In the cozy “family room” of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe PhD ’03 is chatting with a group of parents, some holding infants and others reclined on a striped rug alongside their toddlers, who play in the shadow of an enormous teddy bear. Saxe is outlining the puzzle, as she puts it, of “why babies know so much but can do so little.”

She summarizes for her visitors—many of whom have enrolled their children in her studies, or will, she hopes—the results of past research indicating infants as young as six months comprehend a surprising amount about their world: connecting words to objects, registering differences between faces. She displays images of adult and infant brains, noting that the “white matter” abundant in the older brain is nearly absent in the baby’s. “Maybe white matter is necessary for coordinating action,” she hypothesizes, “but learning, which can be done more slowly and offline, doesn’t depend on that.”

The Saxe Lab’s researchers use custom, quiet MRI machines rigged for babies’ safety and comfort—and call on reserves of infinite patience, waiting for their tiny subjects’ rare moments of stillness—to measure oxygen in various regions of the brain while projecting video of landscapes and faces. The results so far have delighted Saxe: “I could not believe how beautifully organized these tiny baby brains already were!” she marvels, which supports her premise: “Babies are the fastest, most efficient learning machines ever invented.”

There are many reasons why scientists study the human brain, but Saxe is one of several members of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences fascinated by how we learn—whether we’re stringing together our first sentences or wrestling with advanced calculus. The director of the McGovern’s Athinoula A. Martinos Imaging Center, John Gabrieli, studies early predictors of conditions that affect learning, from dyslexia in children to ADHD in adults to Alzheimer’s in the aging brain. Gabrieli, who is the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, has described learning and memory as “the essence of our lives. Everything we learn—our values, our knowledge, our skills—comes from the capacity of the human brain to be plastic and change through experience.”

Yet the brain is just part of the picture. Faculty across the Institute are investigating every aspect of the topic, peering through lenses ranging from the social and cultural to the economic and technological, to ask: How do we learn? And how can we learn better?

A new look at learning

Intriguing as they are at face value, these questions are a practical matter for MIT. In his February 2013 charge to the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, President Reif wrote:

Higher education is striving to respond to the forces of disruptive change. While many US students struggle to cover the cost of higher education, colleges and universities are straining to cover the cost of providing that education. Yet at the same moment, advances in online teaching technologies are opening up extraordinary new possibilities, suddenly making it possible to offer highly effective but comparatively low-cost advanced instruction to students on campus and to millions of learners around the world.

The positive implications for society are immense and impossible to fully foresee. And I am convinced that these forces offer us the historic opportunity to reinvent the residential campus model and perhaps redefine education altogether. Our society can only benefit if we improve what the residential research university does better than any other institution: Incubate brilliant young talent, and create the new knowledge and innovation that enrich our society and drive economic growth.

Now, MIT has announced several new initiatives based on the task force’s recommendations. Sanjay Sarma, formerly the Dean of Digital Learning, has assumed the new role of Vice President for Open Learning to unify and steer these widespread efforts. The flagship of these is the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili), to be directed by Gabrieli.

According to Sarma, who is the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor in Mechanical Engineering, “The mission of MITili is to look at learning anew, but also to look at it in a uniquely MIT way, an interdisciplinary way.” MITili seeks to transform learning and teaching through rigorous, interdisciplinary study of fundamental mechanisms and learning systems. MITili will consider knowledge acquisition, retention, and mastery, along with motivation, curiosity, and creativity. Among other topics, MITili researchers will examine school effectiveness, the economics of education, and education policy, as well as such social factors as the impact of socioeconomic status on brain development. MITili will share research broadly, within the MIT community and globally to research communities, teachers, administrators, governmental bodies, and other important policy makers.

Chancellor and Ford Professor of Engineering Cynthia Barnhart SM ’85, PhD ’88, who shares responsibility with Sarma for several aspects of this work, has predicted that MITili and the other programs announced this past winter will have “far-reaching and tremendous implications for education—for MIT students as well as for students not at MIT.”

