting-edge technologies and ideas into classroom teaching to working alongside faculty as thought partners in developing new courses, programs, and projects, they bring a unique academic and digital agility to every department at MIT.”

Over the last decade, the DLL has grown to encompass all aspects of online learning research and deployment. Faculty work closely with digital learning scientists to incorporate digital technologies into the design and teaching practices of MITx courses and MITx MicroMasters programs for everyone and on-campus courses for MIT students. MITx online courses embody the rigor and quality of MIT’s residential courses, and MicroMasters are credential-bearing programs that can help individuals fast-track and save on costs of their master’s degree. In trying to identify the most effective teaching methods, the Digital Learning Lab ultimately discovers how to better support online learners and MIT students. 

Khalifa says the material she learned in Math Boot Camp for Engineers was relevant to her core graduate courses, including classes 10.50 (Analysis of Transport Phenomena) and 10.65 (Chemical Reactor Engineering). “I didn’t struggle with solving mathematical equations when there was already new content to learn in the course itself,” she says.

This was the outcome the chemical engineering department hoped for when they first approached Joey Gu MS ’16, PhD ’19, lecturer and digital learning scientist in chemical engineering, about improving the first semester experience for graduate students. Gu collaborated with departmental leadership, faculty, and graduate students to develop the first iteration of 10.MBC for summer 2020. Today, Math Boot Camp for Engineers is composed of six self-paced, self-guided, active-learning modules that cover different math topics. Students can take the modules in any order, depending on their needs, as identified by a diagnostic quiz. 

“I liked the option of doing the course in my own time and pace,” says Khalifa, adding that she thought the platform was “very user-friendly.” She found it helpful when concepts were divided into multiple short instructional videos, as opposed to hour-long lectures. 

Immediacy was key to her online learning experience. “I was not waiting for an instructor to give feedback,” Khalifa says. “I solved the problem right then and there, got the answer, and the explanation of the correct answer. I really appreciated that as a student.”

Sharing the latest advances in online learning

As some of the early pioneers and today’s leaders in designing open online courses, digital learning scientists publish research in the fields of learning science and their respective academic areas. They speak at conferences, lead workshops, and share their insights and innovations with MIT faculty and the learning community at large.

This semester, Mary Ellen Wiltrout PhD ’09 and Jessica Sandland ’99, PhD ’04 are serving as general chairs for the 2023 IEEE Learning with MOOCs Conference (LWMOOCs) taking place Oct. 11-13 at MIT. LWMOOCs is an international forum for academic and industry professionals to discuss the latest advances in MOOCs. This year, the conference will focus on blended learning with an emphasis on key topics such as strategies and opportunities for implementing open online courses in today’s world, using these courses to increase educational opportunities for more learners, especially those facing an opportunity gap, and impacting sustainability education. The conference is returning to campus for the first time since its inception in 2014.

“Ten years ago, we were talking about individual, stand-alone online courses, but now there’s more interest in exploring a variety of different educational spaces that are trying to use online modalities to make education more accessible, more affordable,” says Sandland, principal lecturer and digital learning scientist in materials science and engineering.

Participants will also have the opportunity to join workshops on AI in education and inclusive teaching, and learn evidence-based practices from experts developing and managing MOOCs  and other open online courses.

“We want to highlight case studies, research, and frameworks from those creating, running, or studying MOOCs for the community to learn from each other, driving the field to evolve,” says Wiltrout, who is the director of blended and online initiatives, lecturer, and digital learning scientist in biology and has managed over 100 course runs of MOOCs since 2013.

Through participation in LWMOOCs and their own research at the DLL, MIT’s digital learning scientists have been on the forefront of best practices for online teaching and innovations in online learning. “There’s a whole world of potential learners and potential knowledge to gain,” Sandland says. “The more we understand that, the more we can make rich learning experiences for all sorts of different learners.”

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