Sanjay Sarma to step down as vice president for open learning | MIT News

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After nearly a decade running MIT’s digital learning platforms and education initiatives, Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma will step down from that post at the end of June, President L. Rafael Reif announced today in an email to the MIT community.

Sarma, who is the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has been responsible for MIT Open Learning, which includes the Office of Digital Learning, the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili), the Center for Advanced Virtuality, and the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL). Since 2012, he has led MIT Open Learning, first as director, then as dean, and finally as MIT vice president for open learning.

In his letter, President Reif called Sarma “one of the most creative thinkers I know.” He added: “For all he has done for our community, for his indelible mark on open learning, locally and globally, and for his continued commitment to inventing the future of education, I express to him my deep gratitude and admiration.”

Sarma has overseen the creation of an array of complementary programs that open learning opportunities in different ways for people around the world. In 2015 he conceived of and then led the launch of the MicroMasters, a new type of credential that allows working professionals to pursue master’s-level courses online. It can also accelerate their time to degree once admitted to a traditional master’s program. MIT now offers five MicroMasters. Nearly 2 million students have enrolled, and 5,000 learners have earned MIT MicroMasters credentials. One hundred and eighty-eight individuals have graduated from an accompanying master’s program at MIT, and another 72 are currently enrolled. MicroMasters programs have been adopted by over 25 universities worldwide, with over 50 programs offered. 

Sarma also began MIT Bootcamps, which offers blended learning experiences for entrepreneurs, and which has reached over 2,400 learners. He launched MIT xPRO, offering online professional education courses; MIT Horizon, a content library to help professionals keep pace with latest advances in technology; and the Digital Credentials Consortium, where MIT has convened a global group of universities to design standards and an infrastructure for tamperproof, verifiable, digital academic credentials, which protect private data and give learners more control over how they share their own credentials. Most recently, he led the creation of the internal MIT platform known as MITx Online, which hosts many of MIT’s online courses.

Under Sarma, MIT Open Learning also dramatically scaled existing programs. MITx has supported MIT faculty in developing nearly 250 unique online courses that together have run close to 1,000 times and are approaching 10 million cumulative registrations, extending MIT’s reach far beyond our residential campus. OpenCourseWare, whose site receives almost 2 million visitors per month, was just refreshed with a new, next-generation platform. Together with Professor Admir Masic, Sarma scaled the MIT Refugee Action Hub, which now serves refugees on four continents. And Open Learning’s Residential Education arm was critical in helping MIT transition its courses online during the pandemic, providing best practices and support for faculty, and later undergirding the transition of over 1,000 MIT courses to Canvas, MIT’s new learning management system. 

Sarma also generated and led a number of significant projects at MIT Open Learning, including desigining a competency-based learning curriculum for the new Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning; developing a STEM curriculum for 478 schools with 2,500 teachers and 60,000 learners in India; and early on in the pandemic launching a K-12 hands on STEAM curriculum, among others. A consummate innovator, Sarma led MIT Open Learning in researching the potential offered by artificial intelligence and virtual reality to transform education.

“Sanjay has provided visionary leadership in creating and shepherding open learning to become a transformative and indispensable organization for fulfilling MIT’s educational mission for its students, faculty, and staff — and serving millions learners everywhere,” says Dean for Digital Learning Cynthia Breazeal.

In addition to leading Open Learning, Sarma served on the board of edX, and as co-chair of MIT’s Task Force on the Future of Education and its Task Force 2021 and Beyond to inform MIT’s strategy in teaching and learning and far beyond.

“It’s been quite a journey,” says Sarma, who began running MIT’s online platforms, including MIT Open Courseware, in 2012. “With such a strong team in place, now that we are emerging out of the pandemic and after nearly 10 years at Open Learning, it seemed a natural time to transition the leadership.”

Sarma is already the author of three books. “The Inversion Factor: How to Thrive in the IoT Economy,” co-authored with Linda Bernardi and Kenneth Traub; “Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn, 2019,” with co-author Luke Yoquinto, a research associate in the MIT AgeLab; and “Workforce Education: A New Roadmap, 2020,” with William Bonvillian, a lecturer at MIT and senior director of special projects in the Office of Digital Learning. Sarma now plans to spend time working on his next book, a study of the learning process. He also plans to take a one-semester sabbatical and to pursue research on issues of cybersecurity as well as learning and education.

In his books, Sarma has explored the application of structural, pedagogical and technological approaches to broadly rethinking learning and education. He has looked at how to create systems that are based on a scientific understanding of methods that lead to the most meaningful and lasting impact. Although he has been in charge of MIT’s online-learning programs, he emphasizes that in-person education is always best when possible, with the online material as an important complement that works best when most effectively blended into on-campus education, not as a substitute.

“In person is better,” he says. But “for those who have limited access [to in-person education], online is very good.” The two components work best hand-in-hand, he says, adding that he hopes that “open learning is deeply embedded in MIT’s psyche” and an essential part of its future. Helping to design that future, through such means J-WEL and MITili, will be a major element of his ongoing work, he says.

While he doesn’t want to be a presence overshadowing MIT Open Learning’s new leadership, he says, he will be around and happy to assist whenever appropriate. “I will be at Open Learning’s service for the rest of my life,” he says. “These are people I’m very close to, lifelong friends and colleagues.”

Sarma also expects to work with a few tech startups during the coming years, he says, taking advantage of his long experience in both industry and academia, including starting and working with various startup enterprises.

Sarma earned his bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, his masters from Carnegie Mellon University, and his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked in industry for several years before joining the MIT faculty, and continues to serve on the boards of numerous companies. He co-founded the Auto-ID Laboratory at MIT and developed key technologies behind the RFID standards now used worldwide. In his ongoing work, he hopes to study ways of addressing security issues raised by such ubiquitous connected devices.

Sarma directed MIT’s collaboration with the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which developed an integrated approach to a design and engineering curriculum. He is the author of over 200 academic papers in sensing, automation, and the science of learning.

While he is proud of the many programs and initiatives that were launched under his stewardship, Sarma says the time has come for a new person with new ideas to lead MIT Open Learning. “My colleagues at Open Learning are amazing and I will miss working with them immensely. I also know that the organization is in good hands, with an outstanding team that will continue to innovate and serve this mission-critial role at MIT,” he says.

President Reif has invited suggestions from members of the MIT community regarding the selection of the next director of MIT Open Learning. Input can be sent to openlearning-search@mit.edu; all correspondence will be treated as confidential.



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