Conversations with the MITx Digital Learning Lab
Reflections on ten years of building tools, courses, and community
By John Harrold
Online courses are vital in making education more accessible to learners globally. MITx is a pioneer in that arena. Shortly after the inception of MITx, a need for a unique cohort arose to address this new learning modality’s distinct concerns. This became the Digital Learning Lab or as we call it, the DLL. At MIT, the DLL — which is composed of Digital Learning Scientists and Digital Learning Fellows who are content experts — plays a critical role in co-creating online courses and advancing digital learning initiatives with MIT faculty and departments. As part of the departments, the DLL scientists and fellows frequently instruct residential courses in addition to working with the faculty to deliver MIT quality courses to a global audience.
As MITx celebrates its tenth anniversary, I had the opportunity to chat with Jen French (PhD 2010) and Mary Ellen Wiltrout (PhD 2009) — two Digital Learning Lab Scientists who were part of establishing this unique part of MIT.
Jen is a lecturer in the Mathematics department, and Mary Ellen is the director of online and blended initiatives in the Biology department.
“What is it that we can do with this technology? What are the limits?”
John Harrold: Please tell me a little bit about what the Digital Learning Lab was like when it first started 10 years ago.
Mary Ellen Wiltrout: Jen and I were part of the first handful of people that made up the DLL originally. We were a group that was not called the Digital Learning Lab, and we were not even a group at first. We were just individuals like Simona Socrate, Saif Rayyan, Ana Bell, Nathaniel Schafheimer, Martin Segado, Jen, and myself hired for or existing in teaching roles in departments with the specific responsibility of creating these Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) when MITx first launched. We realized that we should be talking to each other, because we had a lot of the same experiences and were working on solving the same issues. We were all optimistic that these projects were meaningful and could have an impact on the world. So we started meeting for lunch in the temporary math space in building E18 around once every other week thanks to Jen’s organizing. Ike Chuang was an instrumental part of developing this community as well. With Sanjay Sarma, he approved and had conversations with departments for our appointments, but he also made introductions between us, worked in building online courses with us, and started the tradition of MITx Significant Interest group meetings for us to present our work.
Jen French: At the beginning, it was very experimental. We all wanted to create these broad, very active learning experiences that students were really engaging with, and doing something as they were learning. It was very playful. We thought, “What is it that we can do with this technology?”, “What are the limits?” It was really a fun exploratory experience to push the boundaries and see what we could get it to do.
MEW: We were a really small group at first, and then started opening up to others holding expanded roles related to these MOOCs attending our meetings. It wasn’t until 2016 that President Reif sent an “MIT and the future of education” email which officially introduced the group and included an explanation of our roles at MIT.
“It was pivotal that the DLL was officially recognized as a group.”
JH: What do you see as some of the most significant changes in the DLL from back when you were describing its inception to now?
MEW: I think it was pivotal that the DLL was officially recognized as a group versus those early days of just having similar problems and meeting together to figure out and discuss what each of us were doing. Now, there is more structure to what’s happening — Krishna Rajagopal played a large role in that. Jen and I have been here a while and there’s a consistent group that has stayed over the years too that lend expertise to the newer people coming in.
JF: I kind of feel like we’re on this precipice, right now, of another big shift. MIT has committed to creating MITx Online to host interactive classes online, with a commitment to employing best practices from learning science. At the same time, MIT residentially has changed its own learning management system (LMS) from Stellar to Canvas, which has opened new possibilities for hybrid instruction given how well it pairs to any educational technology (including MITx). We have an opportunity to become more exploratory and playful again, determining the best tools, the optimal layouts, and the most useful data. I think that we’ve created a lot of value in terms of content and the way that students learn, especially on campus, and so I hope that whatever comes next is able to preserve the really efficient and powerful ways of learning that we’ve been able to offer to our students on campus.
“I’m really excited to see how the tools develop.”
JH: What changes are happening that you’re most excited to see where they’re going?
MEW: Compared to the past and coupled with the pandemic is that a lot more faculty and instructors have started to use blended and hybrid techniques (some activities done in person and others done online in ways that complement each other) in their MIT courses. Previously I would be working on maybe one course that would use tools that customize the course experience, now there are so many others incorporating these digital resources. I’m excited that more people are willing to try blended and hybrid learning at MIT. I think they’re more open minded about having completely online courses, too.
JF: I’m really excited to see how the tools develop. I think the pandemic really pointed out some ways that we were able to now understand better how our students learn and what resources they interact with the most, but that data isn’t necessarily processed or presented in an effective way. Right now, by the time week five flags indicate a student is not doing well in a course it’s almost too late. What if we could already see in week one, which students are struggling, which students haven’t found problem set partners, and give instructors the opportunity to intervene and change the trajectory? I think tools that automate those processes and make this feedback available automatically to instructors will make that feasible.
The first 10 years of MITx brought with it many innovations including the Digital Learning Lab. Going forward it will be exciting to see what this group of exceptional scientists and educators will develop.
MITx courses and the innovative work of the Digital Learning Lab are possible in part because of the support of MITx learners. If you’re able, please consider a donation to MITx on Thursday, March 10, 2022 during the MIT 24-Hour Challenge.
To learn more about the Digital Learning Lab, visit MIT Open Learning.