Low-Tech, High-Impact

MIT learning program challenges edtech assumptions.

GUEST COLUMN | by Richard Larson

CREDIT MIT BLOSSOMS.pngLike it or not, education technology is here to stay. The industry is growing fast, bringing more smart boards, computers, iPads and mobile apps into classrooms. There’s a new and rising focus on the role of robots in schools and more educators are exploring how virtual reality can be used to improve learning. But the in-class reality is, innovation in education doesn’t always have to involve high-tech solutions or devices. There are other, lower-tech approaches that can work just as well.

The in-class reality is, innovation in education doesn’t always have to involve high-tech solutions or devices. There are other, lower-tech approaches that can work just as well.

In my view, the key to improving education is more about encouraging critical thinking, creative thinking, lateral thinking. The people today who inspire innovative companies are individuals who put things together in interesting and compelling ways, who enjoy thinking outside the box and wrestling with challenging situations.

That’s why business leaders have repeatedly called on schools across the country to do a better job of teaching students to think critically, particularly when it comes to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields where professionals with these key skills are in critical demand. There’s an urgent need to encourage more students to study STEM, but unfortunately the solution is unlikely to depend on the latest techno-gadgets. If we want to motivate more students to pursue STEM careers, we need to show them how the various topics relate to the real world.

That’s the idea behind the MIT BLOSSOMS project (the name stands for Blended Learning Open Source Science Or Math Studies.) It’s about using video to translate the complex into a form that will provide students with a different view of the world, one that will create a foundation for understanding why things work the way they do while, at the same time, encouraging students to ask questions, not merely come up with answers. You might say, “The solution is the process of thinking about, framing and formulating approaches to problems they have not seen in textbooks. The solution is not a number.”

The appeal of BLOSSOMS lessons is that they help students relate STEM to everyday life, and provide teachers with opportunities and ideas for hands-on learning sessions (which take place during designed video breaks.) The point of the interactive exercises is to have students work in teams, rather than be immersed/isolated on an individual device, such as iPads or smart phones.

One BLOSSOMS video, for example, kicks off with a figure skater going into a spin on ice and then, as she spins around, pulls her arms in closer to her body. Why, the video asks, does she go faster and faster the more her arms contract?

Another poses the question: “How do mosquitoes fly in the rain?” After all, if you were being pummeled with objects 50 times your own mass, you might have a hard time staying upright. Nevertheless, the mosquito, weighing a mere one milligram, shrugs off the 50-milligram droplet of water. In fact, she just keeps on flying. Exactly how does she manage to do that? David Hu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, takes students through the equations, leaving them at the end with a sense of, okay, I get that. While at the same time, engaging them in a fun and provocative way that might prompt them to view things differently and, perhaps, explore other questions. Perhaps the flying capabilities and/or constraints of drones.

In the decade since launching the BLOSSOMS initiative, we’ve witnessed first-hand what works and doesn’t work when you bring technology in to enhance education in the classroom. And putting the teacher off to the side, essentially removing him or her from the experience, definitely does not. What’s more, we know students learn best not as isolated units but as part of a socially connected group.

That’s why, modest as it is from a technological perspective, MIT BLOSSOMS is ideally designed for learning. The video lessons are designed to effectively move educators away from the scripted lecture format with its emphasis on memorization for tests, to one that promotes active learning and critical thinking. They are presented in a way that students find both interesting and challenging. And perhaps most importantly, they demonstrate to students how many STEM topics relate to their everyday lives.

Our goal is to develop a large, free repository of video modules to be used by math and science teachers in high school classrooms around the world. And, at the same time, to get students excited. We believe we’ve taken important strides in that direction. If we want to put learning goals ahead of technology, then skip the apps, robots and mobile devices and give video lessons like these a regular, leading role in the classroom.


Richard Larson is Principal Investigator of the MIT BLOSSOMS Initiative. He is Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems and Director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals at MIT. He is also the Founder and Director of MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium), an MIT-based project that has held four symposia and sponsored a number of initiatives in Africa, China and the Middle East. He first became interested in technology-enabled education when in the early 1990’s he saw what a valuable addition it was to the education of his own children. From 1995-2002, he served as director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Educational Services (CAES) where he focused on bringing technology-enabled learning to students living on the traditional campus and to those living and working far from the university, often on different continents.

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