Remarks to the Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Tom, for such a kind introduction.  And thank you all -- Tom, Arthur, trustees, staff and friends -- for this delightful recognition and for the kindness you have shown my family and me this evening.  I am truly humbled and honored and thrilled and excited to accept this award.

I am extremely proud to be recognized by an organization as esteemed and respected as the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.  But I would like to believe that the 2015 Taplin Award is less about me and more about my role representing the achievements of MIT.

Like everyone on our campus, I believe deeply in the values of humanity, justice and respect.  And like everyone on our campus, I believe in MIT’s mission to do good in the world.  In recognizing me, the Taplin award recognizes the people of the MIT community who bring these values to the lab and the classroom every day.  I am one of them.

Through MITx and edX, we are reshaping our approach to teaching students on our campus.  And we are reaching out to those who share our love of learning around the world.  This evening, I want to describe why I believe digital learning is becoming an integral part of the future of education.

But first, with your permission, let me start with a little background, because I need to explain why the head of a research-intensive university has the nerve to talk about new ways of teaching.

#          #

In late 2011, MIT announced the launch of MITx, an open source, not-for-profit, digital tutorial educational tool.  Since then, we have received a great deal of attention for this innovative approach to teaching and learning.  But that is not a new experience for us.  Educational innovation is very much in MIT’s DNA.

By the year 1861, passive listening and memorization had come to define higher education.   MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, turned that idea on its head.  He placed an unusual emphasis on learning by doing -- hands on, problem focused and curiosity driven.

This kind of experiential learning, particularly enabled by technology, has always been at the heart of an MIT education.  And then about 15 years ago, the success of MIT OpenCourseWare, or OCW, opened our eyes to something new and exciting: the power of the Internet in education. 

In 1999, our faculty had considered ways to use the web to advance MIT’s mission.  Those discussions led to something that was a bombshell at the time: MIT’s decision to publish virtually all of its course content, online, for free.

MIT launched OCW as a proof-of-concept site in 2002 with content from 50 courses.  Thirteen years and 2,200 courses later, the site draws two million visits each month, with nearly 120 million unique users since launch.  Teachers find inspiring content.  Students find study aids.  Independent learners find 2,000 ways to make themselves smarter.

MIT could have spun OCW off in a way that generates revenue -- the demand was clearly there.  But that would have restricted education further and increased the gap between haves and have nots.  What we did instead was to make it available for free to anyone who wanted to learn.  By so doing, it provided a baseline of education quality for the world to benefit from.  It is a decision that, to this day, makes me proud of MIT and its commitment to open sharing.  (By the way, I was not president at the time.  The credit for OCW goes to MIT president #15, the late Chuck Vest.)

With MITx, we again had an offering, this time a tutorial offering, with tremendous demand.  And again we could have decided to monetize it, but we didn’t.  MIT president #16, Susan Hockfield, who is here tonight, and I agreed: We would use MITx as a way to share our now tutorial content, for free, with everyone, anywhere, and level the playing field for a world of learners. 

#          #          #

So, where are we going next?

I recently came across a great quote by 2007 Taplin Award winner Bill Moyers.  Describing what he loves about his television program, A World of Ideas, he said, “Sharing is the essence of teaching.  It is, I have come to believe, the essence of civilization.” 

Let me repeat that: “Sharing is the essence of teaching.  It is, I have come to believe, the essence of civilization.” 

The 2007 Taplin Award winner is absolutely right.  At MIT, we care deeply about sharing as much of our knowledge and know-how as we can, with as many people as we can.  But the residential model of education, with its capacity limitation, is not conducive to reaching all individuals who seek a quality education.

Every year, of the students who apply for undergraduate admission, we admit fewer than one in 12.  Our Dean of Admissions tells me that of the 18,000 who apply each year, more than 12,000 have the academic credentials to succeed at MIT.  More than 12,000 each year.

It is painful to turn away so many bright, talented and motivated students who want to learn at MIT, simply because we don’t have room.  And it brings me to the first of two reasons MIT believes in a role for digital learning: access.

#          #

Let me offer an example from a faculty colleague, Eric Grimson.  In 31 years on the MIT faculty, Eric taught many large courses, many times.  He estimates that throughout his career, he has taught about 11,000 undergraduates.  In fall 2012, Eric taught one of the first MITx classes, 6.00x, Introduction to Computer Science and Programming.  The class drew close to 100,000 students.  This fall marks the seventh time the class has been offered in the last three years.  In that time, it has reached more than 500,000 students --nearly 50 times the number Eric has taught on campus throughout his whole career. 

That is the power, and the promise, of digital learning.

Now, a personal perspective on access: for those of you who are not from Boston, it may surprise you to know that my accent is, well, not a Boston accent.  I grew up in Venezuela, in a family of immigrants who scraped by to make a living. 

I grew up in a time and place and financial environment where education was not a given.  It was a luxury.  I had no sense of my potential.

I studied from textbooks on loan from the library.  In college, some of those books were written by faculty at a far away, magical place known only by three initials:

M – I – T.  I remember feeling privileged just to hold the library’s only copies in my hands.  Eventually I made it to MIT -- still today, almost impossible to believe.  But I think about those other kids in Venezuela -- or Vietnam or Africa, or the poor neighborhoods of any US city -- kids with the same potential but who won’t catch the same breaks, and won’t have the same opportunities.

