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Educator to the world

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Dr. Chris Caplice wants to make supply chain education freely available to anyone, anywhere. More than 150,000 people from 190 countries have taken him up on that offer so far.
Chris Caplice

Before Chris Caplice, executive director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), got involved in supply chain management, he was a civil engineer. He's still passionate about identifying problems and solving them with an engineer's quantitative approach. Today, though, he's applying his considerable analytical skills to a new area: not just what is taught in supply chain management (SCM), but how it is taught.

As a leading proponent of online education in SCM, Caplice has worked with colleagues to design, implement, and teach a variety of online courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The aim: to use technology to make high-quality supply chain education available to anyone, anywhere in the world. Through the new MicroMasters in Supply Chain Management program he leads, this vision is expanding beyond MIT to include a variety of programs at more than a dozen other universities.

For his leadership in making educational opportunities in supply chain management more widely available, Caplice received the 2016 Distinguished Service Award (DSA) from the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals. The organization's highest honor is given to an individual for significant achievements in the logistics and supply chain management professions.

Caplice recently spoke about innovations in education with Supply Chain Quarterly Editor Toby Gooley.

Name: Chris Caplice, Ph.D.
Title: Executive director, Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL); founder, MIT FreightLab; chief scientist, Chainalytics
Organization: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Education: Doctorate in transportation and logistics systems, MIT; Master of Science in civil engineering, University of Texas at Austin; Bachelor of Science in civil engineering, Virginia Military Institute
Recognitions: 2016 CSCMP Distinguished Service Award and 1996 Doctoral Dissertation Award; 2016 MIT Silver Family Research Fellow
Previous Experience: Taught at Virginia Military Institute; senior management positions, Logistics.com, SABRE, and PTCG; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
CSCMP Member: Since 1994

What are your responsibilities at the Center for Transportation and Logistics? How does CTL fit with other programs at MIT?
CTL is an interdepartmental center that focuses on all issues related to supply chain management, logistics, and freight transportation. We do three things: education, business partnerships/corporate outreach, and research. ... We have a great team of researchers and faculty, so my main responsibility is just ensuring that all the programs work together!

You may have noticed that there is no Department of Supply Chain Management here. One of the benefits of CTL being independent and interdepartmental is that we're able to bring different disciplines to bear on the field. That frequently includes the Media Lab, the School of Engineering, the Sloan School of Management, urban planning, and others. The fun thing is that we can tie so many different disciplines together.

Are you working on any major research projects?
In the past couple of years I've mostly focused on developing online education, but there are three other projects that I've been involved with. We just finished a project called "Voice of the Machine" with Drs. Francisco Jauffred and Daniel Steeneck. With the advent of the Internet of Things, we can now get signals such as diagnostic tests from equipment in the field. We worked with a company called OnProcess Technology to gather signals from machines' self-diagnostic tests and see if we can do anything proactively with them. We found that while the ability to predict one machine failing is weak, over a long period, and in the aggregate, the machines give us good signals we can use to allocate service-parts inventory and potentially reduce safety stock by up to 10 percent.

A second project was with a large restaurant chain. Every restaurant has restrictions on how much it can store in the backroom. If you devote more square feet there, then you don't have that square footage out in front. We wanted to know how that could affect service levels. As demand increases, do we have to increase the size of the storeroom, or can we make it more efficient? How do pack size and delivery frequency affect service levels? We're trying to determine the optimal order-stocking frequency. This is becoming more relevant for retailers, because with omnichannel the backroom is now serving multiple purposes.

A third project concerns better synchronization of transportation flow with inventory flow. Suppose I have different transportation options, and each has different costs, transit time, lead time, and capacity. How do I select the best mode—ahead of time, in my contracting—to best handle varying demand? Tied to that is inventory: some stock-keeping units (SKUs) are predictable, while others are not. Is there a way to synchronize both of these flows, and can I allocate the right SKUs to the right mode in advance?

CSCMP described you as leading the charge in "democratizing supply chain knowledge." What does that mean to you, and why is it important?
Higher education is facing a major decision. The way we teach in graduate school hasn't changed in 100 years: we lecture to a room of students; assign them a problem set, which they turn in two weeks later; and then we grade it and give it back to them two weeks after that. So after a month they get feedback. Does that still work today?

We're pushing ourselves to find out if we can deliver high-quality, graduate-level education that can be accessed by anyone across the world. For example, through edX [an online learning system founded by Harvard University and MIT] we want to educate the world for free. People should be able to get the knowledge they need—that's rule number one. Sometimes people want certification that they have mastered certain knowledge and skills. So, our second rule is to credentialize at cost. This cannot be done for free since it involves a lot more effort and work. Our third guiding rule is to be able to work with companies to customize the courses to fit their specific needs. We're finding that companies don't always want courses exactly as we created them; they choose modules and blend them to meet their own needs.

How does the new MITx MicroMasters credential in Supply Chain Management program work?
Over the past two years, more than 150,000 unique people from 190 countries have registered for at least one online course in supply chain management. In addition to demand for these courses there was tremendous demand for a formal MIT degree. So, in October of last year MIT President Rafael Reif announced the launch of the MicroMasters Credential, with our supply chain program being the very first. To earn the credential, students have to successfully complete a series of five courses and pass a final, proctored exam. If they are accepted to MIT, we will award them approximately one semester of credit. This is the first time MIT has awarded credits for online courses. It's online, but it still has the rigor and depth of graduate-level work. Also, through edX we are now offering about 20 different MicroMasters courses in a variety of subjects across about a dozen universities.

One thing we've learned is that there's no one best way to teach everything. There is a whole continuum, a portfolio of teaching methods, and you have to match that to the content and to the audience. For instance, we found that an analytical method like how to set inventory levels is best taught not necessarily in a lecture hall but via video. Students can move at their own pace; they can stop, start, and review as often as they need to. However, other things are best taught face-to-face, like case studies using the Socratic method, where students debate among themselves. Educators are realizing that for online teaching as well as in-residence graduate and executive education, it's more effective to do the prep work first, and then have face-to-face learning and discussion.

Launching the MicroMasters Credential required you to champion massive online open courses (MOOCs). How successful have they been?
The number of of registrations for an online course can be huge, and the number of people who are seriously doing something with it much smaller. After all, there is no charge, so the "cost" of registering is just a click. The number of registrants who are paid, verified students who want to be credentialed is averaging 12 percent for our courses. Those who are paid and verified tend to score higher on average, and by orders of magnitude are more likely to complete the course. We've awarded over 11,000 course certificates to almost 7,000 individual students over the past two years. To put this number in scale, I would have to teach for almost 100 years to reach this many students using traditional methods!

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