My job in higher ed with Jeff Dieffenbach, MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili)

My job in higher ed, trends in higher education, student engagement, blended learning, personalised learning, virtual classrooms

This month we spoke with Jeff Dieffenbach, the Associate Director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili). Jeff  explains the role of MITili in investigating learning effectiveness, how the current traditional 60 to 90 minutes of straight learning in a classroom just doesn't fit the way we're wired as people and how universities can start adopting personalised learning on a course by course basis.


What is MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) and how is it changing the learning landscape?

MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili), is part of MIT Open Learning, which is a broader group that, with a couple of important exceptions, focuses on learning from off campus learners who are not pursuing degrees. These include MITx courses on Edx, Micromasters and MIT Xpro for professionals. 

Our mission at MITili is funding, connecting and sharing research that's investigating learning effectiveness. In order to do that we're bringing in funds from companies, foundations and government agencies and helping faculty on campus, who are in different departments and who are studying learning and connecting together.

What we think is most important is sharing the research findings both from MIT and elsewhere with practitioners across Pre K-12 to Higher Ed and workplace learning so that they can embed the findings of this research into the day to day work of actually helping learners learn. 

How would you describe your role at MITili?

I am the lead staff member with MITili. We're a relatively small team but made effectively larger by the colleagues within the academic departments with whom we work, and by support from marketing, finance, IT and other functions within the broader MIT Open Learning Group. So I'm responsible for tying all that together at the staff level. 

mit-portrait_DSC03467_1

What is your favourite thing about working at MITili?

It's a little bit cliché, but the people here are fantastic. I don't have other academic experience to compare to, but faculty are accessible despite their incredibly busy schedules. Staff here, like at any university, are a key part of the lifeblood of getting a lot of things done.

Also, being in the presence of students is fantastic. There's just so much energy, in large part brought by the students, whether they are undergraduate or graduate level students. You just know you're in a place of learning, where people know how to have a good time - but they're also serious about learning.

Beyond the people side, the changing nature of this work is excellent. New projects are constantly emerging with novel and interesting challenges and new chances for me to learn. I rarely start a day having done what I thought I was going to do. And while what I thought it was going to be may be interesting work, the things that got in the way are always equally interesting.

Prior to entering the field of education, you led business development for a boutique management consulting firm. When and how did you become interested in Education and Learning?

We've all gone through education systems ourselves, so like anything that we've experienced, there's a familiarity even if it's only a surface familiarity. The step that really did it for me was, back in the mid nineties when I was living in a small town in the western suburbs of Boston, being appointed to the town's finance committee. One of the things that you learn on the finance committee is that more than two thirds of the county's budget is spent on public schools. 

At the time I had two young kids who were about to enter those schools and I wanted to learn more. I thought, again by virtue again of having gone through education myself, it would be a great place to spend some time and effort. I then decided to run for and was elected to the local school's board.

A few years later I had the opportunity to work for a reading software company and I just jumped at it as it was a way to make professional what I've been doing as a volunteer for a few years at that point. Since then I've really never looked back.

The idea of using technology to revamp student engagement is not new. How do you think edtech can help improve student engagement in higher education?

I think in some ways it may feel like edtech hasn't delivered on its promise, but we're sort of still in the era of the model T Ford. It's so early in the grand scheme of things and there are lots of places where I've seen edtech work - for instance reading and math skill development for younger kids is an excellent example.

I think the challenge is that education, and this really is at any level from pre K-12 to higher education, hasn't delivered on personalised learning. There's even something of a backlash out there to the idea of personalisation often because people equate it directly with edtech.

My only response is that impersonalised learning certainly can't be the answer. So I think we have to think about edtech as a tool, right? It's a tool that teachers and learners will deploy in intelligent ways to improve learning and it allows for personalisation in the face of a teacher to student ratio that might be 1 to 20 in an elementary school or 1 to 200 in a large lecture hall. In my opinion, technology will let teachers deliver on personalisation and personalisation will help deliver on learning. 

"Impersonalised learning certainly can't be the answer. In my opinion, technology will let teachers deliver on personalisation and personalisation will help deliver on learning."

During a recent radio interview you said that the notion of a lecture hall with 500 students and one faculty member spending 60 or 90 minutos is just outdated. How would you describe the ideal learning environment?

The current classroom setup is driven by logistics. If you need to get one faculty member and 500 students together, you better have them together for a fairly lengthy block of time. You just can't have people move around for 10 minute chunks of instruction.

A lot of what we do is based on what is physically possible and practical. Yet we also know that 60 to 90 minutes of straight learning just doesn't fit the way we're wired as people. Teachers and learners can certainly take that time and break it down into smaller chunks and we can do that with online learning as well. Spaced learning helps learning stick. 

But the questions we need to ask is when is group discussion valuable? Can some or all of that discussion be virtual? When is lab work valuable? When does individual learning makes sense? Should students be reaching or watching a video or doing some sort of prep for the group discussion? When is peer learning valuable? If we can define an ideal structure of learning and how we switch modes from individual groups to large groups then we can start to think about when does the classroom make sense and when do other learning modes make sense.

Is student engagement higher in a virtual classroom vs a traditional classroom?

It really depends. I think student engagement can be higher in a well-designed virtual classroom, particularly when compared to a poorly designed traditional classroom. We also want to think about the definition of engagement. If engagement translates to learning, then it's great, but you can have very engaging experiences that don't necessarily lead to improved learning.

I think in both cases, virtual classrooms and traditional classrooms, when well-designed, can be sufficiently engaging to allow learning to happen. Then you just have to think about the other aspects of virtual versus traditional. With virtual, we don't get everyone in that same room where I can see somebody's body language or their facial expressions the same way. On the other hand, in a physical setting, it may be logistically very difficult for me to get to where the learning is at the time that the learning is delivered.

