Diffusion tension imaging Satrajit Ghosh, MIT
Diffusion tension imaging Satrajit Ghosh, MIT

Chandler, D. (2016) New initiatives accelerate learning research and its applications MIT News, February 2

The President of MIT has announced a significant expansion of the Institute’s programs in learning research and online and digital education, through the creation of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili).

The integrated science of learning — now emerging as a significant field of research — will be the core of MITili (to be pronounced “mightily”), a cross-disciplinary, Institute-wide initiative to foster rigorous quantitative and qualitative research on how people learn.

MITili will combine research in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, economics, engineering, public policy, and other fields to investigate what methods and approaches to education work best for different people and subjects. The effort will also examine how to improve the educational experience within MIT and in the world at large, at all levels of teaching.

The findings that spin out of MITili will then be applied to improve teaching on campus and online.


First, I very much welcome this initiative by a prestigious research university seriously to research what MIT calls the ‘science of learning’. Research into learning has generally been relatively poorly funded compared with research into science, engineering and computing.

However, I hope that MIT will approach this in the right way and avoid the hubris they displayed when moving into MOOCs, where they ignored all previous research into online learning.

It is critical that those working in MITili do not assume that there is nothing already known about learning. Although exploring the contribution that the physical sciences, such as biological research into the relationship between brain functionality and learning, can make to our understanding of learning is welcome, as much attention needs to be paid to the environmental conditions that support or inhibit learning, to what kind of teaching approaches encourage different kinds of learning, and to the previous, well-grounded research into the psychology of learning.

In other words, not only a multi-disciplinary, but also a multi-epistemological approach will be needed, drawing as much from educational research and the social sciences as from the natural sciences. Is MIT willing and able to do this? After all, learning is a human, not a mechanical activity, when all is said and done.


  1. Thanks for sharing this and the hope you express in the last paragraph. I wonder if critical scrutiny will be applied to the platforms used. iTunes, Google and Facebook have revenue streams that are not driven solely by a need to improve learning and I would hate that to be a blind spot in any research .

  2. The new MIT initiative is generating interest and excitement: as Tony notes, having a major world-class university invest in educational research feels positive and optomistic.
    Tony notes a few of their oversights to date:
    1. They have hither to ignored all previous research in online learning;
    2. They succumb to hubris…
    Linda adds a few more
    3. They succumb to the objectivist epistemology (an occupational hazard for engineers and computer scientists) in which there is little focus on questions, but great emphasis on answers or “solutions”. Hence there has been historically little interest in what is ‘learning’, for example, but how can we ‘fix’ it. Create a solution! Aha! Add more Technology. MOOCs!
    4. We can expect that alot of the research will be linked to datamining the MOOC courses. I hope these engineers and computer scientists can and will move beyond that limitation.

  3. Interesting that research in “education” doesn’t get a guernsey. Seems to me that learning/education comes purely down to the science of the brain without considering the other factors you mention. Now all we need is a machine built by engineers to rewire everyone’s brain and voila, utopia.


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