As the world learns

Two of the new programs provide avenues for applying and disseminating MITili’s insights off-campus.

Digital Learning Solutions works with MIT Professional Education and MIT Executive Education to deliver online content with real-world applications to working professionals. The first such course was 6.BDx Tackling the Challenges of Big Data, which featured 12 faculty experts from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). More than 10,000 people around the world have already completed it. Subsequent courses have covered cybersecurity, the Internet of Things, and entrepreneurial negotiations, and, most recently, systems engineering in collaboration with Boeing and NASA.

The pK-12 Action Group is a new effort that will bring MIT’s unique learning approach beyond the campus to learners and teachers around the world at the level of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The goal is to fill a growing need in STEM education by initiating new research, design, and outreach activities that will transform how students learn—and increase our understanding of how students learn. Under the leadership of W. M. Keck Professor of Energy Angela Belcher, the interdisciplinary group will build on existing efforts and develop new ones—acting, in her words, as a “catalyst to bring people together, not just people at MIT, but people all over the world” to amplify education “at every level.”

Some of the group’s efforts, like the Connected Learning Initiative (CLIx), have just taken off. CLIx is a collaboration with the Tata Trusts and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Center for Education Innovation and Action Research and will leverage educational technologies to integrate active learning and teachers’ professional development in STEM areas for underserved schools in India. More than 1,000 schools across four Indian states—Mizoram, Telangana, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh—will participate in CLIx, allowing it to reach an estimated 165,000 students by 2018–2019. The program will offer content in both English and regional languages, and will address professional development for roughly 4,400 teachers.

The pK-12 Action Group also provides an umbrella for MIT’s numerous and longstanding pK–12 endeavors. Some are research-based, like the Lifelong Kindergarten group founded at the MIT Media Lab two decades ago by Professor Mitchel Resnick SM ’88, PhD ’92, which has incubated such kid-embraced learning technologies as the programming language Scratch and LEGO Mindstorms robot-building sets.

Others focus on opportunity and access. Since 1975, the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) has provided a taste of MIT’s academic rigor and excitement to more than 4,000 middle and high school students free of charge. Up to 70% of the students OEOP serves annually come from underserved communities and up to 80% are from populations underrepresented in science and engineering. Programs such as MITES, MOSTEC, and SEED Academy give a marked boost to their young participants’ ambition and achievements. More than 200 of MIT’s current students have participated in programs offered by the OEOP. Overall, more than 70% of OEOP alumni go on to pursue majors in STEM fields.

Transforming residential education

The digital learning tools of MITx and the global platform of edX have vastly extended MIT’s ability to provide quality educational opportunities to all those with the drive and talent to seize them. But what about the MIT students right here in Cambridge? By now, in fact, most current MIT undergraduates (85%) have used MITx course content, often through blended learning models that integrate digital content into their regular coursework.

To speed educational innovation on campus, the Teaching and Learning Laboratory (a longstanding office that advises MIT departments) will be joined by another of the new initiatives: the MITx Digital Learning Lab (DLL). Rather than a place, the lab is a multidisciplinary community with expertise in learning technologies. Its members will serve as departmental ambassadors, collaborating directly with faculty and other DLL colleagues to develop new MOOCs as well as digital learning strategies and projects geared toward MIT’s residential learning experience.

Saif Rayyan is one of the lab’s Digital Learning Scientists. Upon his arrival at MIT six years ago, he became interested in the TEAL (Technology-Enabled Active Learning) method implemented at MIT by John Belcher, the Class of 1922 Professor of Physics. TEAL creates a collaborative learning experience through a mix of lectures, simulations, group activities, and desktop experiments. In the spring of 2014, Rayyan joined Belcher in using the tools of MITx to further intensify TEAL interactivity and improve out-of-class learning. In the “TEAL+x” version of 8.02—MIT’s physics course on electricity and magnetism taken by more than 800 freshmen at a time—students independently accessed online lessons on core content, along with TEAL simulations and visualizations. The goal: to increase class time dedicated to group projects and discussions. The students submitted many assignments online, so that instead of waiting days or weeks for graded p-sets, they received instant feedback. A summary in the MIT Faculty Newsletter noted, “The majority of students raved about the value of automated feedback… It enabled them to know when they made a mistake and learn from it before submitting the homework. It also reduced their stress about the homework, and raised their self confidence.” In a resounding endorsement, 92% of the students responding to a survey recommended applying TEAL+x to other physics courses. Now, both 8.01 and 8.02 are running on the model.

