Goals for Student Learning

In this section, Dr. Sastry discusses some of the learning goals for students, including the idea of networking for good, delivering value, recognizing the power of iteration, understanding the constraints as well as the potential of technologies, and how to encourage students to become wise consumers of information.

Connecting for Good

I believe teaching can be powerful when you link academic context, real-world problems, varied methods, and frameworks of ideas. Learning is made even more powerful when students get feedback from peers as well as faculty and practitioners. I think MIT faculty, who know so many people in the world, can really help students tap into the amazing ecosystem we have of alums and others. Students tend to be good at networking and finding events that are happening on campus, but they treat networks as separate from classroom learning. I want them to always connect.

One challenge on a big campus like MIT is finding out who is doing work that may be relevant to your project. Often you’ll have people working in other domains somewhere else on campus, but their work has applications for your work. You wouldn’t necessarily see that by searching the MIT website.

I wanted [students] to get excited about the potential and understand the landscape of new technologies, but at the same time, inject a thread of realism into their thinking.

 —Dr. Anjali Sastry

I think it’s good to get students to realize they are in a privileged position because they can walk into any office on a campus like MIT and knock on doors. How are you going to use that for good? Most people have not been trained that way, and it can be a little scary. You might think it’s not your place.

Everyone knows they should network to find a job, but how do you network to make connections on behalf of someone else, to help people realize who should meet whom, and why? This requires advanced perspective-taking that we as faculty need to keep modeling and reinforcing. I tell students they need to give each person a reason to talk to one another—and maybe it won’t work, but that’s OK.

Part of the class deliverable for the students was to make a list of people they talked to whom they introduced to Sangath, the Indian NGO we partnered with during the workshop. So it was core to the class to realize those connections and write an email introducing people to each other who were thinking about a similar problem in different ways. Having this skill is useful and definitely always part of what I do myself. 

I’ll reach out to my network node people, the ones who know others, and say, I’m going to be doing some work on mental health, what do you know? Or, I’m interested in behavior change in low resource communities. I continually keep asking and building those networks. It’s interesting how you develop the whole network and keep these relationships alive.

I also use my classes to build relationships and to learn more about who’s doing what across campus. I reach out myself, through the students, and afterwards I ask every one of my guest experts the same question: can you think of anyone else who belongs on the list?

Learning about Global Health, Delivering Something of Value, and Recognizing the Power of Iteration

I wanted students to learn about global health, but I also was curious whether we could take a specifically expressed need from an organization and actually give them something of value in three days. I had the students interact with the organization every day, come up with ideas, and then get feedback in multiple rounds.

I helped moderate, contextualize, and fill in the blanks, which was a good role for me to play in this context. When you are doing something so intensive it’s helpful to see how you are learning from day to day—to realize, yesterday I didn’t know as much, but today I know more. In that way, I used the whole course set up as a vehicle for the students to learn that if you structure your work well, you can learn from every misstep. You can Fail Better.

Appreciating the Potential of New Technologies, While Understanding Constraints

The students knew at the beginning of the seminar that the idea was to serve the poor population in India, but it wasn’t until around day two that we fully appreciated how challenging it would be to construct apps for non-literate populations. I wanted them to get excited about the potential and understand the landscape of new technologies, but at the same time I wanted to inject a thread of realism into their thinking.

After they wrestled with it, thought about it, and looked at products currently on the market, they realized everything had to be re-thought. Even if we’re doing video content, how do people search for video content if they’re not literate? If these apps are written in English, how easy is it to translate to Hindi? And what about the many other different languages that are spoken in India?

I think this realism piece was really good for them. I wanted my students to discover that there are so many interesting things happening across MIT, across their ecosystem, and at the same appreciate the real world challenges. I wanted them to see how some of the ways we think about things in this country don’t always readily apply to other places.

This is especially true when it comes to issues in mental health, addiction, and aging, which are so culturally bound. We only touched on some of these issues in the class, but at least we touched on them.

For example, we have these specific approaches to treating addiction, but a lot of what is done in the U.S. is based on the twelve-step program which has its origins in Christian traditions. Rethinking that, students realized there might be a need for different models for addiction treatment elsewhere in the world.

Becoming Wise Consumers of Information

Most of the time, students are provided with a course reader that has a pre-digested list of required readings. But by doing this, are we actually teaching them to be wise consumers of information and materials? I decided to try a radical experiment.

There is so much information on the web and elsewhere, so many peer-reviewed journals, and great databases. I wanted students to be able to look at a wide breadth of materials quickly and emerge with some expertise. So, to add another skill-building component to the course, I gave them a massive amount of reading materials that they had to skim in order to get informed about specific topics, reading some in depth. All readings were in Dropbox folders, so students had a chance to browse through the library of resources as they went. My thinking was that they could then come back and look for additional resources later on.

It’s easy to search the web and find random content, so the goal was for them to figure out how to discern what is a great source and what's not. I wanted them to ask themselves, how confident should I be that this is the answer? In this space there is a lot of material that can be valuable that isn’t peer-reviewed, such as white papers, industry reports, but some are definitely better than others.

I wanted them to be able to look at a wide breadth of materials and emerge with some expertise.

 —Dr. Anjali Sastry

Most students didn't like doing this because I gave them access to some 200 articles. They had to pick a couple to read and describe to the class, then they wrote up short blurbs to advertise the readings to others. This was a distributed task assigned across nine different topic areas.

I made them do the reading live in class because I knew they wouldn’t do it as homework. I went around the room, numbered everyone, and had them spend thirty minutes reading two papers on a specific topic assigned by number. It’s tricky to do this and keep up the pace of a good classroom experience—it has to be framed in the right way so that it’s viewed as a good change of pace rather than something boring. I wish we taught more of this real-world model rather than providing a list of required readings.