Q&A with Jeff Dieffenbach, Associate Director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative

Steve Nelson
Jeff and dome

Jeff Dieffenbach is the Associate Director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili). Prior to joining MIT in that role, he worked in strategy, product management, business development, sales, and marketing roles for a range of traditional and digital education companies.

MITili funds, connects, and shares research investigating learning effectiveness. The research ranges, for example, from scans of individual learners in Brain and Cognitive Sciences to applying data analytics to understand the implications of policy decisions in Economics to almost every department at the Institute. Studies focus on one or more of three broad demographics: birth through pK-12, higher education, and workplace learning.

What type of research do we need more of to make learning effective?

Several areas intrigue me. First, learning needs to be personal. But there’s little evidence to suggest specifically what types of personalization lead to better outcomes. We need a concerted effort to sort out what works versus what just sounds good. Second, and it’s related, is the need to design, apply, and test artificial intelligence (AI) as a means to help learners and organizations find the right learning at the right time.

Do you believe online learning or massive online open courses (MOOCs) will ever replace the traditional college classroom?

In their current form, not completely. “Ever” is a long time, but “replace” sounds either/or. To be sure, there are already countless examples of blended (online) learning in higher education. The advantages are compelling, especially for adult learners who don’t have the flexibility to be on a residential campus 24/7. That said, those benefits need to be balanced against the effectiveness of an experience. For many, though, it’s either online or nothing. In the medium to longer distance future, I could imagine virtual reality (VR) versions of MOOCs that dramatically close the gap with in-person experiences.

What type of research is MITili overseeing at the moment? 

We’ve got a number of projects running. One is a joint CZI-supported effort with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and Florida State University’s Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) to improve early literacy through a systems-level, personalized approach to instruction, assessment, and intervention. Another is the grant program we fund to enable MIT’s exceptional faculty and other researchers to study cutting edge questions that interest them. These research projects cut across pK-12, higher education, and workplace learning tackling topics ranging from improving learning effectiveness with physically adaptive tools to improving MOOC retention. The research page on our website is a great starting point to learn more.

What is your favorite thing about working at MIT?

I’ll start and end with the people. Almost everyone I meet is curious, thoughtful, and inspired to serve the mission of learning, whether they’re staff, students, faculty, or visitors. (And that even includes people at Harvard too! [smile]) Yes, there’s an impressive history here. And we’re surrounded by great technology. The cities of Cambridge and Boston are vibrant—I once described Boston in a blog post as the hub of the education universe. It’s so much more than just education, of course, from commerce to culture to recreational activities and everything in between. And when you dig into any of those gems, you quickly get to the root of their success … the great, diverse group of people that drive them.