2021 MITx Prize winners build community on campus and across the globe

MIT instructors honored for creating multidimensional, multidisciplinary online courses that help learners everywhere address real-world problems.

On May 14, six MIT instructors were honored with the 2021 MITx Prize for Teaching and Learning in MOOCs. The prize, established in 2016, honors excellence in creating Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for MITx on edX. Anyone in the MIT community can submit nominations, including MITx MOOC creators, and awardees are selected by the MITx Faculty Advisory Committee.

The award was given to two courses this year, honoring faculty and instructors from four disciplines. Jonathan Gruber, Ford Professor of Economics, was honored for his 14.01x (AP Microeconomics) course, which uses MIT materials geared toward high school learners to help them prepare for the College Board exam. The other course recognized, 15.480x (The Science and Business of Biotechnology), was created by professors Andrew Lo of the MIT Sloan School of Management and Harvey Lodish of the Department of Biology, along with graduate students Zied Ben Chaouch of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and Kate Koch of the Department of Biology, as well as Shomesh Chaudhuri ’14, PhD ’18, an EECS graduate.

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2020 MITx Prize for Teaching and Learning in MOOCs

The MITx Faculty Advisory Committee assesses prize nominees on four criteria: effective and engaging teaching methods, learner-focused innovation, residential impact and reuse, and global reach and impact. It is that last criterion that has drawn the most focus over the past year; in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, demand for the established, high-quality resources offered by MIT Open Learning has been higher than ever.

“Now more than ever, by opening MIT teaching and learning to the world, our MITx courses are making a global impact,” says Dean for Digital Learning Krishna Rajagopal. “The courses honored with this award are exemplars of the best of MITx, and of MIT. They reach quite different audiences; high school students in one case, current and future leaders in biotechnology in the other. In both cases, they are doing so in ways that are sparking new curiosity and interest and opening new opportunities for their learners worldwide.”

Gruber’s Microeconomics course is a perfect example of a learning resource that has grown beyond its original purpose to reach a diverse international audience. Gruber first designed the course in 2017 to fill the void of preparatory materials available to U.S. students planning to take the AP Microeconomics exam; he notes that few high schools offer any kind of support or formal training for the test. The MOOC is structured around the exam curriculum, to serve either as standalone training or as a supplement to instructor-led courses. But perhaps in part because of its wide-ranging, pop-culture savvy appeal (Gruber uses LeBron James’ basketball career, Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account, and the pros and cons of attending university as just a few of his real-world economics examples) the course has found a truly global audience with learners from 180 countries.

Gruber has also used the course to develop and implement a very practical economic policy of his own. He has done away with assigning a required — and costly — textbook for his students in his residential MIT version of the course, instead assigning materials from the MOOC and other free, open source MIT learning materials as a supplement to class lectures and notes. David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics, in support of the course’s nomination, commended the “labor of love” that is Gruber’s course, and how with each new iteration of the MOOC, his colleague builds bridges for high school students, “[opening] pathways that were previously cloudy or just invisible.” Over time, says Autor, the course will “foster diversity and inclusion by seeding opportunity where it was absent.”

The Science and Business of Biotechnology course team was no less ambitious in creating their multidisciplinary exploration of the industry, setting up the course based on the comprehensive, research-led approach they’d like to see companies adopt. Like Gruber, course leaders Andrew Lo and Harvey Lodish have personal connections to their subject: Lo was moved to make change in the sector after experiencing disillusionment with biotech during loved ones’ battles with cancer. Lodish has witnessed the enormous impact of the biotech industry on both personal and professional levels: years after he co-founded Genzyme, his daughter gave birth to a son who depends on one of the company’s medicines for treatment of a chronic health condition.

The team’s dedication and well-balanced approach to a multifaceted industry has been a smashing success. Calling Lo and Lodish “superstars” in his letter of support, Institute Professor Robert Langer lauded the course’s comprehensive approach to the subject matter, finding it essential for those who would seek to make a real impact on the biotech industry. Heidi Pickett, assistant dean for the MIT Sloan Master of Finance Program, also praised the combination of subject areas explored throughout the course, citing its ability to redress weaknesses in individual learners’ skill sets; those coming from a finance background, for example, would benefit from a deeper engagement with the science of biotech, while still gaining knowledge in their primary field. She also spoke to the course’s wide appeal: “Considering the importance of topics discussed presented in 15.480x, it is no wonder the course attracted learners from around the world bringing different backgrounds and perspectives,” she says, adding that lively exchanges between users on the course’s discussion boards greatly enhanced the learning experience.

After a year when so many learners struggled to adapt to a sudden shift to remote education, MITx Director Dana Doyle finds ample reason to celebrate the power of intentional online teaching and learning. “In a time when people everywhere have felt both increasingly isolated and increasingly connected by the experience of the pandemic, it’s so heartening to witness how these courses have brought learners together to dive into important, complex global issues.”

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