It is no surprise that equal access to educational opportunities has helped underprivileged communities in improving the quality of their lives, especially for refugees. Under the leadership of MIT Open Learning, a program on a mission to transform teaching and learning at MIT and around the globe through the innovative use of digital technologies, several initiatives were championed to provide educational opportunities for displaced communities, in particular, the MIT ReACT.

We celebrated the winners of a flagship MITEF Pan Arab competition, Innovate for Refugees, and graduates of the first MIT ReACT Computer and Data Science program in Amman earlier this week. As part of the event, we had the honor of welcoming Sanjay Sarma, VP of MIT Open Learning who delivered a keynote address about how we learn, forget, and internalize, curiosity, interest, and practice. We also sat down with Professor Sarma to ask him about open source learning and the technologies currently disrupting education.

*Answers were minimally edited for brevity without affecting meaning or content.

Q1: How do you think open-source learning could pave the way towards equal access to information and knowledge?

Sanjay: In the past, it was common that knowledge belonged to some people and not to others, and open-source changes that because it’s part of the universal commons of the humankind.

Q2: Can you tell us more about the impact of open-source learning initiatives and peer-to-peer learning?

Sanjay: You know, open-source whether it’s Khan Academy or Open Course MIT has reached, literally, hundreds of millions of people. One of the things we know from the science of learning is that it is easier for you to learn from someone who is closer to your level than from super expert. To me it is revolutionary.

Q3: You talk about technology’s potential in disrupting education, yet in many parts of the world, illiteracy (let alone access to the internet, digital access) remains a major obstacle to several populations, especially refugees and displaced communities. How do you see technology alleviating that situation in particular?

Sanjay: When technology, like connectivity, becomes highly accessible, it can be used for other things; for doing commerce, paying, buying things etc.. What happens is that technology, like smartphones, will spread because of that. This is when education becomes accessible for free.

Q4: What is your opinion on the notion of ‘Don’t know something? Just Google it!”

Sanjay: I think it’s fantastic! But you have to be careful because you can get superficial knowledge or you can get wrong knowledge. So in addition to Googling it, you have to have an inner instinct of how to interpret it, and that’s what we should really focus on.

Q5: ...and do you see Googling going in the right direction with the way it’s providing information and ‘knowledge’ to users?

Sanjay: I think they’re doing a better job [than others] because the problem with information that can go viral is that it can also be wrong information. Social media is a place where any piece of information can go viral. Google is a search engine, not a social media platform per se, so what Google has is algorithms to sift out the right information, and Facebook is also trying to do that, and they’re getting better. Also, all knowledge has different perspective, and you should interpret it, you should never accept it [for face value].

Q6: With more of the things of what a professor used to do being automated and digitized...where/what do you see university professors doing 50 years from now. Would even having a physical University campus still be relevant? What would be the new role of a professor?

Sanjay: I hope so! Professors standing on a stage and just talking, while the students sleep; if we can get beyond that role, it’s fantastic! In my view, whether experts, professors or coaches, etc… are better off when actually interacting with people, helping them get better. Professors themselves learn from that and make it better too. We have to have a much more integrated approach to learning, not one in which the professor just broadcasts. I think technology will help in that.

Q7: How do you see AI impacting MOOCs and specifically when it comes to adapting modular models of learning based on individual learning needs?

Sanjay: AI and technologies like that will make online content MOOCs much more interactive. At some point, we’re not there yet,, you might imagine a tutor that tries to figure out how the student is misunderstanding a topic. As the online modalities become more and more sophisticated, the professors need to up their game to become more of value at it.

Q8: Do you think we still need competitions like IFR, or do you think we should do something else?

Sanjay: I think what we need, more than anything else, is to recognize human potential. Refugees have the same flesh and blood like all of us, they just had a very unfortunate and tragic time. We need them to understand their own potential, and human interaction and coaching is a way to bring out people’s potential. In the end, everyone's the same. Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian refugee. We’re all the same and we just need to recognize each other’s sameness and potential, and for that reason, I’m absolutely delighted to come to this event.

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