Q&A with Dr. Saif Rayyan, J-WEL Assistant Director for Academic Programs | MIT J-WEL

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Q&A with Dr. Saif Rayyan, J-WEL Assistant Director for Academic Programs

Saif RayyanIntroducing Dr. Saif Rayyan

Dr. Saif Rayyan recently joined the J-WEL team as our new Assistant Director for Academic Programs. Rayyan was born in Amman, Jordan. He holds a BSc in electrical engineering from the University of Jordan and a PhD in Physics from Virginia Tech. Over the past decade, he has published several papers on digital learning pedagogy and assessment, presented at international conferences, and run workshops related to active, blended, and digital learning. In recognition of his contributions to improving both online and on-campus education at MIT, Rayyan was awarded the MIT Physics Department Buechner Faculty Teaching prize in 2015. Saif was also the co-recipient of the inaugural MITx Prize for Teaching and Learning with MOOCs for his work on the 8.01x series on Classical Mechanics. 

Welcome to the J-WEL team! Can you tell our readers a bit about your new role?

Thank you! I am excited to become a part of the J-WEL family. I spent many years at MIT working around curriculum innovation especially in connection to using digital tools and blended pedagogy. Through J-WEL I will be working with the team and members to build global capacity to expand the reach of high-quality learning experiences and programs, with a focus on digital pedagogy and design. 

Your PhD is in Physics. What got you interested in blended and digital learning?

I have always loved not only learning new things but helping others learn as well. While I was a graduate student in physics, I had the opportunity to work with students at different levels and loved the experience, so following my PhD I moved towards research in how to teach physics better. My science and technology background helped me to see the potential of using digital tools to create even better learning experiences, and using the scientific method to research and evaluate best practices.

How can we ensure that blended learning is inclusive of all learners?

Great question!  I would start by trying hard to put oneself in the place of the learner and think deeply about their motivation, struggles, background, and social, cultural or psychological advantages or constraints. I think that is a good first step. In terms of applying this in reality, I have always enjoyed being a part of teaching teams that are diverse both in background and culture as well as skills and experience. A diverse, open and collaborative team, where everyone has a different and relevant input, is more likely to lead to creating an educational experience and blended content that are better and more inclusive. 

Are there any common misconceptions about digital/blended learning?

I think one of the biggest “aha” moments I had when starting research in teaching and learning is when I discovered that simply adding what I considered fantastic content such as a visualization or simulation to a course didn’t always lead to high student engagement. On many occasions as educators, we get excited about we might consider to be high-quality content, but how content is transformed into and educational activity or product is very important to student engagement. Without thinking deeply about pedagogy and understanding how students learn, it is really hard to produce significant gains. Many people think that blended learning is mostly about moving the delivery of information through video or text to some online platform, and many of the initiatives focus on piling up video or pdf files through local LMS. In my experience, without proper design of learning activities and modes of engagement with the students, they will likely not make use of the material. My advice to anyone implementing a new blended learning approach is to start on a small scale with content or activities that have the potential of high impact - usually by looking at previous research or the experiences of others. When implementing the change, it is important to think about it as an experiment and observing the results to understand what worked and why, then adjusting for future experiments.

Many teachers are worried that digital learning is going to replace the teacher. If the teacher’s job is to deliver information then that might be true. What I am hoping is that digital learning will allow for more opportunities to engage with students at a deeper level. When I think of a digital or blended learning experience, I think of a lively environment that opens the door for a more wide range of activities and opportunities to learn and apply. It is not sitting in front of a computer for hours a day watching straight out videotaped lectures and expecting learners to come to class having learnt all the material already.

What are you reading at the moment? Do you have any good recommendations? 

I am currently reading Carl Weiman’s Book “Improving How Universities Teach Science." Nobel Prize winner and education advocate Carl Weiman builds on more than a decade in establishing science-related initiatives at several institutions, and outlines how policy can support the integration of evidence-based practices on a large scale in the curriculum. I highly recommend it to anyone involved in curriculum change related to STEM in higher education.