As Director of the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dr Vijay Kumar is MIT's leader in new technologies for learning, a position that undoubtedly makes him a world guru in the field. Dr Kumar is also honorary advisor to India's National Knowledge Commission, where he has been engaged in advancing open and technology enabled initiatives for educational access and quality. He was one of the guest speakers at the University Campus Conference, the conference held last October in Barcelona to discuss the Campus Project, an initiative of Catalan universities to develop virtual campuses using free software.
You are promoting the effective integration of information technology in MIT, a university founded in 1865. Is it proving difficult to change the teaching and learning processes in an institution with such a history?
That's a good question. One side of the problem is not that the faculty is not innovative but that we solve very localised problems. Now we have to see how to generalise these local solutions more globally. That is one thing. The other part of it is that there are some engineering and science courses where the content is very dynamic while there are some other courses, like say Calculus, where the content does not change too much. So there the innovation might be more in terms of the relevance between what is taught, the fundamental, and the new ideas and specialisation.
To link course subjects.
Exactly. The other difficulty is what I call "inertia of success". If I have been teaching for years and my students have been successful and then you come and say "Oh! You have to try this! Use this innovation", I will ask you "Why?"
If it works, why change it?
Change requires resources and energy. And people's time is valuable! So, when we talk about new applications for teaching and learning, first of all there has to be an interesting need to address. For instance: a concept that is difficult to understand. And you will also have to show a compelling reason why you are bringing in the innovation. Otherwise, people might have difficulties in accepting it.
Change is not easy.
But it is not because people are good or bad but because they have to understand all the implications of change. Even when you introduce a non-technological innovation like teaching business management through case studies, you have to see what it means to the whole curriculum. You cannot just treat everything as an add-on to what existed, but you have to blend the whole thing and see what the system looks like. That is a point that we sometimes don't think about properly so there are negative consequences.
Which technology is currently benefiting MIT teachers and students the most?
There are different needs for different kind of areas. One thing I can generally say is that more and more people are using visualization and simulation in their courses. We have an introductory physics course involving electromagnetism where the use of visualization helps to understand physical phenomena much more clearly. Or take molecules; the fact that you can rotate them and look at what there is on the other side. One of the main advantages of these technologies is not what questions you can answer now that you use them, but what are the kinds of questions that you can ask that you were not able to ask before.
I don't quite understand...
It is not the fact that you could not look at them [the molecules] but the fact that you can ask "can I combine them?" and you can do non-destructive testing.
Now I see.
So simulation and visualization are being used more and more extensively. When you ask about the most beneficial technologies, part of the answer is driven by what are the things we believe are educationally more useful. For instance, active learning is very important. How can we engage students very actively in problem solving?
That is an important issue in technical studies.
Again, we have an example in physics. We have an initiative called TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning). For this we have created two fantastically equipped classrooms where the students have the potential to actually conduct experiments and test out hypotheses. They can sit around tables working, touching and discussing with each other, and present what they are looking for.
So they are not just sitting, listening and looking at pictures.
So you can see that, even for students, it takes a cultural change! Some of them might not like it and say "just tell me what the right answer is or... tell me what is in the exam!" It takes change for everyone but it is more productive in the end.
Are you using these innovations in non-scientific subjects?
Yes. We are using a lot of image related tools in the humanities. For example, we are using images to visualize different cultures and understand their processes. One of our professors, Shigeru Miyagawa, is trying to introduce the students to how Japanese culture reacted to American culture. He has wonderful images of when Commodore Perry went from the US to Japan and how the Japanese people responded at that time. We have also what is called Metamedia, which creatively combines images, narrative and video to create immersive environments, so that students can learn languages and, at the same time, get an understanding of the culture.
What about the use of virtual reality for these purposes?
That is a very good idea and, in fact, we are doing some early experiments with Second Life and virtual environments. It is not always possible for people to travel and, in the absence of that kind of travel immersion, virtual reality becomes very important for language learning. But it could have other effects also. In Second Life you can join other communities who might be discussing things of interest and pop into various kinds of conversations. And through this multiple identity with avatars you show different parts of yourself. In other words: in a classroom I am who I am, but in Second Life I can go as different people and try to either receive information differently or give information differently.
You were a member of the steering committee of iCampus, a MIT-Microsoft research alliance. What was this initiative for?
iCampus was a five year programme that we had with Microsoft Research for educational technology research. We wanted to look for new and productive applications of technology that can really advance education.
Can you give us an example of a technology that came out of that?
One of them was iLabs - Internet laboratories. Essentially, iLabs enables students to use real instruments via remote online laboratories. So you, as a student, go and connect with a MIT lab and set the parameters for the experiment. Then the experiment happens, you see the results and you can connect with other students elsewhere in the world and compare them. You can imagine the advantages: 24/7 access to the lab, no need to be physically there... The creator of the original concept is Jesús del Alamo, a MIT professor of microelectronics.
Who is using this technology?
Well, we have students from all over the world: Sweden, Singapore, Australia, China... Another innovation that came out of iCampus is the use of tablet PCs for collaborative learning. Students used the tablet to share design documents on a robot design project. And the TEAL programme for active learning, which I mentioned before, was also part of iCampus. If you go to the iCampus site on MIT you will find the whole range of projects. There are a lot! Now we have evaluated the results of the experiences and we are choosing some projects to apply them more extensively within MIT and elsewhere.
You are honorary advisor to India's National Knowledge Commission. How is technology aiding access to education?
That is a good question, because when you talk about India you have to imagine lots and lots of people. Any number you can think of, you have to add a few zeros on the end! So one of the things I have been promoting as part of my goal for the Knowledge Commission is that network enabled open education be used to provide extensive access and quality. Using open resources and networks can provide both generalised access to education and very specialized knowledge. And it is important to do that across different sectors: it is not only for high technology and higher education, but also to meet needs in all sectors: public health, manufacturing, agriculture... Education has to ensure that India can grow at the highest level with more research and development, but also that the infrastructure needs can be met.