Rayyan and his DLL colleagues are now exploring, among other topics, innovative assessment models. Take Simona Socrate SM ’90, PhD ’95, a DLL scientist from mechanical engineering, who has run 2.01 Elements of Structures on a blended model since 2013. Socrate recently experimented with a new feature on MITx: if students incorrectly answered a question, followed by a correct attempt, the system asked them to provide a hint that would be helpful to subsequent students who make the same error.

According to Rayyan, the DLL community is paying close attention to qualitative outcomes: efficiency and flexibility for departments; intellectual fulfillment for teachers; and improvements in student attitudes toward subject material, along with overall student well being. Rayyan supplies an example: “There’s a lot of research that shows multiple examinations, versus one big exam, reduces stress for students and helps them learn more. We’re thinking about whether we can use online tools to transform the experience of exams.”

In Rayyan’s view, digital tools are a means, not an end. “My colleagues in humanities started doing this a long time ago,” he remarks of the “flipped” format. “They expect their students to read outside of class, and use their time together to engage in productive high-level discussion.” If well-edited video can prepare physics or biology students for a similarly stimulating exchange with their professor, all the better. “I don’t believe in a disconnect between online and in-class learning,” Rayyan sums up. “It’s really all about learning.”

A hands-on twist

As part of its data-gathering, MIT’s education task force asked faculty and students to rank the importance of various MIT values and principles. “Hands-on experience” received heavy emphasis; faculty ranked it second only to “commitment to excellence,” and for students, it topped the list.

The Dean for Undergraduate Education, Dennis Freeman SM ’76, PhD ’86, recently spearheaded a call for proposals that imaginatively link undergrad education with the overall MIT student experience, including residential life. Many of the proposals, says Freeman, were related to the on-campus maker culture. “I think everyone who comes to MIT aspires to build something,” he suggests.

MIT continues to live the “manus” in its motto. At its core, it is the kind of school that commemorates the centennial of its move from Boston to Cambridge by inviting its community to construct AUVs, floats, and other seaworthy vehicles (witness this month’s dramatic spectacle on the Charles). The sort of place, to point to another recent example, where deans teach freshmen how to construct their own speaker systems from scratch.

The latter experience was offered for the first time last fall. Freshman advising seminars are a half-century-old tradition at MIT. The “Mens et Manus” seminar taught by Freeman and Sarma, along with maker czar Martin Culpepper SM ’97, PhD ’00 and MechE senior lecturer Dawn Wendell ’04, SM ’06, PhD ’11, gave that format a hands-on twist. The goal was to teach roughly 30 incoming undergrads modern engineering methods that related to their large-group General Institute Requirements. The students received accelerated shop training on such tools as a laser cutter and 3-D printer, and learned to program features for their speakers like flashing lights and Bluetooth capability.

“A lot of the topics we covered, such as resonance and frequency response, lined up with lessons in 18.03 or 8.01,” says one of the freshmen from that seminar, Abhinav Venigalla. “It was pretty awesome to take those concepts and apply them in real life.”

The adjective his classmate Jane Maunsell applies to the course— “refreshing”—might seem an odd way to describe her conversion of a length of PVC pipe into an oversized sound system. But for Maunsell, that’s what it boils down to: “I came to MIT because I wanted to learn how to solve problems. This seminar was a weekly reminder of why I wanted to be an engineer.”

To Freeman, whose ideas for phase two of the seminar include turning it into a residence-based freshman learning cohort, this is exactly the point. “The way you kick off your education is so important. It sets the tone for the whole four years,” he avows. “It sets the tone for the rest of your life.”

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