About Peter Chipman

I'm a lexicographer, an editor, and a lover of language and literature. Also a proud father of two, an occasional bell-ringer, a thirteenth-generation New England Yankee, a former owner of a one-room schoolhouse, and the current owner of a 220-year-old farmhouse.

Insights for Remote Teaching and Learning

Professor holding a lap top that shows the words Never Stop Learning

How to keep education happening when students and instructors can’t meet in person

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

These days, university professors worldwide are scrambling to begin teaching their classes online rather than in person. At the most basic level, some courses can be taught online using just streaming video (whether live or pre-recorded) and familiar, readily available technology such as email and group chat apps. But if you’re looking to step up your online teaching, you may find inspiration in reading about what tools MIT’s faculty have been adopting in recent years.

For an extensive list of OCW Instructor Insights pages in which instructors discuss their implementation of online teaching technology, simply visit the Educator Portal on the OCW website. Click on the “Instructor Insights” tab, and then scroll down the “Topics” menu to find and click on the topic “Teaching with Technology.” Here’s a sampling of the dozens of Instructor Insights pages you’ll find in that list:

Offering a Small Private Online Course

Professor Olivier de Weck taught 16.842 Fundamentals of Systems Engineering as a SPOC (that is, a small private online course), rather than a MOOC (a massive open online course). In his Instructor Insights video, he discusses how he collaborated with a university in Europe to overcome the challenge of hosting discussions among students located in widely different time zones.

Online Tutoring

Professor Dennis Freeman describes how he and his colleagues used an online tutoring environment in 6.01 Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science I to promote student self-assessment. He describes the tool they developed to help students make sure the code they were writing was performing as intended, and he explains how that tool could be generalized to serve other online tutoring functions in other courses.

Web-Based Problem Sets

Professors Wolfgang Ketterle muses on the advantages and challenges of using web-based problem sets in teaching 8.421 Atomic and Optical Physics I. Though he still sees value in traditional on-paper homework problems, he recognizes that for instructors who are tasked with teaching completely online, it’s “extremely encouraging to know that even very complicated questions can be transformed into web-based problems.”

Collaborative Text Annotation

Dr. Kurt Fendt and his teaching assistant Andrew Kelleher Stuhl use a tool called  Annotation Studio with students in CMS.633 Digital Humanities. Annotation Studio enables groups to annotate a text collaboratively, to highlight and comment on passages in the text, and to respond to one another’s comments. The tool, developed by Dr. Fendt’s digital humanities lab, was still in development at the time the course was first taught; the students were thus able to offer feedback that helped shape the evolution of the software.

Automated Answer Checking

Dr. Jeremy Orloff and Dr. Jonathan Bloom, the instructors for 18.05 Introduction to Probability and Statistics, believe that the best time for students to be made aware of their mistakes is when they’re still working on the assigned problems, rather than after the fact. In their Instructor Insights, they explain their decision to provide their students with an online tool that allows them to check their answers to problem sets before submitting them.

Onward and Upward with OCW Educator

We hope that the insights discussed above will inspire you to experiment with new tools and techniques in your own online teaching–and that you’ll return to the OCW Educator Portal in the future for insights on other aspects of teaching, whether that teaching is happening online or in a traditional classroom!

Courses from MIT’s 2020 MacVicar Fellows

Four faculty portrait photos.

The 2020 MacVicar Faculty Fellows are (clockwise from top left):
Polina Anikeeva, Jacob White, William Tisdale, and Mary Fuller.
Photo credits (clockwise from top left):
Lillie Paquette, Sampson Wilcox, Webb Chappell, Jon Sachs

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

For the past 28 years, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program has honored several MIT professors each year who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate teaching, educational innovation, and mentoring.

This year’s awardees are Professors Polina Anikeeva (materials science and engineering), Mary Fuller (literature), William Tisdale (chemical engineering), and Jacob White (electrical engineering and computer science).

