Open Learning for a Better World
Dear Friend of MIT Open Learning,
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to meet with someone from the MIT community, you likely came away impressed by their deep sense of curiosity, responsibility, and discovery. At Open Learning we share those values. And by applying them in our work, we ultimately help the world become a better place.
When we open learning at MIT and globally, there’s a powerful change and energy that creates indelible ripples against adversity, injustice, and inequity.
When we open learning, we welcome creativity, and support which are essential to fundamentally transform teaching and learning – because, simply put, everyone deserves the opportunity to learn.
MIT Open Learning wants to support people wherever they are in their learning or teaching journey. Our educators, researchers, and staff are dedicated to making resources like MIT OpenCourseWare and MITx more accessible, enabling a more connected community of learning, especially for those whose education has been disrupted due to displacement. All the while, we are developing education technologies that will keep learners at the center of our innovation.
This brief impact report is a snapshot of some of the many accomplishments from the MIT Open Learning community this past year.
In the meantime, I invite you to keep learning with us as we continue to build new educational pathways and scaffolds, advance pedagogical techniques, and actively do our part in making the world a better place.
Yours in learning,
Interim Vice President for Open Learning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Chancellor for Academic Advancement
Bernard Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering
Professor of Computer Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
How we open learning for a better world
How MIT’s ambitious Better World Campaign helped Open Learning’s mission and programs evolve to meet today’s global education needs
Last fall, MIT announced the successful end of the Campaign for a Better World, the largest campaign in MIT’s history. A far-reaching fundraising initiative, it spanned nearly a decade and brought in significant support to harness MIT’s distinct strengths in research, innovation, and education in tackling the greatest challenges of our time.
The Campaign called upon the global MIT community to come together so that MIT might be of service in creating a better future for humanity and our planet. This led to the creation of a number of labs, programs, and even a new college that would forever change the Institute. Among the priorities the Campaign set out to achieve was reimagining education itself for the 21st century learner — and beyond. This charge was soon to become the animating vision behind MIT Open Learning.
The evolution of MIT Open Learning
When the Campaign began, Open Learning (OL) did not exist as we know it today. Instead there was OpenCourseWare, MITx, and a small collection of emerging initiatives related to professional education and experiential learning within what was then known as the Office of Digital Learning.
The year the Campaign went public, 2016, saw the rapid expansion of our dedicated digital learning and research efforts with the creation of programs like the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili), a research hub dedicated to better understanding learning effectiveness at all ages; the MITx MicroMasters program, which offers credentials for completing a targeted suite of graduate-level MITx online courses; the pK-12 Action Group, which brings MIT’s “mind and hand” learning approach beyond campus to pre-Kindergarten through grade 12 (pK-12) learners and teachers; and a new Residential Education team, which works with faculty to apply the latest digital learning tools to enhance their on-campus teaching. Together, these efforts coalesced under the new name Open Learning and the leadership of Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma, with the shared mission of transforming teaching and learning at MIT and around the world through the innovative use of digital technologies.
The following years brought an increasingly globalized approach with the launch in 2017 of both the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT), which creates flexible
online and hybrid learning opportunities for refugee and displaced learners, and the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), a global think tank of educators, governments, and universities who seek educational transformation in their communities. In the time since, OL has continued to incubate new strategic projects and platforms for digital learning, workforce education, digital credentialing, and more.
While OpenCourseWare and MITx helped establish OL’s foundational values of opening up MIT’s teaching and academic curricula to the world early on, the Campaign made it possible for MIT to build on that foundation in profound new ways. Notably, generous gifts by Mohammed Jameel, Hala Fadel, David Pun Chan, Vic Lee, Jon Gruber, Julia and Mark Casady, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Schmidt Futures, and many more helped directly seed initiatives like J-WEL and MITili.
Education and leadership during a global pandemic
Open Learning’s emphasis on innovating both online learning and residential education was never so timely as during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020.
