How MIT Plans to Develop Scalable, Differentiated Instruction

illustration of online learning with computers and textbooks

Here’s how MIT and several partners are developing a Fly-by-Wire system to provide high-quality, differentiated instruction at scale and to better equip graduates to enter the workforce.


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

This was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

MIT, partnering with edX and Arapahoe and Quinsigamond Community Colleges, is developing a Fly-by-Wire system to provide high-quality, differentiated instruction at scale and to better equip graduates entering the workforce with skills valued by employers and industry.

Funded by a $2.9 million FIPSE First in the World grant, the Fly-by-Wire system is a digitally-enabled, differentiated blended-instruction intervention that is both scalable and cost-effective enough to meet the needs of learners at a range of institutions. To learn more, we talked with project director Karen Willcox, MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Casey Sacks, project master for the Colorado Community College system. They described how the project will create:

  • Fly-by-Wire modules and logic that relates curriculum to student skills and outcomes in order to enable targeted feedback
  • Digital Fly-by-Wire technology that enables professors to better differentiate and guide students with a more personalized approach
  • An online Fly-by-Wire system that can be scaled up and used at a variety of institutions

Targeted Feedback via Fly-by-Wire Modules

A key component of the Fly-by-Wire intervention is the creation of modules that provide frequent assessment to students, enabling instructors to receive current and future guidance on student progress.

The pedagogy behind Fly-by-Wire modules is based on literature establishing the effectiveness of mastery-based learning, frequent assessment, and rapid feedback. These modules will specify the logic and linkages of learning outcomes, assessment, and targeted feedback, and will feed into the Fly-by-Wire technology component.

The modules will reside in an open-source database, developed by the Strategic Education Initiatives team at MIT Office of Digital Learning, to be shared with and distributed to colleges and universities around the world.

Developing the Technology of “Fly-by-Wire”

The next step in the project is to develop the differentiated instruction component. In a class of 30 students with different backgrounds, different ways of interacting with the material, different preferences, and different interests, it’s very hard for an instructor to give input to each student on an individualized basis every minute of the class, Willcox explains. Instead, they’re going to pilot a “fly by wire” approach.

Fly-by-Wire in Air TransportationFly-by-Wire in the Classroom
Digital technology has revolutionized aircraft in the last three decades, though the pilot remains in charge of the flight experience.Digital differentiated instruction keeps the professor in charge of the learning experience.
A digital controller takes readings from hundreds of sensors and other equipment on the plane and automatically provides low-level commands in combination with pilot input, especially during take-off and landing.Digital technology tracks smaller data points gathered through online assessments and feedback in order to inform instruction and to enhance face-to-face interactions.

Willcox’s team will collaborate to design and develop the technology application with faculty from their two community college partners: Quinsigamond Community College in Massachusetts, and Arapahoe Community College in Colorado. Both are urban institutions serving high-needs students, including many underserved minorities and working adults. You can follow the project’s progress at

Together they will develop, implement and pilot the Fly-by-Wire intervention in courses like computer-assisted drafting (CAD) courses and others that they identify during the development phase of the project, explains Casey Sacks, project master for the Colorado Community College system. The project will initially focus on classes in STEM and business, and they hope to eventually expand the model to be a platform available to all disciplines.

Keys to Success

Collaboration is absolutely key, Willcox emphasizes, because the project spans a wide range of student experiences. It needs to address the perspectives and experiences encompassed in teaching at highly-selective institutions like MIT and community colleges that educate large portions of non-traditional and at-risk students.

Second, the diversity of the team will be crucial, as this will permit learning and adopting ideas from other fields. That diversity will help make the finished product relevant to a wider range of institutions.

Working out an acceptable business model is also crucial, Sacks adds. Because the project is grounded in a competency-based approach, they need to decide whether the model will allow students to complete as many competencies as possible in a term, or whether they should adopt another approach. The grant funding will allow them to experiment with different models in more than one discipline.

Why You Should Watch This Project

“The challenge of differentiated instruction at scale is a challenge for everybody,” Willcox notes. “It’s a challenge for us at MIT, and it’s a challenge for community colleges and I think it’s a challenge for everyone in between.” If successful, this fly-by-wire approach will enable instructors to use technology to better meet the needs of individual learners.

She believes that it is important for institutions to continue exploring and leveraging blended-learning models. Here are questions to consider:

  • How do you get the best of both worlds – online and face-to-face?
  • How do you construct a system that leverages the power of a human instructor and the power of a computer, figuring out what does what well and how they come together?
  • What kind of role can blended-learning models play in helping to realize the full potential of MOOCs?

What has your campus done to personalize instruction for students? We’d love to hear your story. Please email Daniel Fusch, our director of publications and research, at to share what your campus is doing.