by Stella Kounelaki Gryllos – Guest Author

I was always impressed, in my years as a student and then postdoc at MIT, with how the school kept current. Complacency was simply out of the question. Not just for the young and aspiring, but also for those at the top. Fear of failure? Also not there. There was a widespread understanding that, when trying something new, things were going to be rough at first and that this holds true for everyone, irrespective of position or past achievements.

Right around this time last year, I attended a series of presentations by MIT faculty on new teaching methods powered by technology.* Recently, I discovered videos of the presentations online.

Here’s a quick rundown or you can go straight to the videos.

Lorna Gibson I Materials Science I Flipping a Course

Lorna Gibson teaches Mechanical Behavior of Materials to undergraduates. The course introduces students to mechanical properties and behavior of materials. Typically, 30–35 students take the course.

Lorna struggled with long feedback cycles. In the traditional format of the course, students received a problem set on Week 1, submitted it on Week 2, and got it back graded on Week 3. This three-week cycle meant that, by the time students received feedback on a given problem set, the course (and their attention) had already moved on to other topics.

Her goal was getting closer to the gold standard of instant feedback. She experimented with flipping the course. Lectures were videotaped and made available online. Paper-and-pencil problem sets gave way to online, instantly-graded ones. A weekly Quizlet was introduced. These changes allowed for a much shorter cycle. Students watched the lecture online, came to class for recitation, took the problem set, and completed the Quizlet — all within 9 days.

Lorna Gibson’s talk

Dennis Freeman I Electrical Engineering I Task-Centered Learning

Dennis Freeman teaches Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. It is an introductory course for undergraduate students focusing on analysis and design of feedback control systems.

Dennis and his colleagues were looking to introduce an experiential component to the course. But, they had to strike a balance. In the traditional course format of lecture — problem set — exam, there is high volume of content delivery but retention and engagement levels are questionable. On the other hand, in project-based learning such as in theses and capstones, there are high levels of excitement and creativity, but naturally narrowness in terms of topic. The solution for Dennis and his colleagues lied somewhere in between.

They came up with a combined approach of practice — theory — practice that they named “task-centered.” The course begins with students being asked to put their robots four feet way from a pole and program them to get as close to the pole as quickly as possible without knocking it over. After knocking down a few polls, students are ready for the theory. Then, they are asked to return to the lab for a slightly harder task. This time they get better results and they are excited! Videos of the robots go viral and high-fives abound. The trade-off is that fewer topics are covered. But, Dennis feels strongly that the higher engagement and — hopefully — retention levels are worth it.

Dennis Freeman’s talk

Peter Dourmashkin I Physics I Blended Learning

Peter Dourmashkin teaches Classical Mechanics to undergraduates. The course is taught in what is known as the TEAL classroom (TEAL stands for Technology-Enhanced Active Learning), a classroom equipped with computers and other technology and in which students participate in activity-based learning.

Peter and the freshman physics team wanted to make complicated topics easier for students to grasp. The option of explicating concepts through videos was an obvious one. After all, videos are a learning format that students are used to (especially seeing how all of us turn to YouTube anytime we need to do something, e.g. replace a lock). Students can watch the videos whenever they want, go back to them, or watch them in faster speed. But, videos full of formulas and graphs — such as those needed to teach the material of the course — can be boring.

This is where the lightboard comes in. A simple idea, the lightboard studio involves a pane of glass that you can write on, a computer, and a camera. The presenter writes on the glass and the computer flips the image so that, in the final product, the professor is facing the students. Powerpoint slides or simulations can be projected on the glass or can be edited in. The team has produced about 300 short (3–6 minutes) videos with this method. The videos are available online for students to watch, freeing up significant time in the classroom for other learning activities.

Peter Dourmashkin’s talk

* The MIT faculty presentations discussed in this article were part of the Festival of Learning, a two-day event that took place on the MIT campus on February 1–2, 2017. You can find more information about the event here.

About the Author

Stella Kounelaki Gryllos
Stella Kounelaki Gryllos, works on making education meaningful through technology and innovative program design. She holds a PhD from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Check out her blog here.