OCW is honored to share courses from three of this year’s Fellows:

Polina Anikeeva

Mary Fuller

Jacob White

Interested in Instructor Insights from past MacVicar Fellows? Visit our OCW Educator portal to search for Insights from MIT Teaching Award Recipients. Delve into the minds of Arthur Bahr, Wit Busza, Catherine Drennan, Lorna Gibson, and many other MIT professors advancing teaching and learning in their fields.

Learning to Read the Scholarly Literature

hela cells

Specimens from a line of cultured human cells used for medical research. (Image by Tom Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, courtesy of NIH Image Gallery on Flickr. License CC BY.)

Students in MIT Biology’s Advanced Undergraduate Seminars hone their professional skills by studying specialized topics in depth.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

If you browse the OpenCourseWare offerings in Biology, quickly skimming the list of course numbers, you’re likely to be struck by how many courses have numbers between 7.340 and 7.349: there are eight versions of 7.340, ten versions of 7.341, eighteen versions of 7.342, and so on. In fact, these ten course numbers account for well over half of the OCW courses in Biology. 

Why do we include so many versions of the same few subjects? Actually, all of the courses with numbers 7.340 through 7.349 are on different topics, though they’re all the same in one crucial respect: they’re all Advanced Undergraduate Seminars. The Advanced Undergraduate Seminars are courses designed to allow students to study and discuss primary literature while learning about current biological research.

How They Work

Prerequisites vary slightly from one course to another, but the seminars typically require students to have taken introductory courses in topics such as cell biology, molecular biology, and genetics. The class size is limited to eight students to ensure as much interaction as possible between student and instructor. And the instructors for the seminars are typically postdoctoral research scientists with a strong interest in teaching; they’re thus uniquely qualified to help their students learn to read research articles and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the experiments presented.

Class sessions are designed to be as interactive as possible. Typically, before each week’s session, students are asked to read one or two primary research papers. They’re expected to come to class having read the papers thoroughly, and to be prepared to discuss and critique each paper. In order to ensure that students are fully prepared, some instructors require each student to submit one or two questions based on the reading by email before each class; these questions then form the basis for the class discussion. In other cases, instructors assign each student a role in leading the class by explaining or interpreting one figure from one of the readings each week. The goal is for the students to be the ones actively propelling the discussion, with the instructor serving primarily as a facilitator and factual resource.  

Two Instructors Share Their Perspective

At the Instructor Insights page for 7.341 The Microbiome and Drug Delivery: Cross-species Communication in Health and Disease, you can find a video interview with the course’s instructors, Dr. Ali Beyzavi and Dr. Miguel Jimenez. In the various chapters of this video, Drs. Beyzavi and Jimenez share their strategies for teaching students to read the primary literature, the role of instructors’ questions in guiding class discussions, the surprising structure of their course’s mid-term assignment, the way the final presentations summed up what the students had been learning throughout the course, the reason why the class field trip was to a biotech firm rather than to an MIT lab, and what post-docs like themselves stand to gain from teaching an Advanced Undergraduate Seminar.

The Range of Offerings

For examples of the kinds of topics covered in Advanced Undergraduate Seminars, check out this small sampling of the seminars represented on OCW:

7.340 Nano-Life: An Introduction to Virus Structure and Assembly
7.341 DNA’s Sister Does All the Work: The Central Roles of RNA in Gene Expression
7.342 A Double-Edged Sword: Cellular Immunity in Health and Disease
7.343 An RNA Safari: Exploring the Surprising Diversity of Mammalian Transcriptomes
7.345 The Science of Sperm
7.345 Survival in Extreme Conditions: The Bacterial Stress Response
7.347 Living Dangerously: How the Immune System Maintains Peace with Trillions of Commensal Bacteria while Preventing Pathogenic Invasions
7.349 Biological Computing: At the Crossroads of Engineering and Science

A Mission to Mongolia

Professor Michael Short travels from MIT to Central Asia—and finds that OCW is already there.

A grassy hillside with a city in the distance

A hillside outside Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Photo courtesy of notthatdark on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

In early June of this year, Professor Michael Short returned from a trip to Mongolia sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. His mission? To work with the National University of Mongolia to assess and improve its nuclear education curriculum. The university has a small nuclear science sub-department within its School of Engineering, and the administrators there are eager to update the nuclear science program.

