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Sanjay Sarma appointed as MIT's first director of digital learning

Source : MIT News
Nov 22, 2012

Sanjay Sarma, the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has been appointed MIT’s first director of digital learning, effective immediately. President L. Rafael Reif announced Sarma’s appointment today in an e-mail message to the MIT community.

In his new capacity, Sarma will work closely with the Institute’s faculty, staff and students to assess how new models of online instruction — such as the 
edX online-learning platform; MITx, the Institute’s course offerings on that platform; and other online tools that enhance students’ educational experiences — might become integral parts of MIT students’ on-campus education. These tools can also allow global learners access to MIT-quality instructional experiences.

"As director of digital learning, Professor Sarma will serve as a convener and synthesizer," Reif wrote in his letter to the MIT community. "He will explore, collect and build on the wisdom and experience of individuals and groups across our community, and lead us in shaping a coherent vision. On the subject of blending online learning and residential education, he will also serve as experimenter-in-chief, assessing what is working best in MIT’s current educational model, what we could do more effectively and what kind of changes we should pursue, from the way course content is delivered to the way we shape the campus itself. Throughout, he will work hand in hand with our edX team, led by Professor Anant Agarwal, and our edX partner universities, especially in interpreting the huge flow of edX data about how people learn."

While edX is a vehicle that can be used to teach entire courses online, Sarma will examine how this tool — and others like it — might support parts of courses on campus, augmenting traditional teaching at MIT. For example, professors might use online platforms for certain types of interactive lectures or instruction, freeing up classroom time for experiments, lab work, or further discussion of topics introduced through online instruction. Students could watch such online lectures at their own pace, repeating segments as necessary to boost comprehension. 

Additionally, modules covering specific topics could be deployed for use in multiple courses, and experiments with blended uses of online and traditional methods will be explored. MITx will also pilot courses on a newly released “edX edge” platform, intended both for internal deployment of subjects as well as experimental deployment more globally.

In his new capacity, Sarma will report jointly to Chancellor W. Eric Grimson and Provost Chris Kaiser. Isaac Chuang, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, will serve as associate director of digital learning.

“Sanjay’s appointment will prime the creativity of faculty across the Institute — many of whom are eager to experiment with these new educational tools,” says Grimson, the Bernard Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering. “With him guiding the process, I have no doubt that the collective ingenuity of our faculty and students will shape the future of online learning at MIT — and beyond.”

Sarma has been a member of the Institute’s mechanical engineering faculty since 1996. His work in the classroom has earned him multiple MIT awards for excellence in teaching, including the Den Hertog Teaching Excellence Award, in 2001, and the Joseph H. Keenan Award for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, in 2002. He was named a MacVicar Fellow in 2008, an MIT honor reflecting outstanding undergraduate teaching, mentoring and educational innovation.

“I know that MIT’s faculty and students bring a rich and diverse set of views to the question: How can new media make education more fun, efficient and effective?”  Sarma said. “I look forward to learning from the community, and to helping implement the ideas that will emerge.”

MIT’s OpenCourseWare office will report to Sarma. MIT remains committed to sharing the full breadth of the Institute’s curriculum freely and openly through OpenCourseWare for the benefit of educators and learners worldwide. OCW staff will continue to work closely with faculty across MIT to fulfill this mission, and OCW leadership will work with the director of digital learning to determine how best to make OCW and MITx serve complementary functions. 

In taking on his new appointment, Sarma will step down from his post as the director of the MIT/SUTD Collaboration Office. That position, which fosters MIT’s ongoing partnership with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, will now be held by professor of mechanical engineering John Brisson, who holds a teaching position at SUTD and is currently a cluster lead of SUTD's freshman curriculum.

“I am delighted that Professor Brisson has agreed to accept this role,” Kaiser said. “He is deeply familiar with both MIT and SUTD, and he will bring invaluable experience and knowledge to his new work.”


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