As the Institute and much of the world were forced to reexamine the way we deliver education, the expertise of OL leadership, staff, researchers, and educational technologists was put into action to support millions of global learners suddenly looking to learn online, to advise MIT faculty on how to effectively adapt all 1,250 on-campus courses for remote teaching in just a matter of weeks, and even to help inform the Institute on what education at MIT could look like in a post-pandemic world, with VP for Open Learning Sarma serving as co-chair of MIT’s Task Force 2021 and Beyond.
"MITx inspired me to begin a journey of self-improvement and learning. I never thought that I could learn anything outside of school. But when I started delving into CS courses, I GAINED CONFIDENCE and happiness. I was willing to stay up late, eager to watch the next lecture video or complete the next pset. Overall, MITx taught me that I CAN LEARN whatever I want, whenever I want."
"OCW gives us a clear message
that if you want YOU CAN DO IT
no matter where you come from
or the money you have."
"No matter your background, we want you to FEEL EMPOWERED and see a place where you can be inventing and driving these technologies in responsible ways to make a better world. As you grow up, you’ll have a voice in our democracy to say how you want to see AI used."
Learning to fly
Veteran and PhD student Andrea Henshall has used MIT Open Learning to soar from the Air Force to multiple aeronautics degrees
Andrea Henshall, a retired major in the U.S. Air Force and current MIT PhD student, has completed seven tours of combat, two years of aerial circus performance, and three higher education degrees (so far). But throughout each step of her journey, all roads seemed to point to MIT.
Currently working on her doctoral degree with an MIT master’s already in her toolkit, she is quick to attribute her academic success to MIT’s open educational resources. “I kept coming back to MIT-produced open source learning,” she says. “MIT dominates in educational philanthropy when it comes to free high-quality learning sources.” To this day, Henshall recommends MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) and MITx courses to students and her fellow veterans who are transitioning out of the service.
A love of flight and a drive to excel
Henshall first discovered OCW as she was pursuing her master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. Transitioning from an applied engineering program at the United States Air Force Academy to a more theoretical program proved a challenge for Henshall, and her first semester grades got her put on academic probation. During Independent Activities Period, she took Professor Gilbert Strang’s linear algebra courses on OCW, which included both videos and homework. Henshall found Strang very engaging and easy to learn from and found it helpful to work through the homework when they had the solutions available. She was able to lift her grades the following semester, and by the end of her program, she was getting all A's. Henshall says, “OpenCourseWare really saved me. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to complete my master’s.”
Ever since Henshall learned the term “astronautical engineer” in the fourth grade, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. That early love of outer space and building things led her to a bachelor's degree in astronautical engineering and the Air Force. There she served as a research and development officer, instructor pilot, and chief financial officer of her squadron.
But a non-combat-related injury forced her to medically retire from being a pilot. “I was not doing well physically, and it was impossible for me to get hired to be a pilot outside of the Air Force.” After a brief detour as a part-time aerial circus performer, she decided to go back to school.
Learning how to learn
Working outside of academia for eight years proved to be a tough transition. Henshall says, “I had to translate the work I had done in the military into something relevant for an academic application, and the language they were looking for was very different from what I was used to.” She thought acquiring more recent academic work might help improve her application. She attended Auburn University for her second master’s degree (this time in computer science and software engineering) and started a PhD. Again she turned to MIT OCW to supplement her studies.
Henshall says, “I remembered vividly how much it had helped me in 2005, so of course that’s where I was going to start. Then I noticed that OCW linked to MITx, which had more interactive quizzes.” The OCW platform had also become more robust since she had first used it. “Back then, it was new, there wasn’t necessarily a standard,” she says. Over 10 years later, she found that most courses had more material, videos, and notes that more closely approximated an MIT course experience. Those additional open education resources gave Henshall an extra edge to complete a 21-month program in 12 months with a 4.0 GPA. Her advisor told her that she had the best thesis defense he had seen in 25 years.