When he got to Mongolia, Professor Short learned that the country’s educational system has a strong emphasis on theory, a legacy of its Soviet past. As he describes it, “The lecturers blast you with theory, fill blackboards with information, and it’s up to the students to figure it out. And the professors aren’t always that accessible, either in terms of being available to answer students’ questions, or in terms of the way that they present the material. They explain it the way they know it, and it makes sense to them, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense to today’s students. The current folks in the nuclear department there recognize this. Mongolia has classically been a powerhouse of nuclear science and theory, and they want to hold on to that. But they know they want to change, though they don’t exactly know how to do it.”

A needs assessment

Professor Short’s goal was to help his Mongolian counterparts figure out another way of doing what they want to do, to articulate their learning objectives and see how many of those objectives they’re meeting. He guided them through an exercise to figure out what Mongolia wants out of a nuclear program. “They’re not necessarily going after a fusion program,” he says, “but they do have major initiatives for which knowledge of nuclear science can help the people.”

First, there’s the development of nuclear power. Even in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, many people burn coal in their houses, and at present most of the electricity supply is generated in coal-fired power plants. As Professor Short learned, many policymakers in Mongolia see nuclear power as a way forward. But outside of Ulaanbaatar the population is widely scattered, so instead of gigantic, gigawatt-size power plants it would be useful to have a larger number of much smaller reactors. There’s thus a need to train people to build and operate reactors for Mongolia’s partly-urban, partly-nomadic society.

Mongolia has also suffered environmental contamination in many areas, from current and past mining and industrial activities. “Sampling soils and checking radiation contamination levels is of paramount importance for purposes of public health. The people need to know they’re safe and that there are experts trained to monitor the environment and remediate any contamination,” Professor Short says. Lastly, there are the issues of nuclear materials and nuclear medicine, both of which call for specialized training in the nuclear science curriculum.

“So we assessed their needs,” Professor Short explains. “We examined which of their courses are teaching what.”

Sharing innovations in nuclear science education

Professor Short says that when he started looking into the courses in the Mongolian nuclear science program, he noticed that the first thing on the required reading lists for many of them was MIT OpenCourseWare materials—lecture notes, problem sets, exams, and the like. “So OpenCourseWare has already strongly influenced Mongolian science education in the older teaching system, and it’s about to do that more in the newer system,” he says. “I’m really excited that everyone at the National University of Mongolia is so forward-thinking, so interested in reaching out for help. They know what they don’t know, but they know where to get it. At first when I went on this mission I was wondering why they chose me. I’m just 35. I’ve only been at this job for six years. Who can call me an expert? But by the end I understood why they asked me. Because they saw what we’ve done at MIT, and they said, “Yeah, we want that!”

“OpenCourseWare has already strongly influenced Mongolian science education in the older teaching system, and it’s about to do that more in the newer system.” –Professor Michael Short

Professor Short’s courses on OCW

Whether you’re a nuclear science instructor (in Mongolia or elsewhere!), a student, or a self-learner, you might like to check out Professor Short’s courses on OCW:

Professor Short on Chalk Radio

Interested in learning about Professor Short’s approach to teaching at MIT? Click to listen to his conversation with Dr. Sarah Hansen on Chalk Radio, the new podcast from OCW’s Educator initiative.

Shake Up Your Teaching with OCW Instructor Insights

When You’re Faced with an Unexpected Teaching Challenge, OpenCourseWare’s Instructor Insights Can Help.

lecture seating

Photo courtesy of ladylong on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Imagine: You’re an experienced math instructor at a respected university, and you’ve just heard some alarming news. The university’s president has announced a new initiative to improve students’ communication skills by incorporating writing assignments into the curricula of introductory-level courses in all departments. One of your standby courses, Intro to Non-Euclidean Multidimensional Geometry, falls under the new policy.

