How MIT's Office of Educational Innovation and Technology Is Making Education Better: An Interview with Vijay Kumar

May 31, 2011 recently attended the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC), a gathering of educators and professionals interested in the availability and application of free online college course materials known as OpenCourseWare (OCW). We had a chance to speak with several industry leaders, including Vijay Kumar, the director of MIT's OEIT (Office of Educational Innovation and Technology), who shared with us a couple of MIT's exciting innovations.

Edited by Stacy Redd

Vijay Kumar MIT

In his role as Director of the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology at MIT, Vijay Kumar has the exciting job of overseeing the education-related innovations taking place on campus. As MIT and OCWC prepares for the next decade of OCW, the team at the OEIT is always looking for ways to make open education better and Dr. Kumar couldn't be more excited about what's to come.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about OEIT?

A. Our focus is on education specifically, on curriculum innovation and innovation that applies to educational infrastructure. In some sense, we act like an incubator where we look at interesting technologies and try to understand their implications for education. In some cases, we look at interesting pedagogies and ask how technologies can be used to support them. Our work can inform new platforms that help education delivery. We make sure that whatever gets developed can be delivered at a scale so a lot of people can benefit from it.

For instance, one of our faculty members - Jim Glass, a researcher in computer science - has developed an application called the spoken lecture browser. The idea is that you can selectively locate video segments. If you have OCW there are lots of video-based lectures. This browser uses voice recognition technology and artificial intelligence techniques to automatically transcribe a video and search it. We've stabilized that application as a platform so you can actually go to lecture videos and find particular segments.

Another area that we work on is to bring research tools and experiences easily to undergraduate education. We have a program called STAR, Software Tools for Academics and Researchers. STAR offers visualizations, so that students can selectively see, for instance, portions of a molecule, they can manipulate for deeper learning. Typically interactive visualizations like these present a high threshold of technology; people have to know a lot to take advantage of them. We're using technology to take the operational fog away. Students can simply access these visualizations through a browser.

Q. Do the programs you spoke about spread beyond MIT, or do they usually stay there?

A. STAR stuff is available openly and freely. It's on the web. We encourage other people to use it. We're helping teachers from other institutions - universities, K-12 institutions - to show them how they might build their own materials around these visualizations. Then they can localize it. In some cases we might have lesson plans built, but we might encourage people in different regions to translate the educational materials around those visualizations.

Q. Do you ever encounter resistance from faculty and students when you try to introduce some of these technologies?

A. That's a very important question for the work we do. We don't build technologies and peddle them. We spend a lot of time talking with our faculty on the problems they're trying to solve and what's getting in the way. There might be difficult concepts that they're trying to get across. Then we do some development and ask them if it's what they're getting at. In that sense there's no resistance, because we don't start with the solution, we start with the problem. It's a natural process.

Recently, we've been doing a lot of focus groups, talking with faculty and students. We're trying to find out what it is they'd like and the kind of things they look forward to. The students are very perceptive. They don't want gratuitous use of technology. They don't want technology that takes away from interaction with the faculty. They don't want technology that does old things in new ways. They want technology that gives them access to education in a variety of ways - they want choice.

At MIT, a lot of our applications and infrastructure were actually built by students. They come up with the ideas. Students aren't unfamiliar with technology. The resistance isn't there. They find technologies because they have problems to solve. Our faculty helps them build these applications. Some of them we select and make part of the infrastructure.

We anticipate problems and opportunities. MIT is very, very innovative. Some of the stuff that I see students coming up with are just incredible, and likewise with faculty. There are waves of innovative activity. Some of those waves are tsunamis. We watch those that get behind them and try to apply a lot of resources to bring them up. Those things have larger implications in the world. This whole thing is about exchanging ideas, sharing resources. It's dynamite. It's fantastic.

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