Creating the Next-Generation Society in Latvia
Collaborating with government and industry to transform higher education
In September 2021, Riga Technical University (RTU), joined the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab to futher efforts to overhaul the nation's higher education system. Dr. Claudio Rivera, deputy dean and associate professor in leadership at Riga Technical University Business School, has spent much of the past five years working with the Latvian government and industrial sector to implement the nation’s new strategy.
He sees these efforts as a continuation of the focus on social service projects that originally brought him to Latvia, from his native country of Argentina, in 2004. He quickly grew to love Latvia, learn the language, and become engaged in making meaningful changes to the country’s higher education system.
“Education is really a way to serve other people,” says Rivera. “I have been honored to be a part of a process that is very interesting and very challenging—with the goal of bringing higher education to the level that the country deserves.”
Latvia, which had been part of the Soviet Union for 50 years, joined the European Union in 2004. Although the country has gone through some smaller education reforms in the past, its ambitions are now greater than what its higher education system can support. The current government aims to put Latvia on par with the level of wealth of nearby Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway—thereby incentivizing young people to stay in Latvia rather than move to these countries.
Rivera says that although there are also some reforms happening in the finance system and health sector, it is critical to focus on higher education.
“This is the primary area,” says Rivera. “This is where everything, every profession starts. The strengthening of higher education will be key for building the resilience of Latvia in front of so many challenges that the country is facing. A more educated young generation will have more capacity to lead the country to the next level and deal with the region's economic, social, and political transformations.”
The business community requested that the government undertake this substantial overhaul of higher education, which is the biggest reform to take place in Latvia in the last 25 years. Businesses expressed a strong interest in investing money in the country—and identified a strong need for an educational system that can provide both quality education and space for innovation.
“What we are creating is a movement that started with the industrial sector, and now we have the government and the universities on board,” says Rivera.
Migration Summit addresses education and workforce development in displacement
MIT Refugee Action Hub event convenes learners, activists, and educators from around the world in storytelling and collaboration
Duyen Nguyen | MIT Open Learning
“Refugees can change the world with access to education,” says Alnarjes Harba, a refugee from Syria who recently shared her story at the 2022 Migration Summit — a first-of-its-kind, global convening to address the challenges that displaced communities face in accessing education and employment.
At the age of 13, Harba was displaced to Lebanon, where she graduated at the top of her high school class. But because of her refugee status, she recalls, no university in her host country would accept her. Today, Harba is a researcher in health-care architecture. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University, where she was part of the Global Education Movement, a program providing refugees with pathways to higher education and work.
Like many of the Migration Summit’s participants, Harba shared her story to call attention not only to the barriers to refugee education, but also to the opportunities to create more education-to-employment pathways like MIT Refugee Action Hub’s (ReACT) certificate programs for displaced learners.
Organized by MIT ReACT, the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), Na’amal, Karam Foundation, and Paper Airplanes, the Migration Summit sought to center the voices and experiences of those most directly impacted by displacement — both in narratives about the crisis and in the search for solutions. Themed “Education and Workforce Development in Displacement,” this year’s summit welcomed more than 900 attendees from over 30 countries, to a total of 40 interactive virtual sessions led by displaced learners, educators, and activists working to support communities in displacement.
Sessions highlighted the experiences of refugees, migrants, and displaced learners, as well as current efforts across the education and workforce
development landscape, ranging from pK-12 initiatives to post-secondary programs, workforce training to entrepreneurship opportunities.
Overcoming barriers to access
The vision for the Migration Summit developed, in part, out of the need to raise more awareness about the long-standing global displacement crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 82.4 million people worldwide today are forcibly displaced, a figure that doesn’t include the estimated 12 million people who have fled their homes in Ukraine since February.
“Refugees not only leave their countries; they leave behind a thousand memories, their friends, their families,” says Mondiant Dogon, a human rights activist, refugee ambassador, and author who gave the Migration Summit’s opening keynote address. “Education is the most important thing that can happen to refugees. In that way, we can leave behind the refugee camps and build our own independent future.”