The answer is completely in the details of how you deploy those two types of delivery, but both can be excellent.

"Student engagement can be higher in a well-designed virtual classroom, particularly as compared to a poorly designed traditional classrooms."

Can you give us an example of successful student engagement in an online environment?

There's a fair bit of research that shows that it can be successful. The example that I give here at MIT is one of the exceptions I mentioned at the outset about MIT open learning and it focus on non-degree students who are off campus.

There's a group here called Residential MITx.Their mission is to take MIT courses available on the edX platform and use them with residential undergraduate and graduate students at MIT. That's doing a flipped classroom model where learners can now spend time, not in the lecture hall, but in a learning environment before coming together on campus.

Something like 95% of the undergraduates here at MIT go through at least one course that is delivered that way and the outcomes that we see in those classes, based on test scores, are certainly the equal of what they were before this blended approach.

Studies from American psychologist Benjamin Bloom show that personalised learning is the most effective form of teaching. What do you think universities need to do to start adapting personalised learning teaching methods?

Changing the way that universities teach is hard work, just like changing the way that companies are organised is hard work. This is compounded by the fact that most faculty members, and this certainly isn't true for every university, have research as the primary part of their job and maybe that's the only thing that they're measured on.

In these cases, faculty don't have the incentive and may not have the resources to find how to change their teaching. But the good news is that universities can start adapting on a course by course basis. If one faculty member decides to adopt some personalised learning approaches in their classroom, they can. Universities don't have to change every course all at all once. Although this may feel like a systemic problem, it's actually solvable on a faculty member by faculty member basis if they're given the support to make it work.

Do you think digital learning should be a complement or a substitute to  sit-in-the-classroom learning?

I think the answer is both. When in-person experiences makes sense, it may be purely an in-person experience or it may be a mix, where it's done partly in person and partly online. I think it's clear though that the two year or four year contiguous degree programme that most universities deliver today isn't the right answer for all learners at all points in their lives. This may be the time when thinking about how to apply digital allows us to shake things up and deliver learning more on a lifelong basis.

"The 2 year or 4 year contiguous degree programme that most universities deliver today isn't the right answer for all learners at all points in their lives"

There is a growing concern that students leave universities not prepared for the workplace. Do you agree with that?

I do. There was a survey conducted by Gallup, and this may be four or five years old now, where 96% of chief academic officers at colleges and universities thought they were doing a strong or somewhat strong job of preparing students for the workforce and only 11% of business leaders agreed. So there's clearly a disconnect.

But I think that companies have to be a little careful if they're pointing the finger at academia.These companies are getting a free ride when it comes to learning and training. Their employees are the ones who are footing the bill. So it's a bit odd for them to then turn around and complain that the learning and training isn't matching their needs. Well, it was free! So if companies have a more active role in spelling out and funding the learning that is needed for the workforce, I think they'll get better outcomes. 

It's pretty clear that what companies want but aren't getting are things like creative thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration. Universities need to deliver that, they need to be proactive in adjusting their programmes to match. And some universities are already doing that. This is certainly not a case of higher education standing still. It feels the outside pressure and it's adapting. It's just not adapting uniformly.

Should universities be focused on providing students with skills and credentials rather than degrees?

Yes. If you think about a degree as just a stack of courses then you could just as easily make your output and your learning record a stack of learning experiences that focus on different competencies. So we can have stacked skills or credentials or badges that make up a degree. There's nothing magic about durations of two or four or six years for an associates degree or an undergraduate degree or a phd. So learners need to learn what's important for whatever path they're on.

Maybe they need three weeks of learning to make the next step in the job or the next step in their academic career. Maybe they do need two or four or even six years. So I don't think that the degrees will go away. It may well be that the majority of learners a generation from now are going through a degree programme that looks at least somewhat like what it looks like today but it won't be the only path into the workforce.

And again, traditional universities aren't standing still. Not only because of external pressures but also because they are constantly evaluating what they need to do. But universities should offer the thing that their learners value and need and not something that was created 400 years ago as the way it was done.

"Universities should offer the thing that their learners value and need and not something that was created 400 years ago as the way it was done."

What do you believe will be the disruptive forces that transform higher education over the next 5 years?

I think there are three disruptive forces. One is companies hiring learners from other channels. In the US, and I assume elsewhere, big companies like IBM, Google, Amazon and Deloitte don't necessarily require degrees of people they're hiring into traditional white collar college degree jobs anymore. I've heard at IBM these are called 'new collar jobs'. So the more that happens, the more there's a disruptive force.

I think the second disruption will come from within higher ed. Examples of places where this is happening include Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Arizona State University, Minerva Project and many others. And again, I'm more familiar with the US, but I have no doubt that these kinds of disruptions from within universities are going on in other places as well.

The third disruption is the students and families themselves. Most people can't afford a quarter of a million dollars for a thing where you really can't gauge its value. You don't have, for instance, the ability to go to a college and ask for the data on where students are going after college and how they're succeeding there. It's just something of a leap of faith.

So the company disruption channel, disruption from within the higher ed channel and the student and family disruption channel are all going to have an impact. Five years is a pretty short time frame in higher ed. We're talking about not much longer than a traditional undergraduate degree. Maybe it's 10, 15, or even 20 years before those forces really make mainstream alternative channels, but I think they're coming.

The opinions shared in this interview are the author's own and do not reflect the view of any institution. 

My job in higher ed is a monthly series. Take a look at our other interviews.

My job in higher ed trends in higher education student engagement blended learning personalised learning virtual classrooms

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Tania Roquette

Tania Roquette

I am the Head of Solutions at FULL FABRIC. I am passionate about education and technology.

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