What are you to do? For the past fourteen years you’ve taught the course in a tried-and-true format that works for you, with straightforward lectures, weekly problem sets, and regular quizzes and exams. How are you supposed to go about incorporating writing assignments?

Acting on the advice of a colleague at another institution, you pay a visit to MIT’s OpenCourseWare website. At the OCW Educator portal, you search for Instructor Insights on the topic of “Teaching Communication”⁠—specifically, on the subtopic of “Writing.” To your surprise (and delight), the search results turn up three OCW math courses featuring Instructor Insights on that very topic:

screen shot of finder tool

Structuring the Course

The Instructor Insights page for 18.310 Principles of Discrete Applied Mathematics includes links to three subpages on which Michel Goemans, Peter Shor, Lorenzo Orecchia, and Susan Ruff discuss aspects of how they designed the course to teach students the fundamental principles of writing papers in mathematics. They explain how the course’s recitation sections help students develop a critical appreciation of writing in mathematics by examining the mathematical content of a writing sample and discussing how the content is communicated. They also reveal how they’ve structured the final term paper assignment in the past and how they might change it in the future. Finally, they discuss how they use norming meetings and other techniques to ensure consistency in assessing students’ writing.

Giving Feedback and Encouraging Revision

In the “Writing” section of the OCW site for 18.821 Project Laboratory in Mathematics, Professor Haynes Miller and Lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric & Professional Communication Susan Ruff describe the criteria for good mathematical writing and the components of the writing workshop, and they explain how students use feedback on earlier drafts of their writing to improve later drafts. This section also features links to two actual student papers from the course, including the first drafts, Miller’s and Ruff’s comments on those drafts, a video of a “debriefing meeting” for the first draft of one of the papers, and the final versions of both papers.

Teaching the Elements of Mathematical Style

Dr. Andrew Snowden, the instructor for 18.904 Seminar in Topology, shares his insights into ways of teaching students to give mathematical presentations and write mathematical papers. As added resources, he includes links to two .pdf documents that he provided to his students: a guide to writing papers using the LaTeX document preparation system and a general style guide to common student mistakes in writing math papers and how to avoid them.

Moving On to Future Challenges

The resources above represent OCW’s offerings on a very specific topic, the teaching of writing in math courses. We hope you’ll return to the Educator portal many times in the future when you’re facing a new pedagogical challenge or even when you just feel the need to shake things up and enrich your teaching with new techniques!

A Panoply of Language Offerings at MIT and on OCW

A cup and a piece of paper with hand-written Japanese kanji characters on it

Studying Japanese culture goes hand in hand with studying the Japanese language. (Image courtesy of Jennifer Pack on Flickr. License CC BY-NC.)

There’s more to learning a language than just working your way through a textbook, say these MIT instructors.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Aside from English, MIT offers courses in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. (MIT students wishing to study a language not on this list, such as Arabic, Irish, Swahili, or Tibetan, can do so by cross-registering for courses at Harvard or Wellesley.) Many of MIT’s language course offerings are represented on OpenCourseWare, and several of their OCW course sites include Instructor Insights either in text or video form. Here are five OCW offerings that feature Instructor Insights on approaches to teaching languages:

21G.101 Chinese I (Regular)

Haohsiang Liao believes strongly that, as he puts it, “the way you behave in a second culture is as important as your use of the language.” In the videos on the Instructor Insights page for this course, which are presented in both English and Chinese, Dr. Liao says that this is why cultural competence is a core part of MIT’s Chinese curriculum. He also explains the importance of creating an immersive classroom environment, and the rationale behind the curriculum’s covering speaking and listening before reading and writing. Among the helpful details Liao shares in the videos are explanations of how he uses a daily grading system to provide continuous feedback to students, how students can develop their ear for a language by listening to audio filesand why he asks struggling students to physically show him how they prepare for class.

