Photo courtesy of MIT Open Learning.
Teaching With Digital Technology winners were honored in an online celebration on July 30. A selection of winners are seen here.
Photo courtesy of MIT Open Learning.

Winners of 2020 Teaching With Digital Technology Award recognized for their innovations

Thirty-one MIT instructors honored for digital teaching excellence in extraordinary circumstances.

On July 30, faculty and instructors across MIT were honored for their outstanding achievements in teaching with digital technology in an online ceremony hosted by Dean for Digital Learning Krishna Rajagopal and Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate and Graduate Education Ian A. Waitz.

The student-nominated Teaching with Digital Technology Awards, co-sponsored by MIT Open Learning and the Office of the Vice Chancellor, celebrate Institute faculty and instructors who have made innovative, effective use of technology for teaching and learning. Launched in 2016, the awards have a special significance this year, following the rapid transition to remote teaching due to Covid-19.

Says Waitz, “What’s special about the honorees is that they are great teachers. Moreover, they stepped up at an unusual time, adapting with new tools and practices on little notice. They demonstrated resilience, ingenuity, and creative problem-solving. But what fundamentally shone through was their unwavering dedication to student learning.”

This year’s 31 winners, selected from among the 232 people recognized in 487 student nominations, are:

  • Steve Banzaert — Mechanical Engineering
  • Kara Blackburn — Sloan School of Management
  • Amanda Bosh — Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
  • Devin Michelle Bunten — Urban Studies and Planning
  • Semvon Dyatlov — Mathematics
  • Vivek Farias — Sloan School of Management
  • Malick Ghachem — History
  • Marah Gubar — Literature
  • Michelle Hanlon — Sloan School of Management
  • Adam Hartz — Computer Science
  • Stefan Helmreich — Anthropology
  • Barbara Hughey — Mechanical Engineering
  • Pei-Ken Hung — Mathematics
  • Alexandre Jacquillat — Sloan School of Management
  • Graham Jones — Anthropology
  • Miro Kazakoff — Sloan School of Management
  • Jonathan Kelner — Mathematics
  • Wolfgang Ketterle — Physics
  • Maria Khotimsky — Global Languages
  • James Magarian — Gordon Engineering Leadership Program
  • Karthish Manthiram — Chemical Engineering
  • Isadora Nicholas — Global Languages
  • Phiala Shanahan — Physics
  • Ben Shields — Sloan School of Management
  • Joe Steinmeyer — Electrical Engineering
  • Lawrence Susskind — Urban Studies and Planning
  • Clair Travis — Chemistry
  • Rodrigo Verdi — Sloan School of Management
  • Bruno Verdini — Urban Studies and Planning
  • David Wallace — Mechanical Engineering
  • Jacob White — Electrical Engineering

The original nomination period ended in mid-March, just as faculty and staff began the extraordinary process of moving all campus activity online. As MIT’s faculty and instructors began teaching in ways that none had planned for, all relying upon digital technology, the awards committee felt it only right to ask MIT’s students a second time whether they wished to recognize someone for outstanding teaching with digital technology.

As everyone — teachers and students alike — was scrambling to achieve a fraction of their learning goals during the pandemic, it was far from clear how MIT’s students would respond. The response was, in fact, both remarkable and heartening: While the original call garnered 157 nominations for 98 unique individuals, the call for nominations during the period when all teaching was remote garnered a total of 330 nominations for 163 instructors and faculty, including 29 who were nominated in both calls. With more than double the number of nominations as in a typical year, it seems clear that students were extraordinarily motivated to recognize their teachers’ ingenuity and dedication in 2020.

“We’ve read some remarkable testimonials from nominating students, speaking to their instructors’ flexibility, creativity, and compassion in this time of crisis,” says Sheryl Barnes, director of digital learning in residential education at Open Learning. “That combination of mind, hand, and heart is what makes MIT such a special place. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to celebrate our faculty’s dedication to keeping their students learning and growing, even under duress.”

Among the faculty honored, engineering Professor Jacob White, recognized for his 6.302 (Feedback System Design) course, exemplified this dedication. White made sure that his 140 students received hardware lab kits before they evacuated campus in March, and went to great lengths to make the online version of his course accessible and easy for his students to navigate. One of White’s nominators noted that the professor had been “working around the clock to be available to students.”

Other faculty were bent on providing their students with the hands-on learning opportunities they’d anticipated, Covid-19 notwithstanding. Although Amanda Bosh’s course, 12.409 (Hands-On Astronomy), seemed vulnerable to collapse in the transition to an online format, the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences lecturer was determined not to let her students be shortchanged. “Dr. Bosh and her team transformed a hands-on astronomy class that usually features visits to an observatory and rooftop telescope viewing sessions into an enjoyable virtual experience,” one of her nominators reports. “I submitted commands to have a telescope at Wallace Observatory virtually photograph a distant galaxy!”

Still others gave new meaning to the term “agility,” adapting their courses to the specific rhythms of life during the pandemic. Anthropology professors Graham Jones and Stefan Helmreich, who taught their 21A.157 (Meaning of Life) course — always popular, and now more important than ever — this past spring, incorporated the cultural, ethical, and political considerations of the crisis into the class: They altered the syllabus to include discussions of new common behaviors such as social distancing, and changed the final assignment to an analysis of the pandemic.

The honorees’ work offers a unique view into the possibilities of digital education, both as a planned curricular element and as an effective alternative to in-person instruction. But it also reveals a community defined by resilience, ingenuity, creative problem-solving, and most importantly, care for one another and a passionate dedication to teaching and learning. In short: it reveals the MIT community at its best.

Says Rajagopal, “Hearing from these award winners as we did today is always one of my favorite occasions of the year. We are celebrating the creativity and ingenuity of MIT’s best and most dedicated teachers; ‘Teaching With’ in the name of the award is more important than ‘Digital Technology.’ Great teachers find and create new ways to shape great learning experiences for their students by hook or by crook, including via new technologies deployed by choice or necessity. It is so gratifying to hear from MIT’s students that so many of MIT’s teachers were able to find within themselves the wellsprings of energy and creativity to pull this off, with agility and aplomb, during the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their deep commitment to MIT’s students is worthy of celebration.”