Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a pioneer of modern online education. The institution was one of the early players in the MOOC game, was behind the launch of edX and has continued innovating its distance learning offerings over time. But, like every other college and university across North America, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the institution to make some massive changes very quickly. In this interview, Clara Piloto discusses how MIT has been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, reflects on its impact on international programs and shares her concerns around how the reputation of online education might be affected by the nationwide adoption of remote learning practices.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has MIT responded to COVID-19?
Clara Piloto (CP): Very quickly and efficiently. Since 2014, MIT has been experimenting with online learning. At least 1,200 degree-directed courses have been put online and are being offered through what I call “distance” learning. They haven’t been converted into designed online courses, but they’re basically using distance learning tools and strategies. All the assets have been put online. Live webinars are held with faculty and degree students– and then made available through recordings and such.
Today is the official day that MIT’s degree students come back to school, and they hail from all over the world. We extended spring break by a week, and through those two weeks MIT worked with faculty across the university to meet our degree students’ needs and get all assets and courses online in the form of distance education.
MIT professional education and Digital Plus programs have been online since 2015, so there’s been minimal impact on us. These are high-end courses taught to our professional corporate clients for which we do a lot of instructional design. We have a couple of custom online programs starting, one this week and then another a few weeks later. We’re also offering multi-lingual courses in English, Spanish and Portuguese. We try to touch quite a bit of the world through our professional online courses.
Evo: How have professional education operations and learners been affected? Has it been a pretty smooth transition because everything already was online?
CP: In many ways, it has been a smooth transition, but it was the result of hundreds of people working behind –the scenes to make it happen. The biggest impact at first was that many individuals from different offices (because we work with external collaborators) had to start working from home. We had to move some operations directly into people’s homes and make sure that they had tools to get their jobs done.
The mindset for online programs was already there for us, and that can be the biggest hurdle. If you’re not already working in online, it becomes more difficult to transition–but that’s not to say that you can’t do it. Many people have! Even at MIT, not everybody was involved with online programs. Starting in 2015, we’ve run a lot of different experiments, and more and more faculty have been exposed to them. I checked in with my faculty in the professional education division and asked them how that transition for their degree classes was going. They just laughed and said, “Actually very smooth. We’ve been already doing this for years.” It was great to hear that the transition was a bit easier for those who have been working with us on professional online programs.
Evo: How have international programs, students and operations been affected?
CP: Anything in-person has been impacted. For example, we just had an international program that we offered in the Middle East. Faculty were supposed to be traveling there, and within a couple of weeks we had to basically convert that course to distance learning. We use Zoom as a tool and provide the content ahead of time. A lot of assets were provided online and changed the course schedule and the way it was offered. Feedback from students was great, actually. They were all very engaged and appreciative that we were still able to offer the course and meet their current needs. I envision more of that happening. Right now, our international programs are a large part of our portfolio.
Also, in my online programs, I offer some in-person blended learning cases as part of the online experience. Sometimes I’ll schedule an in-person workshop in an international location where I know I have a large contingency of online students. We recently did that in Madrid, but the project is paused right now. The other thing that we also do with our online students is we offer what we call After Work Events. These are in-person events within a designated city–again, where there’s a large congregation of my online students–and provide them with an opportunity to come together in the physical world. Many of them maintain online relationships with each other through collaborative learning and live sessions, but we try to bring them together in person as well.
Evo: How are learners adapting to this shift?
CP: We’re starting to see a lot of inequality in education. An example is about be the K-12 students around the world who cannot access the Internet and/or who don’t have laptops or computers at home. How are they accessing education? For many, it’s the first time, and they’re really being thrown into it. I see some of my friends posting on Facebook about how their children are being educated. It’s hard to see a seven-year-old or a nine-year-old sitting in front of a screen to participate in a course–and they’re the lucky ones because they have access!
We’re also taxing our systems, like our Wi-Fi with everybody being at home and online—whether they’re working, learning or playing. Internet is a lot slower for many of us, so that’s also impacting access to learning.
Evo: How concerned are you that they’re going to be equating their experience in this very particular environment with what’s possible from consciously built online education?
CP: Our design, creation and building processes can take anywhere from six to nine months before a course is ready to launch. We work with faculty on a weekly basis to create these courses together. We bring in instructional designers, create graphics and really take the time to create a collaborative learning journey that excites students.
Our online learners don’t get bored, and our courses are not dominated by videos. I’m trying to change the mentality that online courses are all about video. That’s actually the last thing we work on when we design our courses. Video assets are the cherry on the top but are actually a very small percentage of that assets we create.
With that said, what’s happening now with remote learning is pretty difficult. I mean, they’re essentially taking an in-person course that they then try to replicate through webinars, and, in some cases, via hands-on lab work. That’s something that I’m not quite sure how MIT is managing right now, how they’re going to try to get around it. It’s very different. I’m worried about those for whom it’s a first experience with online education and that they’re going to think, “Oh, this is online education.” But no, this is a reaction to a global pandemic for many universities. They only had a couple of weeks to put this together. I think most people understand that. Even at MIT, not every faculty is doing professional online courses. People understand this isn’t consciously designed online education, but it’s important to keep reminding them that these courses are just fulfilling a need that we have right now.
