MIT Open Learning
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MIT Open Learning

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

Photo of MIT campus
Photo: Christopher Harting

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

OL’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.

During this time, gifts made to the Campaign enabled faculty and staff across the pK-12 landscape at MIT to come together to develop Full STEAM Ahead, a series of rapid-response project-based STEAM learning modules for K-12 learners to do hands-on learning when schools closed as a result of the pandemic, as well as to support these teams in developing out that curriculum for summer and fall middle school STEAM camps in 2020 and 2021. [Full STEAM Ahead won top honors at the 2020 Wharton-QS Reimagine Education Awards for innovation in K-12 education].

The future of open learning

From the beginning OL has worked to put knowledge from MIT into the hands of millions of people so that they might use it to create change in their own lives and communities, and help fuel new solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. Last week, MIT President Rafael Reif announced that Sarma would be stepping down as Vice President for Open Learning after 10 years at the helm of MIT’s digital and open learning initiatives. Sanjay’s formative leadership, and the generosity of alumni and supporters who helped invest in the future of teaching and learning these past few years have helped position Open Learning to adapt and respond not only to the challenges of today, but to new questions and opportunities in education as they emerge in the years to come.

Some of OL’s more recent and emerging work includes:

  • The MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality uses virtual simulations and experiences to: educate the public about the risks and realities of deepfakes and misinformation online; understand racial socialization and how it shapes our perspectives; and how bias plays out in the classroom or workplace, among other areas of research. Watch to learn more.
  • Responsible AI for Social Empowerment (RAISE), a cross-Institute endeavor with Open Learning, the Media Lab, and the Schwarzman College of Computing, seeks to make artificial intelligence more equitable and inclusive, and ensure young people are equipped to be ethical users and designers of AI throughout their lives. Watch to learn more.

As OL enters its next chapter under new leadership and continues to grow, it will carry the spirit and imagination of the Campaign into our future work: to unleash MIT’s talents, knowledge, and penchant for problem-solving and discovery in service of a better future of education for all of us.

Highlights from the Campaign for a Better World at MIT Open Learning

Open Learning now includes: the Office of Digital Learning (OCW, MITx, MicroMasters, Residential Learning, xPro, MIT Bootcamps, Digital Credentials Consortium), the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, MIT Integrated Learning Initiative, and Strategic Initiatives (Refugee Action Hub (ReACT), Center for Advanced Virtuality, Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education (RAISE), pK-12 Action Group). Your support helps us open learning to better serve learners of all ages.




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