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As we move toward creating effective online learning environments, we also need to be thinking about how the on-campus experience should change. The undergraduate experience is about many things, and not all of them are best learned online. It also includes personal exploration, interacting with people with diverse backgrounds, opinions, and thinking styles, and social growth. Our residence system is already ideally positioned to support a lot of this type of opportunity: we already have vibrant communities with rich traditions and strong, cohesive identities. I hope we can enhance the residential experience here in two ways.
First, I hope MIT will develop more living/learning communities -- living groups that integrate educational components. We have some examples already but this would be a logical direction for us: enriching both the educational and personal experiences, and balancing the online with the face-to-face, within a living group.
My second thought is about some special programs, and I have a particular example in mind. I am thinking of the issues faced by students on the autism spectrum, and by extension faced by all of us as we try to provide an excellent undergraduate experience for such students. Many of our students on the spectrum have cognitive skills that outstrip their social abilities; and while the possibility of taking classes online may be tempting, this is a group who may well benefit from guidance and practice in developing and applying social skills.
A handful of institutions of higher learning offer programs designed to meet the needs of these individuals. Such a program here could provide the kind of “premium service” that people might be willing to pay extra tuition for – a program designed for students on the autism spectrum, encompassing both the rigorous course content of an MIT degree and a coordinated array of services designed to support the development of executive functioning and social skills. I could easily imagine a niche for us because numerous studies show that engineering fields are particularly appealing to students on the spectrum, but ironically engineering is increasingly a collaborative field, requiring the very skills in which such students are often challenged (communication, team work, etc.)
Really most of the components are already at hand; what we lack is coordination, planning, cohesion, and a programmatic vision. I would imagine such a program involving a three-way partnership among Student Life, Disability Services, and somebody on the academic side (maybe DUE, or even the School of Engineering depending upon how we set it up.) It could be a very targeted program, involving a hands-on engineering curricular track, a comprehensive living/learning community, and support for learning issues.