With the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) celebrating its first anniversary in May 2018, Opening Doors spoke to Professor Sanjay Sarma, MIT Vice President for Open Learning, about the Labs’ inaugural 12 months and his aims for the future. 

How do you assess J-WEL’s first year?

We had several goals.  One of them was to get a critical mass of sponsors for our work, which we have achieved.  We had also hoped to get a certain amount of exposure, because this is an effort that will have a significant impact on world education.  We’ve also made good progress there.  These are all things to be proud of.  But perhaps most importantly, the intellectual content of what we’ve been doing has been thrilling.  It is both current, in terms of addressing many vital issues, such as the future of work, but is also fundamental, in that we are bringing fundamental thinking, based on science, to these problems.

Have you been pleased with the response J-WEL has received from the global education community?

Yes, we have seen interest from six continents, and people are telling us that the problems we are addressing are very, very pertinent.  If you take the ‘future world’ for example, you might think it’s a question for the more developed markets, like the United States, but it turns out to be equally relevant to other parts of the world, too.

Can you outline what are the biggest challenges facing education around the world?

We see two main themes.  One is based on what we’re learning from the science of learning.  The other is what we’re learning from changing demographics, technology, and progress.  Both tell us that education has to change, at all levels. It has to be much more blended.  It has to be much more hands on, but also much more fluid in its delivery.  All this means that every entity that’s involved in education faces a monumental challenge.

Is there anything in particular that fills you with pride about this first twelve months?

Yes.  I am struck by the diversity of people and countries who are involved with J-WEL.  Everything from well-funded American entities to foundations working in some of the poorer parts of the world.  The work we are involved in has the potential to reach every corner of the globe.

What are your ambitions for J-WEL over the next five to ten years?

We need to build on our achievements so far and engage ourselves more deeply in the issues we see.  The depth of some of the opportunities or challenges that people face in education, in different age groups, will become clearer as our research base increases.  Turning that knowledge into new understandings and insights and finding new ways to disseminate them is going to be the next exhilarating step for us.

What plans do you have for further develop J-WEL’s work?

One initiative we are looking at is developing podcasts, so J-WEL members can access this material on the move.  They can stay up-to-date with what’s happening more easily and more conveniently.  One of the things I believe in deeply is ‘practiced serendipity’.  That is, if we inform ourselves about best practices around the world, something in our mind connects the dots and it creates a fertile environment in which all sorts of ideas can occur.  So for us, we want to create an immersive web of information and learning that people can digest and, hopefully, spark some new ideas.

How important is the support of Community Jameel to help you achieve those objectives?

In addition to getting us going, Community Jameel is our warmest, closest, most supportive entity.  Just this morning I got a message related to an Asian connection that we might want to make.  The beauty of it, is that it’s not just, “Hey, meet X.” It’s much deeper.  “Here’s a project. Here’s an analysis. How do you think this might fit into some of the projects you’re doing?”  Community Jameel is not just help, it’s highly informed, highly selective and, as a result, highly relevant help. 

Are there opportunities for collaboration with the other Abdul Latif Jameel labs based at MIT?

There’s all sorts of synergy between the different Jameel labs here at MIT.  The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is a research and outreach effort, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) is a research effort, and J-WEL is an education effort.  Education very naturally fits into both.  There are natural connections between us that open up a rich network of possibilities.  It’s very exciting. In fact, we are holding a webinar for J-WEL members next week to give them the chance to discuss the recent J-PAL Policy Brief, “Roll Call: Getting Children into School,” with the J-PAL team.