It’s time to dispel the myth that online courses are only suitable for learning hard skills.

MIT xPRO offers many online courses that help professionals from all backgrounds become better thinkers. And according to the MIT instructors who teach these courses, there are clear advantages to learning specific frameworks online.

Here’s an overview of MIT xPRO’s system thinking, critical thinking, and systems engineering offerings, including insights from instructors on how you can benefit from these courses.

System Thinking

This five-week online course will make you a better problem-solver and improve the performance of your projects by teaching you to apply system thinking in technical environments.

Benefits of becoming a better thinker through a system thinking framework 

“Our world is changing ever faster, from the prosaic—how we use our phones—to the profound—how our greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate,” explains John Sterman, lead instructor for MITx PRO’s System Thinking course.

He explains that most of the changes we now struggle to comprehend arise as consequences (often unintended) of our own actions. “Well-intentioned efforts to solve pressing problems often fail, and all too often, our best efforts to solve a problem actually make it worse,” he says.

“To improve, many advocate that we become ‘systems thinkers’—that we develop our ability to understand that ‘you can’t do just one thing’ and that ‘everything is connected to everything else,’” continues Professor Sterman. “The challenge is moving from slogans to useful tools and processes that can lead to sustained benefits for our organizations, companies, economy, and society.”

MIT’s approach to systems thinking aims to do just that.

Benefits of learning system thinking frameworks online 

Professor Sterman notes that there are multiple ways for people to develop their capacity for systems thinking, including in-person and online instruction.

“People learn best from experience and experiment,” he says. “But in complex systems, from a new aircraft to a company to the economy as a whole, experiments are often too costly, unethical, or simply impossible, and experience often comes too late to help.”

He suggests that just as pilots learn to fly a new aircraft in a simulator before taking the real aircraft up in the air, “people can learn in management flight simulators in which they can try their own strategies, run experiments, and thus develop their systems thinking capabilities while designing strategies for greater success.”

This learning can occur effectively in both in-person and online formats. “The key,” Professor Sterman says, “is receiving timely, informative feedback on the likely consequences of your decisions—something management flight simulators provide.”

Critical Thinking and Decision Making

This three-week online course for technical professionals explores what it means to think about thinking and empowers you to solve problems at work and in everyday life.

Benefits of becoming a better thinker through a critical thinking framework 

According to Dan Frey, lead instructor for MITx PRO’s Critical Thinking and Decision Making course, the single greatest benefit of strengthening one’s critical thinking skills is improved resistance to “self-sealing.”

“Chris Argyris—a great critical thinker himself—explained that many high-performing professionals fall into a pattern of behavior in which they find it difficult or impossible to recognize the limits of their own ability,” says Professor Frey. 

“The best safeguard I know against that trap is the ability to identify the theories that drive our own actions and put them to the test. You should constantly expose your own theories to data and reasoned evaluation. If you have the skills to do that, you will learn and improve over your entire life.” 

Benefits of learning critical thinking frameworks online 

“Both in-person and online instruction can be a great way to enhance critical thinking,” says Professor Frey. “Given that online resources have become so convenient and cost-effective, it would be a mistake to rule out the newer modalities. Ideally, learners use both—each one for the purposes for which it is best adapted.”

As a commercial pilot who spent thousands of hours in flight simulators and thousands more in real aircraft, Professor Frey has learned that “if it’s possible to improve a skill in the simulator, you may as well do that and save the jet fuel. Of course, you also need to log some actual stick time, but that phase will be most effective if you prepare yourself properly beforehand.”

The way he sees it, one thing flying a plane and critical thinking have in common is that there are multiple ways to learn each, and restricting yourself to only one is old-fashioned. He made up a great “dad joke” to further illustrate this point, but you’ll have to ask him about it yourself!

Architecture and Systems Engineering: Models and Methods to Manage Complex Systems

This award-winning four-course program explores state-of-the-art practices in systems engineering. Courses include: Architecture of Complex Systems, Models in Engineering, Model-Based Systems Engineering: Documentation and Analysis, and Quantitative Methods in Systems Engineering.

Benefits of becoming a better thinker through a systems engineering framework 

One significant benefit of improving one’s thinking through a systems engineering framework is learning to address disruption, notes Bruce Cameron, lead instructor for MIT xPRO’s systems engineering program.

“Many industries are undergoing disruption today. Traditional automotive is being disrupted by electrical vehicle technology, home appliances are being disrupted by smart home vendors,” he lists. He explains that this disruption comes from architectural change and new technology progression.

“In MIT xPRO’s systems engineering program, we teach a structured framework to first identify architectures and then to model potential changes, so learners can explore potential responses and opportunities.”

Dr. Cameron points out that systems engineers are encouraged to build their own tools and processes. But many inherit tools and processes without a crisp explanation of the principles behind them. “The intent of these courses is to teach the principles and to look at the latest tools through a constructive lens to answer questions like, ‘When should we pick this tool?’ and ‘How could we pull these tools together?’”

Benefits of learning systems engineering frameworks online 

Dr. Cameron explains that MIT xPRO’s online systems engineering program—like all MIT xPRO courses—was designed for professionals and, therefore, specifically curated to fit around their work schedules. Rather than having to attend a lecture at 9 a.m., learners have the flexibility to consume the materials on their own time.

But that’s not the only major benefit. “Online, we have so much more collaboration and workflow available to us!” Dr. Cameron exclaims. “For instance, we run polls at many points in the course, such as ‘How much time do you think should be devoted to concept exploration?’ Everyone gets to benchmark against the rest of the participants’ data in the poll, which is not easily done in a traditional on-campus course.”

Extensive networking is another notable perk of online learning. “You get to network with a much broader group of people in these global courses,” says Dr. Cameron, “from Rimac engineers in Croatia to Whirlpool designers in China to Microsoft product managers in Seattle.”

Explore MIT xPRO’s Course Catalog 

If you’ve considered taking an online course, why not make 2023 the year you prioritize professional development? MIT xPRO offers many online courses designed to help professionals improve their thinking and perform at their highest potential.

Check out our course catalog, and see which offering speaks to you.

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