A thoughtfully remote semester

August 21, 2020
Krishna Rajagopal, Dean for Digital Learning, 2017–2022 |

Dear MIT Students, Faculty, and Instructors,

Welcome, or welcome back once more, to a different kind of MIT.

I wasn’t expecting to use this opening line again—taken nearly verbatim from a letter Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz and I wrote to many of you last March. Then again, none of us have been sure what to expect, day by day or week by week, during this pandemic. “Different” has remained, stubbornly, the norm when it comes to teaching and learning at MIT.

Heading into the fall semester we find ourselves faced with a new flavor of “different”: some of us will be on campus, most will be off. Some may be looking forward to remote learning, whereas for others, it will be a new or challenging experience.

As an MIT faculty member, dean for digital learning, advisor and mentor to first years, physics majors, and PhD students, and as a father of two high school students, I’ve seen the educational disruptions that Covid-19 has caused, front and center. And so have you, as students, teachers, colleagues or parents. By now all of us have seen and felt the impacts of flaky internet connections, fragile home learning or teaching environments, and of being apart.

Nevertheless, at MIT we are far better prepared for the fall semester. Creative educators and staff across our unique departments have been rethinking everything: learning objectives, pedagogy, assessment, academic calendars, exams, grading policies, contingency planning, and much more. For example, MIT faculty are rethinking how best to assess what students are learning in these challenging times, de-emphasizing high-stakes assessments like final exams and focusing on more frequent ones such as quizzes, problem sets, projects, papers, and presentations.

And, as people have rolled up their sleeves this summer, there have been hundreds, maybe thousands, of fantastic individual and community conversations that really go to the heart of the matter: How do we live our values of equity and inclusion? What are the building blocks of the MIT education we aspire to and why is each one important? And, how do our students learn (in these or any times) so how can we best engage and teach?

It’s inspiring. The creativity and energy focused on rethinking learning and teaching from first principles will serve the education of generations of MIT students, long after the pandemic when Zoom-class is a memory.

At the same time, we have challenges ahead. The fabric of our community, our sense of shared experiences, was significantly stretched by our departure from campus and the shift to remote learning and teaching. And, this fabric includes the myriad forms of engagement among students and between students and teachers that is key to the magic of MIT. Consistency—of experience, of expectations, of quality—is another challenge. Addressing these, including starting to create them for those just arriving at MIT, has been top-of-mind across MIT. 

Vice Chancellor Waitz and VP for Information Systems and Technology (IS&T) Mark Silis, together with my colleague Sheryl Barnes from MIT Open Learning, and all of their indefatigable teams have built a flotilla of tools, learning platforms, trainings and support systems. Mark’s miracle workers, who brought us Zoom, Slack, Gradescope, and Canvas, are also sending loaner iPads and Apple Pencils to thousands of undergrads and graduate teaching assistants, and making it possible for any of us to use Explain Everything or explain.mit.edu to share ideas or work on problems or projects with each other, using tablets in place of white boards or yellow pads. Janet Rankin and her colleagues in the Teaching + Learning Lab, Sheryl and her Digital Learning in Residential Education and Canvas teams, as well as Digital Learning Lab Fellows in many departments have have developed resources and workshops for faculty, instructors, and TAs that run the gamut from the science of learning to the best use of technology, helping them rethink pedagogies, learn new tools, and build hundreds of course sites on Canvas, our new shared platform where tools and teaching can be woven into engaging and effective learning experiences.

Anyone who wants to see all this from a teacher’s perspective can start at the teachremote website. As in the spring, a starting point for students wanting to learn remotely can be found at the learnremote website. And, anyone at MIT who needs to borrow hardware should turn to the IS&T loaner site.

Beyond new tools and platforms, the energy and ingenuity of faculty and instructors in departments across MIT has been focused on creating new and better learning opportunities for all of you. They’ve read all the surveys students filled out. They’ve compared impressions of what worked and what didn’t, successes and pitfalls. And, they’ve gone back to basics—thinking about how and why you learn and they teach, not just what.

The starting point for creating the magic of MIT is engagement. That could mean the vibrant questioning discussions in a small seminar (or breakout room). It could mean UROPing at the frontier of discovery or invention. MIT, after all, can be thought of as a research university and a liberal arts college rolled up into one uniquely vibrant experience. Engagement also means polling and asking questions in lecture, and answering whatever comes in on the Zoom chat—which serves to remind us that lecturers in the after-Zoom world should also be checking in, asking, answering, and changing course.

Engagement among students is even more central to the MIT experience, whether p-setting together, working on projects or in labs, or rehearsing a performance. At MIT, what we do comes with a degree of difficulty and an intensity that means we have to collaborate. Learning how to collaborate with peers who bring diverse skills and experience to bear helps MIT students go out into the world and make it better. So this fall all of us, students and teachers, will get back to creating engagement.

Many lessons from the spring are just as important today. We’ll need to be resilient in responding to the changing pandemic; and above all listen to each other generously and attentively, appreciating that any individual at any time may be facing unique challenges and circumstances. Caring about student success includes “Do you understand?” but must begin with “How are you feeling?” and “What might help?” We knew this before, but the crisis has brought it to the fore. This fall is going to be challenging, everywhere. I hope that at MIT it will be defined by our kindness; our flexibility, patience, and good humor; and our empathy.

As always, teaching and learning is what we do, together. Now, though, we know that we can do it no matter where we each are. Our challenge this fall is to engage, to create new magic in new ways, together.

Krishna Rajagopal
Dean for Digital Learning
William A. M. Burden Professor of Physics