Evo: Which groups are being most impacted by the pandemic mitigation tactics and the social distancing in effect?
CP: MIT is really concerned about the experience of our degree students. We want to make sure that students are connected not just with faculty but with other students. We also want to be aware of their mental health and make sure that they’re doing okay during this time feel safe.
The other thing I’m concerned about is how women are being impacted right now during this transition. I’m not speaking just about the women in the U.S., but those around the world. For women in traditional roles, who are expected take care of the home, the meals, the children, and–in many cases–work at the same time. I’m hearing from them how stressful this is, but I’m not hearing it as much from my male friends and colleagues. The widespread adoption of remote learning and work is forcing families to start looking at gender roles in a different way and question how everybody is contributing to maintain a harmonious home. Globally, women tend to earn less money; there’s no gender or pay equality. Many of them tend to be in lower-skilled positions and jobs. They’re really being disrupted right now because maybe they might not even be getting a salary anymore. They’re basically sequestered at home as a result.
I look forward to much smarter people than I to be thinking about, writing about and doing research on it. The reality is that, once this is over, the world will be irrevocably changed. This is such a pivotal moment in our times; I feel like it’s comparable to World War II, the financial crisis or the dot-com bubble crisis. Evo: What do you think some of the characteristics of our new normal are going to be?
CP: In online education, there are going to be a lot more debates. I’ve been telling folks for a while that a big disruption in education was looming. I didn’t think it had anything to do with a pandemic, but it’s just made sense with where we are right now with online education. Investors and venture capitalists have turned online learning into big business. That’s been worrying me for some time now in terms of maintaining quality of education and also because there are now a lot of new players in the education—whether they’re companies now offering online education or just new vendors coming in and capitalizing on it.
Crisis management and preparedness is another thing that we have to really think about better and have plans in place for moving forward. I think folks who have been doing this already for a while found it difficult to make sure that employees and staff were ready to continue the operations from their home. That was the big thing for me. It’s difficult to work from home when you’re not exactly ready to do that.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how MIT is responding to this crisis?
CP: There are many ways in which MIT is really trying to problem-solve. The school is in a unique place because of the research and work that we do. We basically create problem solvers. MIT has been communicating to not just to staff, students, and faculty but the broader community through a lot of different channels, like alerts, stories, emails etc. When you do a search COVID-19 on our website, you find a large number of stories and information on the different ways MIT is trying to help solve this problem. They created a new cost-effective ventilator (only about $100 each to build) and made the plans for it accessible through open-source.
MIT has a lot of affiliations with different companies that have either sprung out from MIT or have MIT alumni in high-ranking positions that are working on different ways to combat the virus. It’s exciting what they’re doing; they’re very involved. Right now, many MIT teams are working on either coming up with a solution to COVID-19 or providing solutions for hospitals or medical workers.
There are a lot of top universities globally that are trying to work on these solutions. But I think that any university has to look at what it’s really good at and leverage it. We’re privileged in that we’re really able to ramp up quickly. We’re able to refocus our research, and all our research is very practical anyway. Any research that we do, we want to make sure has real impact and can spark transformational (maybe even global) change. However, research funds have dwindled; it’s forced a lot of universities to find funding resources in other ways.
Evo: How has the institution kept people apprised of the changes, not just to how they’re working and learning, but also of the realities of change?
CP: I’ll be honest, I’m not sure you’re going to see this revolutionary change occur once the pandemic is under control and people start going back to work. I believe that small incremental changes will occur within certain institutions. Within some of those institutions, I could also see some experiments occurring that could go on to be considered revolutionary. Universities are a very traditional place, and sometimes it’s hard to move an institution in a new direction.
MIT has been really great about communicating with staff and students and faculty about all the changes that are occurring and decisions that are being made. They send out a lot of alerts and maintain a central page on which we can read about updates and also learn about what different groups are doing and changing in their sectors.
With what’s happening day-to-day for my professional online learner degree students, the main concern is safety. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we’re all on the bottom tier. We want to feel safe right now. We’re trying to get through this emergency, and we’re going to be here for a while. We’ve had folks tell us that it’s a good time to be in online education and that we’re likely to increase sales over the short term. But I don’t think that will be the case, at least not in the short-term. If anything, my business hasn’t been impacted much at all. A handful of people have requested to either drop from their course or move to a future iteration of the course, but these are very small numbers. They might change as time progresses. For the first time globally, we’re being asked to restrict our movements. You almost feel sequestered, maybe like a prisoner. How does that impact learning in the short term, medium and long term? That’s something we have to really think through and work on finding new ways to support students in need.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 30, 2020.
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