Yet, as the stories of the summit’s participants highlight, many in displacement have lost their livelihoods or had their education disrupted — only to face further challenges when trying to access education or find work in their new places of residence. Obstacles range from legal restrictions, language and cultural barriers, and unaffordable costs to lack of verifiable credentials. UNHCR estimates that only 5 percent of refugees have access to higher education, compared to the global average of 39 percent.
Connecting with a Global Community
Empowering students with knowledge, educational tools and resilient human skills is a commitment shared by educator communities around the world. We believe when education is accessible and comprehensible, when it inspires imagination and critical thinking, then our students become better prepared to thrive and lead in ever-changing economies, societies, and technologies.
This past year, connecting with students, learners and educators continued to be one of our most valuable and enriching experiences. Some of our milestones include introducing hands-on artificial intelligence curricula for the first time to thousands of students in elementary through high school around the world, and training and mentoring displaced and refugee learners in computer and data science to prepare them with the skills and competencies for tech careers in the global remote workforce. We also helped open doors to people who otherwise have little to no access to education through our open online programs.
Inaugural Day of AI brings new digital literacy to classrooms worldwide
By Katherine Ouellette
The first annual Day of AI on Friday, May 13 introduced artificial intelligence literacy to classrooms all over the world. An initiative of MIT Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE), Day of AI is an opportunity for teachers to introduce K-12 students of all backgrounds to artificial intelligence (AI) and its role in their lives.
With over 3,000 registrations from educators across 88 countries — far exceeding the first-year goal of 1,000 registrations in the United States — the initiative has clearly struck a chord with students and teachers who want to better understand the technology that’s increasingly part of everyday life.
In today’s technology-driven world, kids are exposed to and interact with AI in ways they might not realize — from search algorithms to smart devices, video recommendations to facial recognition. Day of AI aims to help educators and students develop AI literacy with an easy entry point, with free curricula and hands-on activities developed by MIT RAISE for grades 3–12.
Professor Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT RAISE, dean for digital learning, and head of the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots research group, says “We’re so inspired by the enthusiasm that students have expressed about learning about AI. We created this program because we want students and their teachers to be able to learn about these technologies in a way that’s engaging, that’s meaningful, that gives them the experience so they know that they can do AI too.”
"This experience made AI real by introducing it not just as a topic but as a potential career path where students can “make the world a better place.” Students are able to connect the dots between the information they received because there was an immediate “hands-on” opportunity to apply the learning."
"Twenty years ago, I don’t think any of us could have predicted how much AI and machine learning would be in our lives. We have Siri on our phones, AI can tell us what’s in our fridges, it can change the temperature automatically on our thermostats."
"I am impressed that students that don’t often get really engaged in learning were engaged and blossomed."
Fostering media literacy in the age of deepfakes
Online course from the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality seeks to empower students and educators to critically engage with media.
While people turn to digital media for news at high rates, algorithms for manipulating media continue to grow more powerful. In a Pew Research Center survey (August/September 2020), 53 percent of adults in the United States say they get news from social media “often” or “sometimes.” People have long been aware of phenomena such as “doctored” photos and misinformation at large, but machine learning is enabling the proliferation of “deepfakes,” videos or images of fake events with increasing sophistication.
Now, the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality (MIT Virtuality for short) has created a course that addresses misinformation both in terms of specific contemporary technological phenomena and a broader media perspective.
“We are currently experiencing an information crisis,” says Joshua Glick, education producer for this MIT Virtuality project and an assistant professor of media studies at Hendrix College. “A combination of political, technological, and economic forces has propelled the spread of misinformation and disinformation throughout our media environment — and the crisis has only been amplified by the pandemic.”
The MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality, part of MIT Open Learning and directed by Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory professor D. Fox Harrell, has created a free online course, Media Literacy in the Age of Deepfakes, with the goal of giving educators and independent learners the resources and critical skills to understand the threat of misinformation. In addition to teaching participants how to decipher fact-based assertions from lies and credible sources from hoaxes, the course aims to place deepfakes within a larger history of media manipulation and to show how activists, artists, technologists, and filmmakers are using AI-enabled media for a wide range of civic projects.