And that is what drives MITx: We aim to use digital learning to democratize education.  To reach those who want to apply themselves, clearing pathways that otherwise would remain closed.  I believe in the power of access because I have lived it.  And I want others to live it, too.  Imagine a world in which all those who seek an education have access to it and, equipped with that education, dedicate their lives to make the world better.

#          #

The second reason MIT cares about digital learning is that we want to reshape the classroom experience, making residential education more interactive and engaging. 

Before I was President, I was Provost.  Shortly after I took that job, many faculty came to my office to tell me that MIT had a problem.  Now, this was around 2006.  The problem, they said, was that students weren’t coming to class.   Faculty would work hard to prepare a lecture to their class of 80 students, and only 30 would show up.

Of course it occurred to me that perhaps their lectures were boring, but I knew them, and I knew them to be good lecturers.  So I looked into what was going on.  And I discovered that students were busy -- busy working on team projects with other students.  An MIT education is about classroom, labs and team projects. The students did not see the need to interrupt their team-project-work with other students when they could get all the lectures on OCW anytime.  This was unexpected: OCW was created for the world, and it was making an impact at MIT.

Now, OCW is a one-way-street for content. The content is excellent, but it is not tutorial, there is no interaction with the student.  I realized then that if we could provide content online in an interactive, tutorial way, it could change the residential experience dramatically.  If students could access tutorial content online, the classroom experience, particularly the STEM classroom experience, could become more interactive and enriched.  That realization was the beginning of MITx.

In less than four years since we announced MITx, we’ve seen that transformation at MIT.  More than 80% of our undergraduates have used MITx.  We are excited about this model of active, experiential education, enabled by blended digital/in-person learning. And we believe this model can work not just for college students, but for those much younger, too.

#          #

Kids love to play -- to use their hands, to try things out, to engage with one another.  And that’s exactly how we learn -- through experience, particularly when we are curious.

About 60 years ago, MIT realized that it could successfully bring its “mind and hand” model to a high school audience.  Since then, more than 125 pre-K to 12 programs have sprung up on our campus.

In June, with Woodrow Wilson’s generous support, Arthur and I announced an exciting collaboration called the MIT PK12 Initiative.  It brings together educators and researchers interested in studying-learning and improving-teaching from preschool through high school. 

Those educators collaborate with experts at the Woodrow Wilson Academy, where their findings are put into practice.  Together we are empowering teachers, giving them the tools to transform their classrooms into the learning environments of tomorrow.

This collaboration resonates with MIT’s own goals and provides a foundation from which to reshape education.  It is a perfect pairing of our shared commitment to access and to experiential learning.  I can imagine no greater partner in this exciting and important endeavor than the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

#          #

I’ll finish by describing where we’re headed. 

Currently, higher education comes in three flavors:

  • a fully residential model;
  • a fully online model; and
  • a blended model -- with a digital component that complements real-time learning in our classrooms and labs.

The fourth model -- what I’m calling a “hybrid” model -- is about to happen.

Over the last few years, we’ve experimented with new ways to bring MITx students closer to our campus.  Through a short, intense experience we call a “bootcamp,” we’ve hit on a concept that has opened our eyes to new possibilities.

Let me tell you a quick story from the inaugural bootcamp.  It was in August 2014.  We had 47 students or learners on our campus from 22 countries; they had all done extremely well in an MITx course on entrepreneurship.  One of them was a water sanitation expert from France, another an Australian banker specializing in microfinance.  When they met on campus, they hit it off immediately.  Together, they came up with an idea to bring clean drinking water to the poor in developing countries. 

That bootcamp encounter gave birth to a social enterprise known as CityTaps.  CityTaps aims to bring running water into every home in the world.  The two learners -- now business partners -- have developed a smart way for poor urban residents to prepay for water with a text message.  They recently signed Veolia, the world’s largest private operator of water services, as a customer.  And they have a pilot project under way in Niger.  Every one of these 47 original learners has started a company in their home countries in the year since they attended the MIT bootcamp.

Today I made an announcement that extends this model even further. 

What I announced is an MITx pathway to an MIT degree.  The idea is to open the door to top MITx students to earn a new digital credential or even admission based on classes they’ve taken online. 

Here’s how it works: MITx learners take the first semester’s worth of courses in MIT’s Supply Chain Management master’s program online.  Those who excel, and then score well on an exam, can earn an MITx MicroMaster’s degree.  With that degree in hand, students may apply to the full master’s program.  Those who are admitted will come to campus to complete the program, earning an MIT degree in a single residential semester, since they get full credit for the one-semester they took online.

We think of it as inverted admissions: Demonstrate your ability to succeed with MIT content online.  Then come to campus and get credit for the work you’ve already done. 

In short: in-person engagement, enabled by digital technologies, creates pathways to education and drives meaningful change.

This is only the beginning.  I have no doubt that this digital universe will continue to present new ways to complement the in-person model and advance our mission to use education to improve the world.

#          #

And so I return to Bill Moyers.  Sharing is the essence of teaching.  It is also the essence of doing good in the world.  MIT is a community that believes this at its core.  And I am truly fortunate to be part of that community. 

Before I conclude, I would like to thank the infinite source of my strength and support:  the unconditional love of my family.  With me tonight are my wife, Chris, who has been my loving and caring partner for over 20 years.  And my daughter, Jessica, whom I am extremely proud of, and whom I always want to be proud of me.

On behalf of MIT, I am grateful for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s partnership in advancing education to improve the world.  And I am extremely grateful for this wonderful honor.

Thank you.