Big Success for Big Data

Success of MIT Professional Education’s first Digital Programs course forges a new path for online education.

With eight runs over two years, gaining almost 11,000 attendees from 120 countries to date, it’s safe to say MIT Professional Education’s Digital Programs course, Tackling the Challenges of Big Data, has been a massive success. But when MIT Professional Education launched this first online course in March 2014, notions of leveraging the digital platform for truly innovative learning for professionals had yet to fully manifest at MIT. However, Sanjay Sarma, now the vice president for Open Learning; Anant Agarwal, formerly the head of MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the president of edX; and Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education, had a vision for expanding accessibility to MIT’s vast pool of talent, resources, and knowledge to eager, but time- and location-constrained, professionals worldwide.

“We knew collectively that Big Data was a hot topic in industry across all sectors, so we approached Daniela Rus, the [current] director of CSAIL. She enthusiastically supported the idea of deploying a pilot program on the subject that would be taught by faculty from MIT’s largest lab,” says Bhaskar Pant. “But at the time, we had no idea that the pilot would lead to so many more deliveries or that enrollments would come in the thousands from so many countries. It exceeded our most ambitious expectations.” 

Big Data Infographic


Tackling the Challenges of Big Data offered a global audience an in-depth look into the growing challenges that arise from the advent of Big Data, addressing everything from data collection, security, storage, and processing to analytics, visualization, and practical application. The six-week digital course featured five modules covering 18 topics and included over 20 hours of video, case studies, interactive discussion forums for participants, and teachings from 12 MIT faculty members from CSAIL. 

“The breadth of exposure to all of the topics was the best part of the class,” says Michael DiPirro, senior vice president of the enterprise program and product management at Press Ganey. “It was worth it to see the latest approaches and technology to solving problems. I can take ideas from across this course back to existing projects to question and validate our approach and scope.” 

“It has been a very exciting six-week journey throughout the course. It expands horizons and introduces us to the upcoming technology advances,” says Soumya Lal Sharma, database consultant for Infosys. “The brilliant case studies succeed in elaborating the need for change in ‘evolved’ database systems. It is definitely a must-attend for professionals who are keen on exploring the data technologies of the future.” 

The success of Big Data has also built a strong foundation to launch other digital courses for professionals in relevant topics such as Cybersecurity (with a third run launched in January 2016) and the Internet of Things (launched in April 2016) featuring CSAIL and other MIT faculty; Entrepreneurial Negotiations: The MIT Way (launched in April 2016 with Professor Lawrence Susskind, co-founder of the inter-university Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School); and even greater international exposure with a Traditional Chinese language version of the Big Data course aimed at participants in Taiwan from May 10–June 21, 2016.