Sanjay Sarma

Dean of Digital Learning, overseeing MITx and MIT OpenCourseWare
Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Course Director: MIT Professional Education Short Programs: Radical Innovation

When Sanjay Sarma was appointed MIT’s Director of Digital Learning in November, it was the culmination of a life’s work as a self-described disruptor.

“I'm a disruptor in both my academic and entrepreneurial life,” Sarma says. “I and my students, we are all disruptors. Our business is to disrupt industry in the interest in doing technology more efficiently.” For example, as a founder of the MIT Auto-ID Center, he and colleagues pioneered RFID technologies and standards that have radically changed the way products are tracked worldwide.

Now Sarma is in charge of figuring out how the edX online-learning platform; MITx, the Institute’s course offerings on that platform; and other online tools can invigorate MIT’s residential education. He has long been involved in interactive education. More than a decade ago, he and colleagues introduced computer-based teaching tools to promote active learning and intuition in the classroom.

President L. Rafael Reif has described Sarma’s role as “experimenter-in-chief” and Sarma is optimistic that providing access to core information online can open up a new “white space” of opportunities in the classroom. He noted that he’s been giving a lecture on welding in his mechanical engineering classes for a decade, but the students never have time to actually weld. In a transformed classroom, his students could watch his lecture online, then come to class ready for the hands-on experience.

He is also investigating digital learning opportunities for global learners. “We do a lot on campus with hands-on learning. We give student kits and ask them to design robots. When they learn online, we take that away. What if we could make the kits available to students for a good price? So they can get it on Amazon and build their own experiments as our students here build their own robots. There is proof of experience—Lego Mindstorm, a product that came out of MIT.”

Lifelong Learning through MIT Professional Education
He also sees an important role for MIT Professional Education as MIT works to balance new digital opportunities with the fundamentals of residential education—one-to-one experiences, hands-on activities, and flexibility to change curricula fast.

“Lifelong education is the new normal,” says Sarma. “Our education system today is based on outdated state—that you finish your undergraduate degree and maybe do a graduate degree and your learning from then on is on the job by reading articles. In a rapidly changing world, that does not fly any more. So MIT Professional Education is the way for professionals around the world to remain conversant about the cutting edge and be close to it.”

Sarma is bringing the cutting edge to worldwide learners through his MIT Professional Education, Short Program titled Radical Innovation. Besides its regular summer offering, he taught special two-day sessions in Rome and Milan in February and others are scheduled for Singapore and Brazil in late 2013. The goal of these global courses is to enable business leaders to understand the disruptive nature of innovation in startups and academic research and to harness that creative energy for their industries. Companies, both large and small, could encourage skunkworks operations with the freedom to “fast fail” on new ideas, which could ultimately lead to substantial winners and economic success, he says. And he draws from hands-on experience at his own startup, OATSystems, a software company.

Research Highlights:

  • Pioneer in modern RFID helping to develop the technical concepts and standards
  • Expert in radio frequency identification, manufacturing, design, and energy, especially applied to energy and transportation
  • Authored more than 75 publications in computational geometry, manufacturing, CAD, RFID, signal processing, security, sensors, and automotive systems

MIT Service:

  • Teaching at MIT since 1996
  • Past Director, MIT/Singapore University of Technology and Design Collaboration Office
  • MIT MacVicar Fellowship
  • National Science Foundation Career Award
  • Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Chair at MIT
  • Den Hartog Teaching Excellence Award
  • Joseph H. Keenan Award for Innovation in Undergraduate Education


BTech, 1989, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur
MEng, 1992, Carnegie Mellon University
PhD, 1995, University of California, Berkeley

Sanjay Sarma