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MIT Better World

By Nicole Estvanik Taylor

“Education and learning are fundamental to a strong society and economy… Enabling individuals to do their very best and reach their full potential, whatever their background, is a key priority for Community Jameel and the world. That is exactly why we are establishing the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab with MIT.”
—Fady Mohammed Jameel, president of Community Jameel International
“Through J-WEL, we will forge new and long-lasting collaborations as we learn, share, and train together, using the assets developed at MIT as well as by leveraging the community convened by J-WEL.”
—Sanjay Sarma, MIT Vice President for Open Learning

Transforming 21st-century education is a goal MIT is already working on…

Steered by executive director M.S. Vijay Kumar, MIT’s associate dean of digital learning, J-WEL is an anchor entity within MIT’s open education and learning initiatives. These include the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili), devoted to the science of learning; pK–12 efforts to improve STEM education in primary and secondary education; and digitally focused endeavors—such as MITx, OpenCourseWare, and the Digital Learning Lab—overseen by the William A. M. Burden Professor of Physics and recently appointed dean for digital learning Krishna Rajagopal. MIT is engaged in several collaborative initiatives that seek to improve teaching by providing flexible instructional tools and professional development opportunities for educators, including the Tata-MIT Connected Learning Initiative (CLIx), which advances educational quality and access through technology in underserved Indian schools; the Woodrow Wilson Academy, an MIT collaboration out of the Teaching Systems Lab; Fly-By-Wire, led by AeroAstro professor Karen Willcox; and MIT-Educator, which focuses on curriculum design and pedagogy for higher educators. Also among the Institute’s global education bonafides are the popular, kid-friendly coding platforms Scratch and App Inventor. MIT has a long history of collaborative formation of new universities, such as Singapore University of Technology and Design and Brazil’s Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica. And on the policy front, the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative, with its rigorous economics research, has contributed to educational reforms.

…but it’s not a goal MIT aims to reach alone.

J-WEL will create a locus of ongoing engagement for universities, foundations, corporations, and schools from the US and around the world to define and address their own specific goals for their regions’ needs. Members of J-WEL will work with MIT resources through J-WEL Weeks, signature events held twice a year on campus, as well as J-WEL Exchanges providing deeper dives into specific aspects of education. Continued interaction with MIT faculty and staff, as well as online modules, webinars, and research briefs, will build a community of global colleagues. Kumar also notes that beyond its philanthropic support, “Community Jameel is making important contributions to J-WEL by identifying target needs, and in identifying other initiatives and agencies engaging in this space with whom we might collaborate and cooperate.” Kumar emphasizes that J-WEL will address opportunities for improving education in both developing and developed countries, including in the US: “These kinds of needs are everywhere.”

Learning is a lifelong process.

The lab will concentrate on three levels of education: pK–12, higher education, and workplace learning. On the pK–12 track, Angela Belcher (James Mason Crafts Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science) and Eric Klopfer (director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and the Education Arcade) serve as faculty directors; Hazel Sive, professor of biology and member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, is J-WEL’s director of higher education; and George Westerman, of the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy, serves as the workplace learning lead. Among the many challenges facing these sectors, Klopfer and Belcher are eager to address a “global epidemic in science education” that favors shallow memorization, while Sive is interested in engaging on problem-solving cultures and curricula relevant to students’ lives and careers. Westerman shares additional concerns about rapid shifts in the employment landscapes of both emerging economies and developed nations. “As automation reshapes the corporate workforce, the challenge goes beyond training,” he points out. “Companies, and people, need to understand what the worker of the future will be doing.” Meanwhile, for learners at all stages of life, in many parts of the world, basic access to education is a critical issue. Empowering underserved populations—such as displaced populations, and girls and women worldwide—is a guiding focus of J-WEL.

There’s more than one avenue for transforming education.

J-WEL members may choose to concentrate on new teaching methods, digital tools, curriculum design, institution formation, capacity building (including teacher training), or even on nationwide educational reforms. On the higher education track, Sive envisions members coming to MIT to “explore, redesign, and reform” their educational systems. She offers the example of MIT-Educator, now in its test phase, in which visiting participants from Tunisia have designed new courses from the ground up, informed by case studies presented by MIT faculty. In the pK–12 arena, improving tools for assessment is one way to help shift the conversation around learning. Klopfer points to research by MITili director and neuroscientist John Gabrieli PhD ’87, the Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, on how to measure executive function, an important set of mental skills for young learners to develop. “Until the assessment regimen shows the value in such things,” Klopfer says, “schools are going to be reluctant to put much emphasis on them.”

J-lab rigor will be in full force.

J-WEL’s founding is consistent with a focus by Community Jameel and its chairman Mohammed Jameel ’78 on collaborating with MIT to create a better future. Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), established in 2003, seeks answers to poverty in a changing world. Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), established in 2014 addresses water and food scarcity issues. Both emphasize rigorous research and measurable, systemic change over time, and J-WEL will take a similar approach to education. The randomized evaluations in which J-PAL specializes are of particular interest to Kumar: “The initiatives we launch can’t just be based on an idea; they have to be founded on research and early, meaningful, quantitative and qualitative evidence.”

“Quality at scale” must be a consistent theme.

“Through connecting with MIT, J-WEL members will articulate their goals of engagement. Figuring out what resources we can bring to address those goals in a scalable way will be very important for J-WEL,” Kumar says. Belcher suggests: “Think of J-WEL as a hub whose ideas and curriculum and technologies can be distributed to all parts of the world.” Yet, as Klopfer observes, “Some of the same issues may ultimately affect kids in Detroit and in Mumbai, but they manifest themselves in different ways.” For J-WEL to maximize its impact, Klopfer suggests making connections between underlying causes “to help disparate geographic entities to simultaneously think about solutions, so we are not solving one-off problems, but rather dealing with a network of related issues.”

Education at MIT will be clarified and strengthened as a result.

“The mind-stretching way we empower our students with problem-solving skills at MIT is not how I was educated [in South Africa],” says Sive, “and not how many students in universities in the world are educated.” J-WEL will offer a chance for MIT faculty not only to articulate and celebrate their most successful educational practices, but to apply for funding to scale those up for global application in collaboration with colleagues around the world. MIT students will also have the opportunity to become J-WEL ambassadors, highlighting their own learning experiences. J-WEL is a way for MIT to share what it does best, and to analyze what it can do even better in service of global education.

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