The course is implemented as a dynamic, multi-layered website including video and case study materials, as well as offering much more context and information through different self-paced learning modules. An illustrative example used in the course is “In Event of Moon Disaster,” an Emmy-winning MIT Virtuality production co-directed by Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund. The project showcases a deepfake of President Nixon delivering the real contingency speech written in 1969 for a scenario in which the Apollo 11 crew was unable to return from the moon, and features numerous learning and analysis resources.
The Media Literacy in the Age of Deepfakes project was supported by a grant in higher education innovation from the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) to design both a series of in-class educational experiences for students and an online course to serve more broadly as a resource for educational institutions. Glick, an expert in the public humanities, was hired to work on the project by Professor Harrell, the grant’s principal investigator. Other contributors to the project include Senior Project Manager Rita Sahu and Digital Publication Specialist Cathleen Nalezyty at OpenCourseWare, as well as web developer Nicolae Herrera, consulting designer Ksenia Slavina, and graphic artist Dan Sharkey, to create a rich learning experience suitable for higher education.
Investing in a new future with Open Learning
For MIT OpenCourseWare and MITx MicroMasters learner Michael Pilgreen, risk taking and hands-on learning opened new doors in finance.
MIT ReACT welcomes first Afghan cohort to its largest-yet certificate program
Empowering a global community of learners in displacement to access careers in tech.
A new resource for teaching responsible technology development
The Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing publishes a collection of original pedagogical materials developed for instructional use on MIT OpenCourseWare.
Engineering Learning Innovations
We are driven by the far-reaching possibilities of how innovation and optimization can serve learners of all ages. Through learning effectiveness research, refining and experimenting with pedagogical approaches, and understanding how our learners engage with our courses, we continue to improve and enhance MIT’s open learning resources and programs.
One of our significant breakthroughs in the science of learning confirms that children of any socio-economic background can be prepared for academic success if parents or caregivers include more back-and-forth exchanges in their conversations with 4-to-6 year-olds. Researchers found this seemingly simple action increases the cortical growth in the language and social processing regions of a child’s brain, thereby supporting their neurocognitive development before the child arrives at school. This has lasting impacts over the course of the child’s education. This fundamental research informs the development of our educational technologies and outreach programs geared at families, caregivers and early childhood educators.
Another considerable advancement is OCW’s next generation platform, which is optimized for mobile devices. With the much-improved technology suite, learners can more quickly and easily find the right learning and teaching materials for them among the more than 2,600 courses. Streamlined content production also shortens the timeline to publishing online, enabling our community of Open Learners like you to access cutting-edge courses from MIT faculty.
These are only a few examples of the learning innovations that our teams are engineering.
Learning interventions for language and literacy
Katherine Ouellette | MIT Open Learning
A vocabulary difference of 30 million words may sound like an insurmountable barrier between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds — but what if the solution to close that gap was as simple as encouraging dialogue between parent and child?
A 2018 study co-authored by John Gabrieli, director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) and Dr. Rachel Romeo, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, found that increasing the number of back-and-forth conversations adults had with children ages 4 to 6 resulted in more improvements in brain physiology and language skills than addressing the quantity of words. This research proliferated MITili’s mission to transform learning through research and applied practice at the learner level.
Since then, Gabrieli and Romeo’s transformative learning intervention for literacy has been connected to new studies that elevate from the learner level to the instruction level. The impact of this foundational work has manifested in new research as varied as evaluating the brain regions of preschool-aged children and creating new technologies to supplement and reinforce the learning provided by teachers and parents.
“It’s important to not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child...The brain data show that it really seems to be this interactive dialogue that is more strongly related to neural processing and growth in early childhood.”
-Dr. Rachel Romeo, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University
OpenCourseWare launches NextGen platform
New site offers mobile-responsive, search-optimized experience to a growing global audience of learners.