“The way you behave in a second culture is as important as your use of the language.”
-Haohsiang Liao

21G.1007 Chinese I (Streamlined)

In Min-Min Liang’s Instructor Insights videos, which like Haohsiang Liao’s are offered in both English and Chinese, she discusses her philosophy of teaching (“The main philosophy for me is to have a welcoming environment to help students to speak the language, not to talk about the language”) and explains why the curriculum and structure of the streamlined course is well suited for heritage learners of Chinese. She also shares practical details about how using an online tool makes it easier for students to practice and receive feedback on their pronunciation, how she assesses student learning, and how authentic texts might supplement the somewhat contrived material presented by language textbooks.

“The main philosophy for me is to have a welcoming environment to help students to speak the language, not to talk about the language.”
-Min-Min Liang

21G.410 Advanced German: Professional Communication

A man seated in his office, gesturing with his hands as he speaks

Peter Weise engaged in conversation in his office on the MIT campus. (Photo by OCW.)

When Peter Weise set out to teach an advanced German course on the kinds of language used in professional settings, he discovered that there was no textbook available for the kind of course he wanted to teach. “It’s much easier for students to learn language through content they find relevant and engaging than it is through textbook materials,” he observes. In his written Instructor Insights, he describes how he assembled a customized curriculum based on authentic texts, how he uses video recording and native speakers to provide feedback on students’ speaking skills, what role guest speakers can play in modeling authentic speech and speech behaviors, and how he uses reflective practice and student feedback to improve his teaching.

“It’s much easier for students to learn language through content they find relevant and engaging than it is through textbook materials.”
-Peter Weise

21G.503 Japanese III

The Instructor Insights page for this course features English and Japanese videos in which Takako Aikawa discusses various aspects of how she and her co-instructor Emiko Rafique approach the teaching of Japanese, using separate grammar sessions and drill sessions, daily grades along with two interview tests to assess students’ fluency, the incorporation of body language lessons and cultural tips in each grammar lesson, and community social events that give students opportunities to interact with native speakers.

“Language needs to be learned together with context.”
-Takako Aikawa

21G.711 Advanced Spanish Conversation and Composition

A woman on a bicycle and a man on a motorcycle, both looking at their mobile phones while they are stopped in traffic

Life in European cities, like elsewhere around the world, has been radically transformed by technologies such as smartphones. (Image courtesy of Simona on Flickr. License CC BY-NC.)

Like Peter Weise, Margarita Ribas Groeger finds that the best way to motivate students to develop their ability to write and speak in a second language is to give them something to write and talk about that they’ll find relevant and interesting. On the Instructor Insights page for this course, she describes how “looking at Spanish-speaking societies through the ways they have been affected by science and technology offered an alternative thematic focus to the fifth or sixth semester Spanish language curriculum.” She also lists the recurring questions that the course explored, all themed around the social and cultural impact of technology in Hispanic societies.

“Looking at Spanish-speaking societies through the ways they have been affected by science and technology offered an alternative thematic focus to the fifth or sixth semester Spanish language curriculum.”
-Margarita Ribas Groeger

M. Amah Edoh on Creating a Supportive Academic Culture

Close up photo of woman in blue shirt standing in Killian Court at MIT

M. Amah Edoh, Assistant Professor of African Studies (Image courtesy of Jonathan Sachs Photography.)

Educators can’t just be providers of information, Professor Edoh argues; they have to be nurturers of their students’ intellectual growth.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Assistant Professor M. Amah Edoh is a young faculty member, young enough to remember what it felt like to be a student. Her approach to teaching reflects this fact. The Instructor Insights section of the OpenCourseWare site for her course 21G.026 Global Africa: Creative Cultures provides interesting details about how she taught that specific course, but it also offers a generous helping of observations about pedagogy in general and the role faculty members can play in helping students move from mystery to mastery. Here are a few highlights.

Course Planning

Every academic course has a central topic or idea, but Professor Edoh emphasizes that the instructor should also consider what the central question is, so that the course can be an exploration rather than a mere transfer of information:

“It’s crucial to be clear on what the core issue is, what the question is that animates this class….As long as the core question is clear, you can tailor the building blocks to your interests.”

