J-WEL Researchers Present Innovative Framework for Higher Education Community Building | MIT J-WEL

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J-WEL Researchers Present Innovative Framework for Higher Education Community Building

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On October 24, 2020, J-WEL Associate Director for Higher Education Julia Reynolds-Cuéllar, J-WEL Research Scientist Aikaterini Bagiati, and J-WEL Education Research Scientist Glenda Stump published a new “Innovation to Practice, Work-in-Progress” paper, “Building a Community for Educational Transformation in Higher Education.” Stump presented the peer-reviewed paper virtually at the Frontiers in Education (FIE) 2020 Conference. FIE is an international conference on engineering and computer science education that has been running since 1971.  

The paper discusses why global collaborations in higher education are needed to transform university systems, several reasons why substantive collaborations have been limited, and how the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab’s (J-WEL) innovative model is addressing this gap. A brief overview of the paper is provided below.

Global Collaborations: Critical to the Transformation of Higher Education

Global education partnerships that engage university stakeholders across all levels, including senior leaders, faculty, and staff, are key to transforming universities. Not only can they help universities shift from traditional models of education to 21st century ideas and practices, thoughtful international collaborations that incorporate multi-level engagement among universities can also lead to new opportunities and a deeper understanding of educational challenges.

“In order for real change to take place,” the authors write, “all stakeholders in the university need to feel ownership, be excited about the potential change, and be knowledgeable about their individual role to generate the change.”

These types of collaborations can achieve this by exposing university stakeholders to different international educational models while allowing them to ideate on challenges with colleagues across the globe. For example, senior university leaders from an institution in Colombia can exchange strategies with their counterparts in South Africa and the United States, discovering new ways to foster innovation in their institutions, while faculty at their institutions can share and promote updated teaching practices. In this way, entire education models can be remodeled, infused with new ideas and practices.  

A Lack of Global Community Building

Despite the possibility of wide-ranging benefits, significant global collaborations in higher education have been limited. In particular, there is a dearth of opportunities “for senior university leadership to openly collaborate or exchange strategies and challenges [with one another].” Most existing university consortiums make use of limited short-term engagements and activities such as isolated workshops, or they focus solely on one group, such as faculty, excluding a key element: multi-level stakeholder engagement, which the authors argue is essential for any real transformation to take place. One reason for this is that large-scale international institutional development requires a lot of human capital.

J-WEL’s Model: Meeting a Need

In 2017, J-WEL was founded as an initiative of MIT and Community Jameel to promote excellence and transformation in education at MIT and worldwide. Through its three collaboratives (pK-12, Higher Education, and Workforce Learning), J-WEL member organizations work with MIT faculty and staff to address global opportunities for scalable change in education. J-WEL’s Higher Education Collaborative has 22 university member institutions from 16 countries on five continents. Organizations need to apply to join, and there is a fee associated with membership. 

J-WEL staff work with stakeholders across all levels of the member institution to suggest specific goals for the member to work on spanning the five pillars (below) that J-WEL, with input from its members, has identified as key to a university’s transformation:

  1. Curriculum and pedagogy; 
  2. Digital and online learning; 
  3. University strategy and structure; 
  4. Research practice; and 
  5. Entrepreneurship and innovation. 

To achieve these goals, members participate in scalable activities that consciously include many types of stakeholders.

Examples include:

  • Thematic gatherings for senior university leaders held at MIT that expose members to MIT innovations, while also providing an opportunity to learn from global colleagues
  • Intensive, hands-on workshops for faculty and staff
  • Live online discussions and workshops with MIT faculty 


Importantly, the authors emphasize that J-WEL works in collaboration with members, as opposed to a top-down approach:

“Although the majority of activities are focused on spreading best practices from MIT, J-WEL membership is indeed a two-way interaction.”

Indeed, both J-WEL and MIT more broadly are influenced by learning about J-WEL members’ innovations and work. This was evident during J-WEL's most recent gathering, which shifted to a month-long online event due to Covid-19. J-WEL Higher Education offered 33 sessions during the event, and 12 of them focused on member experiences, including their institution's response to the pandemic.

J-WEL researchers are currently conducting an outcome assessment of J-WEL Higher Education's first two years of work. Although the assessment has not yet been completed, early results indicate positive impacts on both MIT and member universities.