After serving millions of learners around the world for the last 20 years, MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) has launched its next-generation platform to allow for flexible growth, experimentation, and evolution in open learning. MIT’s “NextGen OCW” offers a new and improved experience for learners, more support for educators, additional opportunities for open education collaboration, and a greater capacity to share even more robust MIT content in the years to come.
Now optimized for use on mobile devices, OCW opens new learning opportunities for the growing global population that relies on phones for internet access. Smartphone use is growing at a rate of 7 percent per year, with 92.6 percent of internet users browsing on mobile devices at least some of the time. Not only does this update serve current learners, it also presents a purposeful approach to finding and engaging with future learners. Mobile use of OCW presents an opportunity to build greater equity for learners from under-resourced areas in the United States and throughout the Global South.
“We are delighted to offer this free access to knowledge in new ways, and we hope to reach an ever-growing global learner community that is hungry to take on the world’s most pressing challenges,” says Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning at MIT. “The next generation of OCW addresses the current global moment and is at the same time a reflection of MIT’s lasting commitment to openly sharing knowledge and pedagogy.”
A streamlined content discovery experience, centered on an improved search function, opens new pathways into OCW’s extensive course collection and ensures that users can discover the materials that best meet their needs.
The scope and quality of content on OCW will continue to grow: a much-improved technology suite and streamlined content production methods will enable MIT faculty to update their OCW material much more smoothly, efficiently, and frequently, and more content created by MIT students will highlight their inspiring voices and agency in the learning process.
To date, OCW has been a resource for over 300 million unique users, with more than 1.6 million website visits and 5 million video views each month.
OCW currently offers materials from over 2,570 courses spanning the MIT graduate and undergraduate curriculum, from 1,735 MIT faculty and lecturers from 33 academic units across all five schools, including syllabi, lecture notes, problem sets, assignments, audiovisual content including recorded lectures, and insights for millions of educators around the world who use these materials.
From its inception in 2001, OCW has helped usher in the growing open education movement. Then-MIT president Charles Vest called OpenCourseWare “consistent with what I believe is the best about MIT … It expresses our belief in the way education can be advanced — by constantly widening access to information and by inspiring others to participate.” In recent years, that inspiration to participate has grown into a global movement for improving educational equity and inclusion. Around the world, more educators and learners are adapting and remixing open educational resources like OCW, creating culturally relevant learning experiences tuned to the needs of their communities.
“As OpenCourseWare begins its third decade, we are thrilled to see MIT Open Learning and the OCW team launch this next-generation platform, manifesting a revitalized commitment by faculty and instructors across the Institute to sharing the most current and vibrant reflection of MIT teaching and learning with the world,” says Professor Krishna Rajagopal, chair of the OCW Faculty Advisory Committee. “It is both humbling and motivating to see materials that first saw the light of day in our classrooms helping millions of teachers and opening learning for untold millions more learners.”
Studying learner engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic
Researchers analyze and compare pre- and post-pandemic data for introductory biology MOOC 7.00x.
Stefanie Koperniak | MIT Open Learning
While massive open online classes (MOOCs) have been a significant trend in higher education for many years now, they have gained a new level of attention during the Covid-19 pandemic. Open online courses became a critical resource for a wide audience of new learners during the first stages of the pandemic — including students whose academic programs had shifted online, teachers seeking online resources, and individuals suddenly facing lockdown or unemployment and looking to build new skills.
Learning, doing, and teaching biology through multimedia
Producing multimedia for online courses involves lifelong learning.
Darcy G. Gordon, PhD | MIT Open Learning
As a biologist who has made my own figures for publications, I’ve always appreciated well-constructed, easy-to-understand, and scientifically accurate visualizations, but admittedly those appreciations were often fleeting and superficial. I did not fully realize the incredible detail and thought that are required for making effective scientific visualizations used for teaching. Once I joined the MITx Biology team and became the lead on making visual resources for our online course offerings (most notably 7.05x Biochemistry and the 7.06x Cell Biology series, parts 1, 2, and 3), I came to understand visual representations of biological phenomena in a new way.
Open Learning Highlights