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A New PK12 Initiative at MIT and a New Role for Me

Starting July 6th, I'll be taking on a new role as the Executive Director of the PK12 Initiative at MIT, and as a research scientist in the Office of Digital Learning.

I've taught in the Scheller Teacher Education Program for the last four years, helping MIT undergraduates find their way into careers in education. I've developed a deep fondness for students there. Those that find their way into the Scheller Teacher Education Program are brilliant scientists and mathematicians, and they bring an unabashed loved for their discipline, compelled not just by the function but the beauty of what they study. These same students are also humanists: committed to education, human development, and social justice. I get giddy thinking about how much good these young people are doing in the world, and I'm thrilled to be able to take a leadership role in supporting MIT's growing efforts to support PK-12 education.

The PK12 Initiative is the confluence of two streams of activity, with headwaters that go back decades.

On the one hand, the effort is part of MIT's growing interest in addressing the challenges of preparing young people for study and careers in STEM fields. President Rafeal Reif in his announcement today of the launch of the PK12 initiative told the story of two MIT physics professors in the 1950s who worked with high school teachers to develop new curriculum materials. MIT has over 100 different decentralized initiatives related to PK-12 education. The launch of MITx and EdX has galvanized interest--well-established from the OpenCourseware Initiative--in making MIT learning experiences accessible to the world. The research led by Daniel Seaton, that showed that a substantial portion of MITx students are current and former teachers, opened new imaginations of how online learning could be a vehicle for supporting STEM education in public schools. Part of the PK12 effort is examining how MIT can systematically advance the all of the Institute's various efforts to improve the educational pipeline that brings students from diverse backgrounds into the sciences.  It's exciting to see MIT redouble the wealth of wisdom and talent committed towards these pressing challenges.

The other stream comes from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which for decades has sought to strengthen the nation's teaching force through fellowships and other programs. Their newest initiative is the Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning, which is a hybrid, competency-based, teacher-education program that will begin with a focus on preparing people for careers as math and science teachers. The driving force behind the program is Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and a scholar and critic of the nation's system of teacher education. As Levine said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Anyone can throw bricks. Can you fix it?" The Academy is an effort to reimagine teacher education with a focus on helping students demonstrate mastery of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to be an outstanding entering teacher. The Academy will be its own degree-granting institution, but it will be supported by a variety of faculty and other resources at MIT. Part of my role will be to connect MIT to this new effort, and to help the Academy develop as a laboratory for teacher education.

For me personally, I remain fascinated with the questions of how online learning technologies can support the systems that develop human capacity. I'm excited to continue to investigate these questions in teacher education, at the intersection of K-12 learning where I spent my first 10 years in education, and in higher education where I've spent the last two years.  

 HarvardX has been an incredible intellectual home for me over the last two years. The three pillars of the EdX initiative have been increasing access to learning opportunities, improving on-campus learning, and advancing the science of learning. Over the past two years, no organization has devoted more resources to the research mission of large-scale learning than Harvard.

When I give talks about HarvardX, I often start with a joke that goes something like, "I have the privilege of being an ombudsman for HarvardX, with the role of providing unbiased and objective data, analyses, and interpretations about our online learning effort. I have about as much academic freedom as any untenured researcher studying a $30 million, high-publicity effort from his employer. Which is to say, some."

But in truth, I had more than "some" academic freedom. I've had virtually free reign to study the questions I've found interesting, to report and publish my findings without influence, and to help build a research group with a reputation for fair, reasoned analysis. I hope that we've earned the trust of fellow researchers, policymakers, course developers, and the media as researchers committed to investigating the MOOC phenomenon without fear or favor. I am extraordinarily grateful to the leadership at Harvard, especially the chair of the HarvardX Research Committee Andrew Ho, for supporting me in that charge, and I look forward to future collaborations.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to summarize my thoughts on the state of MOOCs and large-scale open online learning, and to offer ideas for the next steps in research, course development, and education policy in a series of posts here. But the punchline is easy. Putting MOOCs online is no more going to transform education than having computers fall from the sky into schools. However, the thoughtful integration of new technologies into established systems--especially when we focus on the learners who need the most support--has tremendous potential to enrich our ecologies of learning. 

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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