Vice President for Open Learning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Boston, Massachusetts

The Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, vice president for Open Learning, and an adviser to several national governments and global companies, Sanjay Sarma is at the cutting edge of technology, education, and business. He has received several awards for teaching, education, and research, including the Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, which honors MIT's best teachers and mentors, and InformationWeek's Innovators and Influencers Award.

The MIT Professional Education website quotes you as being a disruptor. What does that mean?

I've never described myself as a disruptor, but I do feel a certain urgency when change occurs around us. I feel that we need to confront it rather than ignore it and then become victims of change. And there are some global trends at play right now—innovation, for example—and we need to respond to them by recognizing them and addressing their underlying causes, rather than ignoring them.

At MIT you've pushed for breaking up the usual semester term and allowing for more personalized learning. In fact, The Chronicle of Higher Education described it as essentially remixing the curriculum into a personalized learning playlist. Is this something that can translate into the learning culture in the business environment?

Absolutely. In fact, it has to. Why do classroom rules have to apply in the business world?

Knowledge in the business world need not be linear, nor does it need to be on a metered schedule. There is no weekly calendar with Economics 101 on Tuesday mornings at 10 o'clock, right? So, all these principles apply even more to the business world.

One of the caps that you wear is that of overseeing the OpenCourseWare project. Can you describe briefly what that is and where it stands?

The OpenCourseWare project was launched a little over 15 years ago by MIT. It was sort of a revolutionary thing where MIT announced that

it was going to make its curriculum open to the world—I'm talking about lecture notes and things like that, but it also includes things like videos. Over the last 15 years, we've had some 200 million unique users worldwide. We've taken more than 2,000 courses and made them available via OpenCourseWare.

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The automatic assessments are a large part of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and why they work. Is there a connection between them and assessments/analytics in the business environment?

Assessments come in two varieties: formative and summative. Formative assessments are assessments that are used as a teaching technique rather than as a measurement technique. So, when I talk to a student while I'm having a coffee with him, I might say, "Hey, I want to ask you a question." I'm not trying to measure or give the student a grade based on that question. I'm leading the question to an "aha" moment or an insight where their learning improves.

A summative assessment is where you're actually trying to measure whether they should get the grade they get. Both of these apply very much to business. It turns out the power of formative assessments, also called the testing effect or the retrieval practice, is extraordinary and is underused from a teaching perspective. But from a hiring perspective, the summative assessment becomes more important because one can see how quickly someone comprehends something and whether they know what they need for the job.

What's most surprising or compelling discovery or insight around the Internet of Things, specifically in terms of learning and training?

The Internet of Things, to me, is a new design vernacular, a design language for designing the world around us. Let me give you an example: If 20 years ago you heard me say to someone, "I'm going to use my iPhone and request my car to pick me up"—by which I'm implying that there's no driver in the car—you would have thought I was absolutely nuts. What technology has done is it's given us a whole new language, new verbs, new nouns, new formations, new sentences. The Amazon Echo is another example of that.

So, this design language, of course it's going to impact learning in a multitude of ways. For example, you may be a mechanic repairing an engine at Logan International Airport and, as you're repairing it, your "smart glasses" may display to you the insides of the engine and may tell you what the next version of this engine is going to look like. Learning is going to become always incremental, just in time, nuggetized. And so, the Internet of Things will play a very critical part in that.

What do you enjoy doing outside of the workplace for rest or relaxation?

Family is obviously a huge one, but we as a family also enjoy travel. And I'm a very avid reader of fiction and nonfiction. I also enjoy drawing; I like building things. So, really, a range of interests, as well as a large group of friends around the world who stay in touch.