MIT Open Learning
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MIT Open Learning

Q&A with Saif Rayyan, Assistant Director, Higher Education Engagement Units J-WEL

Supporting learners in the digital classroom, building curricula for advanced manufacturing, and leveraging the MIT community

Illustration of three students pulling educational materials out of a laptop screen

By MITili Staff

Saif Rayyan is Assistant Director of Academic Programs at the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL). Saif was born in Amman, Jordan. He holds a BSc in electrical engineering from the University of Jordan and a PhD in Physics from Virginia Tech. He first joined MIT in 2009 as a postdoctoral associate in physics education research, with a focus on implementing and researching pedagogical innovations using digital tools and platforms.

Following his postdoctoral work, Saif transitioned into the role of a Digital Learning Scientist in the physics department and MIT Open Learning. Saif was among the first at MIT to lead digital learning initiatives for creating Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), leveraging their content and technology to enable blended learning solutions and supporting scaling up of digital learning experiments across MIT. Saif if currently working with Open Learning on the MassBridge project.

When did you first become interested in physics and science?

At a young age, I was fascinated by how science and technology can explain the world around us, and at the same time help to provide tools to create new things and transform the world into a better place. Physics for me was a domain where I was able to test ideas and apply abstract mathematics to analytically solve problems and challenges. I also enjoyed explaining what seemed to be a complex set of activities and uncover the simplicity of relying on a limited set of lows to solve a vast number of problems. This eventually led me to a pursue students in physics and engineering, and then focus on research and development to improve teaching and learning through learning science and digital technology.

What do digital learners need to succeed in today’s online learning world?

What gets me excited for digital learning as a field is the range of opportunities it creates for learners today to reach academic goals, engage in more experiential learning activities and find resources at one’s fingertips. Digital learning has the ability to increase the engagement and interactivity between learners, teachers and the content itself. But in order to benefit from these opportunities, learners need to take charge of their learning from an early age: learn how develop goals and plans, explore interests in a variety of contexts and knowledge fields, identify relevant skills for success and always strive to improve. Education is shifting from a system that focused traditionally on acquiring information through repetition and memorization, into one that prepares the learner to interact effectively and critically with an ever growing and easily accessible body of knowledge and learning experiences. One thing to keep in mind is that with increased access to digital content and tools, competition over learner’s time and attention is fierce. Being connected all the time and exposed to unfiltered stream of information with questionable credibility or learning quality can create both an unhealthy and unproductive environment for learners. One way to address that challenge is by connecting with others around learning, seeking out both mentors and peers and making sure there are multiple places to find support both on the personal and academic level.

The pandemic has shined a light on the digital classroom. What interventions might help students still learning from home?

The pandemic forced most of us to move work and learning online. On the bright side, more teachers and learners embraced digital learning content and technology, and as a community we are today more adept at interacting with one other and with content in the digital space than we were two years ago. That does not mean that learning was always effective in the digital space, on the contrary, many of the ineffective practices in the classrooms were amplified while moving remotely, and many organizations were forced to rely on generating a massive stream of un engaging and low-quality video content and rushing into implementing digitized assessments under simulated high stakes conditions. One should also not forget the elevated levels of stress and anxiety that many students struggled and keep struggling with due to the limited social interaction, loss of support mechanisms, and to the various fallouts of the pandemic itself. As we transition back to a new norm, or keep dealing with the realities of the pandemic, we need to reflect on the new skills that we picked up along the way and leverage them to create better and more effective learning experiences. Some questions to guide all of us moving forward: how can we bring this new acquired knowledge and experience to better support the learners to succeed? Can we create flexible digital learning paths blended within existing programs to allow learner to customize and personalize their experience, so they gain the skills that they need to achieve their academic or career goals? Can we use digital tools to add more layers of support for the learners to succeed? Can we increase the range of experiential learning opportunities when going back to in person instruction by leveraging digital learning?

One advice for learners is perhaps to take a step back and think of learning as a life-long journey. What skills do I need to succeed or advance in my study or career? Does my current program or organization provide opportunities to augment these skills? Are there experiences either digital or in person that would allow me to explore new interests or knowledge areas? Can I leverage the new found flexibility in doing remote or digital study or work to achieve my goals and live a more balanced and healthier life?

MassBridge is creating a curriculum in Advanced Manufacturing. Can you tell us a little about your role in the MassBridge project?

MassBridge is an initiative to bring together multiple stake holders from state, industry, universities and community colleges to create a platform for training the next generation of advanced manufacturing technicians. As industry moves towards digital, smart, automated and connected platforms, the skills needed for success in industry focused careers are changing as well. Human skills such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking become more relevant, as well as skills related to dealing with data and digital systems. My role in the project is to support the curriculum team in designing and building a curriculum incorporating relevant skills and content. I also provide consultations and support in structuring and building digital learning modules related to advanced manufacturing.

What excited me about the project is collaborating with several groups coming from different backgrounds and areas of expertise. I get to learn about the various educational practices and emerging trends in vocational schools, community colleges and universities.

What is your favorite thing about working at MIT?

One of the greatest things I enjoy about working at MIT is the openness for collaboration across fields of expertise and disciplines. I get to work with people with amazing talents and with broad sets of skills, and I always learn something new with every interaction. MIT is a place that welcomes diversity of thought and practice as tools to drive for innovative thinking to solve relevant global challenges such as the ones we face today in relation to education.

Originally published at on December 14, 2021.



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