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Innovation Requires a Little "Crazy"

Behind MIT's efforts to redefine the future of higher education is a willingness to experiment and take risks.

"MIT is a crazy place." Take it from edX CEO and MIT professor Anant Agarwal, who used precisely those words in his keynote address this July at Campus Technology 2014 to explain the institution's penchant for reinventing itself. "Messing with things is part of their DNA," he continued — akin to an engineer's devotion to continuous improvement.

"Messing with things" is a rather humble way of describing what MIT actually does, which is constantly experiment and innovate in ways that literally change lives. Initiatives like edX and OpenCourseWare are obvious examples, expanding access to higher education all over the world.

With a résumé like that, MIT could easily rest on its laurels. But instead, it has embarked on a massive effort to reinvent itself. An institution-wide task force of faculty, students and staff recently released a 213-page report with 16 recommendations for "how MIT can continue to transform education for future generations of learners."

Job one, according to the report: Set up an "Initiative for Educational Innovation" to act as a hub for further experimentation. Recommended areas of focus include infusing greater flexibility into undergraduate curriculum; expanding the use of project-based and blended learning models; introducing modularity into the curriculum as a replacement for traditional classes; and studying new approaches to assessing students. The task force also proposed further innovation around MOOCs, new revenue opportunities for the institution and building new student learning spaces.

What does it take to pull off such a transformation? Some might say it requires the prestige, size and resources of an institution like MIT, but I think it's something deeper: a willingness to take risks, to try something "crazy," to learn from failure and keep going.

The personification of those qualities might just be CT 2014's closing keynoter David Sengeh. As a biomechatronic researcher in the MIT Media Lab, Sengeh is designing next-generation prosthetic sockets that improve comfort and mobility for amputees. He is also the president and co-founder of Global Minimum, an international nonprofit organization that mentors high school students in Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa, fostering a culture of innovation and helping young people transform their ideas into tangible solutions. He has worked to distribute mosquito nets in Africa, develop a tuberculosis vaccine and produce microbial fuel cells. And as if that weren't enough to keep him busy, Sengeh also owns his own clothing design company and writes rap music.

When asked about the secret behind his dizzying array of achievements, Sengeh echoed the spirit of risk-taking that drives institutional change at MIT. "To be honest, I am a silly person who does not mind making a fool of myself," he said. "Because I don't take myself seriously, it's easy to try stuff out. I'm not afraid to fail or lose."

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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