Innovation in the classroom

Michelle Tomasik lectures on angular velocity. Tomasik gave an xTalk on alternative forms of assessment to better gauge student progress in a remote learning environment.

MIT’s Residential Education group fuels faculty ingenuity and student engagement.

Marisa Demers | MIT Open Learning

October 3, 2022

The 2022–23 school year is underway, and MIT’s instructors and teaching assistants are back in the classroom and laboratories. Each time they supplement their in-class lecture with a video, organize a new learning exercise, or even post their syllabi on Canvas, Sheryl Barnes hopes MIT Open Learning’s Residential Education group made their jobs easier.

“Faculty have a lot of demands on their time, but they are also deeply committed to their students,” says Barnes, director of digital learning for residential education. “Our job is to help them optimize use of their own time to maximize learning for their students.”

Separate from the Division of Student Life’s Residential Education, MIT Open Learning’s Residential Education group enhances teaching and learning through the use of digital technologies. By identifying, testing, and implementing promising innovations, Residential Education aims to make it easier for instructors to change and evolve their learning materials. The team focuses on three main areas.

Science of learning

Designing and refining curricula and courses can be a solitary endeavor, but Residential Education doesn’t want it to be that way. A trio of pedagogical specialists — a learning engineer, data scientist, and learning scientist — take deep dives into peer-reviewed research and data analysis to offer recommendations to instructors.

Aaron Kessler, assistant director of learning sciences and teaching, says the Residential Education group works on a wide range of issues, including transitioning a course from in-person to online to back to in-person again. He also has assisted instructors as they implement new instructional technologies and make challenging concepts easier for students to understand. 

“We assist faculty in providing students with experiences that allow them to deeply engage with the content using approaches grounded in research,” Kessler says.

Educational technologies

To put the research and data into practice, the Residential Education group also has staff skilled in educational devices, technologies, and software, such as Canvas and Residential MITx. The team also oversees the lightboard studio, a place where instructors can use an illuminated glass board that enables them to write and explain equations, formulas, and concepts while still facing students. 

For the past two years, Barnes, her team, and MIT Information Systems and Technology have dedicated a significant amount of time to Canvas. In March 2020, as classes were moving online, MIT licensed the learning management system for the entire campus. The Residential Education group raced to host one-on-one consultations and create instructional videos and online tutorials so that faculty and instructors could move their courses to Canvas. Under normal circumstances, a campus-wide migration would take at least three years, Barnes says. By May 2022, MIT had 2,598 courses on Canvas.

Barnes’s staff continues to be the go-to resource for Canvas. They test Canvas-integrated apps including those that enable student polling, video discussions, and class surveys and provide resource pages for faculty and teaching assistants. 


Another key component of the Residential Education group’s efforts is to bring instructors together so they can exchange ideas, share success stories, and find inspiration. Events such as xTalks, a panel discussion held regularly during the school year, and Festival of Learning, a yearly celebration of innovation in education, provide those valuable opportunities.

Previous discussions have focused on active learning techniques, supplementing lectures with video animations, and using clickers to increase learning gains. Next year’s Festival of Learning is scheduled after the Independent Activities Period in January. The team collects teaching insights, best practices, and success stories on Open Learning’s Residential Digital Innovations page for faculty.  

A different teaching landscape

Emma Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations, frequently collaborates with the Residential Education group. In the 2021 academic year, Teng decided to create a new, born-digital subject to meet the needs of remote instruction. The class explored the Chinese novel “Three Kingdoms” and its various adaptations, and Teng had several objectives for the knowledge and skills students would gain in her seminar. Teng turned to the Residential Education team and the Teaching and Learning Lab for support refining her intended learning outcomes and designing assessments.

The class was a success, Teng says, with students engaged and bonding, even in the remote learning environment. Students demonstrated their appreciation by nominating her for MIT’s 2022 Teaching with Digital Technology Award. Teng was among the faculty and instructors to receive the honor, which recognizes educators who effectively integrate technology into their classes. Achieving this high level of creativity and intellectual freedom would be more difficult without staff support, Teng says.

“Residential Education is a go-to resource, and it is hard to imagine MIT without them,” Teng says. “The pandemic sparked a valuable conversation about teaching at MIT and Residential Education was right there to help facilitate it.”

Barnes wants to keep the conversation going. This school year, the Residential Education group will resume in-person events, and she is eager to examine the pandemic’s lasting changes to their profession.

“We are in a very interesting moment,” Barnes says. “We need to gather again and ask ourselves, ‘What is the new normal?’ and ‘What does it mean to move forward as an instructor?’”

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