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TEAL Adds Human Touch

William Li

As a student this term in 8.02, taught in the Technology Enabled Active Learning format, I’ve become increasingly aware of the complaints and frustrations my fellow students are feeling. There are some who express their disapproval by turning entire class periods into a big joke for themselves. These students, for example, use classroom laptops for e-mail or instant messaging and other forms of personal use, and treat the PRS (Public Response System) questions as a game where they compete with other classmates to appear as many times as possible on a display which records their responses. As I watch my classmates clicking away emphatically and repeatedly, and some among them reenacting scenes from Star Trek as they wave their clickers as if phasers, I can’t help but chuckle, sometimes even out loud. I take it all in stride, with the rest of TEAL.

But despite the annoying reading questions due before class each day, or the fact that sections are two hours long and pass right through lunchtime, I look forward every week to the time I spend in the TEAL studio classroom. So maybe we haven’t sunk our teeth into the dense theory behind the concepts, or the hideous math that proves the formulas, but for the first time since I arrived at MIT last fall, I found a sense of something human in the classroom, a nice break from cold, bland lectures and recitations. While these classes certainly did their job, getting me to learn the enormous amounts of material I was responsible for, it’s nice, once in a while, to be in a classroom where you can take the microphone, where the professor comes to your table, and where you can laugh with others at your mistakes.

One of the first things I noticed was that I could see the faces of my classmates, or at least of those who were sitting at my table. For a fleeting moment, I felt a bit strange, not sure where to look, or whether I should introduce myself to those around me. Then someone offered to start the round of introductions and immediately everyone seemed a little more comfortable. I came to the frightening realization that I had grown a bit used to seeing the back of my classmates’ heads, and never having to communicate with any of them who I didn’t know. Now, I can catch the expressions and hear the conversations of people at my table. Sometimes, we’ll nod in agreement to an answer, other times we’ll give each other puzzling looks during a workshop, and on occasion, when a piece of equipment fails to work properly, we’ll exchange a few jokes.

Even though the class is divided into tables, which are further divided into groups of three, the class still manages to preserve some level of unity. For example, despite how it resembles a particular game show, the PRS questions and bar graphs bring the class together. I can always feel a slight connection with those who gave the same answer I did, even if they’re merely represented by a bar, and even if together we make up just a short bar. Knowing that I am a part of the statistics that make up the chart, that in turn makes up the class, I feel a much more connected part of the whole. On other occasions, students may volunteer themselves for “thirty seconds of fame,” when they take the microphone and hold complete attention of the cameras, which project their images on screens placed all around the room, as they explain a concept or solve a problem. While it is certainly important to have the professor present the key points of a lecture, it is equally satisfying to see a fellow classmate, who is in the same process of learning the material as I am, who I can relate to, play the role of instructor once in a while.

At this point, I am clearly at risk of sounding facetious, of overvaluing these experiences over the real purpose and goals of the class. At this institution, where only the most motivated and passionate students in the nation come to be further challenged, nothing can come at the cost of real learning. There is no room to reflect on this intangible concept of “something human.” We’re here to learn the theory, to do the math, to solve the problems.

Sure, but who says we can’t mix the two? I admit, 8.02 TEAL has so far lacked the rigor of a typical MIT class. The much-emphasized hands-on experiments have been far from engaging, demonstrating only trivial concepts most of us are already familiar with, and lectures merely skim the surface of the materials. As the program is still in its experimental stages, it is my belief that throughout this term, the format of the class will constantly reshape itself until it meets MIT standard of intensity. However, these experiences are what make TEAL special, and it is my earnest hope that amidst the changes that still need to take place, the value of such experiences to the class may not be lost.