MITx: A view from the inside

Since it was first announced in December 2011, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s foray into the world of massive online open courses known as MITx has been a hot topic in higher ed. Answers to some frequently asked questions about the initiative shed some light on the project’s motivation and goals, but many questions still remained unanswered. What exactly would MIT’s new online education environment look like? What would the student experience be like?

As an instructional designer and educational assessment professional as well as former math teacher and long-time science geek, I decided that they only way to find out would be to enroll in the course. The course selected for the MITx pilot experiment was 6.002x (Circuits and Electronics). Just to be clear, I’m not a lurker – I’m a fully engaged student with the necessary prerequisites (AP Physics or the equivalent; differential equations and linear algebra) who has every intention of completing the course successfully. For those of you out there who are curious about this project and interested in what these so-called “disruptive models” of higher education mean for the rest of us, I’ll try to share a few of my experiences each month as the course progresses. I would welcome your comments and questions. I would also encourage you to check out MITx‘s facebook page for views and opinions of other students enrolled in the course.

The 6.002x course site went live about two weeks ago on March 5 with overview content (syllabus, calendar, info about the instructors, etc.) as well as orientation videos to illustrate how to navigate and make the best use of the course site and how to succeed in the course, including one charmingly goofy video clearly produced by some MIT undergrads (study groups, anyone?). They also released the first two weeks (units) of content.

After making it through the first unit of content, here are four early impressions that I have:

1. The learning environment is highly interactive. The videos include annotated PowerPoint (seemingly recorded especially for the online course), worked solutions to problems (done by assistant instructors – think “recitation session”), and live experiments clearly recorded during the on-campus course in a lecture hall. The videos are broken up into small segments (often 5 minutes or less; sometimes a little more). The video segments often end at a point where the student is directed to work one or more problems to check for understanding, guess what the answer will be, think about the next step, etc. The exercises also provide immediate right/wrong feedback. There aren’t worked solutions for these mid-lecture exercises; however, there are links to the discussion board where students help each other (and they really do).

2. The interface is very nice and easy to use. It is clean, simple and intuitive. It’s easy to move through the course linearly,  and it remembers where you left off when you come back. It’s also easy to move non-linearly and flip back and forth between the e-textbook, the lecture segments, the interactive circuit lab simulator (which is really slick, by the way), a wiki which has a lot of useful reference material, and the discussion board (which is astonishingly active and busy – questions often have multiple answers within less than a minute , and many answers are amazingly good). The site incorporates many different types of learning resources; of course it’s up to the student to make the most of them, but everything is visible and easy to find. They even built a simple stripped-down scientific calculator into the web site footer (although it took me about 5 days to notice it down there).

3. You always know where you stand in terms of understanding and your grade. Ungraded practice problems and exercises are frequent and embedded throughout the lecture content. Even the graded homework enables unlimited attempts; this has the end result of making you want to rework the problems until you get them right. The interface offers a ‘Profile’ area where you can see data on which segments of lecture and ungraded exercises you’ve completed, scores from all graded work so far, and a graph illustrating the contribution toward your final grade from the work submitted.

4. The faculty and co-instructors are authentic. Obviously the experience is different from taking a course in person, but they’ve managed to preserve more than I expected. Professor Agarwal’s humor, caring for students as learners, and love for his discipline clearly comes through; that’s also true for the co-instructors Sussman and Mitros. The presentations don’t seem stilted; they seem mostly relaxed and comfortable; nothing feels ‘overproduced’ or too slick. Although Prof. Agarwal uses (and is clearly very comfortable with) some kind of tablet and stylus to record his annotated slides, worked problem videos recorded with co-instructors are fairly low tech (and it works well for them) – colored markers, graph paper. Their personalities come through and they feel like engineers. I have to say that I think I understand engineers better than I did before I started this course. As an instructional designer, I definitely appreciate that they chose not to display a ‘talking head’ of the instructors in the videos – when Professor Agarwal does appear on screen, he’s filmed in front of the classroom of live students (but this is usually only because they’re showing a live demo of something fun, like lighting a pickle on fire with electricity). Good call!

If you want to see it for yourself, enrollment is still open! You’ve still got time to catch up; it’s too late to submit the first Homework and Lab, but they do drop your lowest two scores.

1 thought on “MITx: A view from the inside

  1. Pingback: Another post about Udacity CS101, post-exam but pre-final grade | PomeRantz

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