Of course, students will bring more energy to the classroom if their work there also draws on their own interests, not just their professor’s. So Professor Edoh used the final project assignment in 21G.026 to draw on the different creative skills–cooking, drawing, horticulture, creative writing, and so on–that each student brought to the course.

“I had no idea how it would turn out, because I didn’t know what they were bringing to the table, what particular creative skills they had. But I want to believe—this is something I try to enact in my own life—that we all have creative skills, and that whatever you have, we can do something with it.”

The Need for Flexibility in Teaching

New faculty members, Edoh suggests, may not immediately realize that successful teaching depends on not always having every moment of every class planned in advance, and that lecturers need to be able to revise their teaching plan constantly in response to the needs of the moment. Doing this effectively doesn’t necessarily come easily, but it’s a core competency for a master teacher:

“When you’re a student, the professors up front seem to know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re talking about; you don’t fully appreciate the fact that it’s a lot of intuitive and improvisational work. You can be surprised at how taxing it is.”

Teaching at MIT

To counteract the tendency of the university to become a closed circle or the proverbial ivory tower, Professor Edoh asks her students to attend cultural performances out in the world to supplement and enrich their in-class learning:

“Even the experience of leaving MIT is really useful. Part of our duty as educators is to help broaden our students’ horizons, not only in the classroom but also by encouraging them to explore beyond campus.”

She also seeks to show students that the humanities have something to say about technology, and that we can fruitfully examine the meanings and cultural implications of technical systems and practices, not just the details of their operation or their practical potentials:

“At MIT in particular, we tend to fetishize technology and consider it as existing in a realm outside of other material practices, other ways of knowing. One of my personal missions is to show that technology is no different from these other practices—they’re all objects, ways of doing, ways of knowing. So whether we’re talking about plant healing or developing the next nano-technology, we can think about these things next to each other, no matter where they’re happening.”

Academic Study and the Wider World

As Professor Edoh sees it, the so-called ivory tower is an illusion; it’s neither possible nor desirable for the academy to remain divorced from the wider world. At its best, she suggests, academic work exists in constant dialogue with real-world experience, with each enriching the other:

“What we do in the classroom is not separate. Academic work isn’t separate from life, and it’s not something that’s only accessible to some people. We’re always theorizing. Making sense of our experience is about theorizing. If we can help students make links between what they’re reading for school and what they’re experiencing in the world around them, we’re in great shape as educators.”

Nurturing Student Growth

Professor Edoh distinctly remembers what it was like to be a student struggling to make sense of the often-obscure writings one encounters in academic life:

“When I was in grad school for my PhD, I was frustrated by the fact that academic texts often feel like they’re written to not be understood. This made me really angry. I thought, ‘OK, I’ve been in school for many years. How is it that this still makes no sense? If it makes no sense to me, what are we doing here? What is the point of the academic enterprise if we produce work that can’t be understood?’…The danger when you’re a student, especially at elite institutions, is that when you don’t understand, you think there’s something wrong with you: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough. But it’s actually a structural issue, and it’s the writers’ responsibility to write better work, to write more clearly.”

She feels passionately that it’s a professor’s job to make academic discourse less intimidating, and to encourage students as they take their first tentative steps toward being confident participants in scholarly and intellectual work:

“What made the biggest difference for me in the classroom as a student was instructors who made me feel like I had something to offer. Having instructors who make you feel you have nothing to offer is not just neutral, it’s damaging. It’s really important for me to valorize students’ voices, to show that I’m taking their work seriously.”

“My teaching philosophy stresses the importance of using classroom time to build students’ confidence, to instill in our students a sense that they’re capable of doing this work, to undo some of the damage that academic work has done for so many people—to try to make it less alienating. To say, ‘We can do this. And we know how to do this. It’s OK not to know this particular material, because we’re in school to learn. We’re not supposed to know everything when we come here. But we know how to learn and that’s what we’re here for.'”

Professor Short on Chalk Radio

Interested in learning about Professor Edoh’s approach to teaching at MIT? Click to listen to her conversation with Dr. Sarah Hansen on Chalk Radio, the new podcast from OCW’s Educator initiative.