On the home stretch – reflecting on the MITx pilot

As our regular readers know by now, I have been a participant in the MITx pilot course “Circuits and Electronics” since it launched in March. The course is now moving into week 10 of 14.

In my last update, I was forecasting that I would score a 60% on the midterm exam. I’m happy to report exceeding my personal expectations with a 76% (a low B on the MITx grading scale), which I think  is a relatively accurate reflection of my level of mastery of the material, if perhaps a little generous due to the amount of time allowed (24 hours). According to the NYTimes, approximately 10,000 of the over 120,000 enrolled students took the midterm exam. So far MIT has not shared any information on the overall grade distribution, so I can’t tell you where I fall on the ‘curve’ (or even what the curve looks like).

Since the course is more than 75% complete, I thought it might be reasonable to offer some critical reflection on the course experience.  In previous posts (March 20, April 24), I listed eight positive aspects of my experience. I could (and will) add to that list, but today I’d like to suggest five areas where the online learning experience in the MITx pilot course could be improved. If you’re looking for more student reactions to MITx, you also might enjoy watching videos made by other pilot participants about their experience in the course.

How to make MITx better

  1. Equation editor, please! Other MITx students reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about (and surely have the bald patches to show for it). In the course, students often want or need to enter algebraic expressions – in the discussion board, ungraded practice exercises, and in graded homeworks. The system does understand algebraic equivalence, but it does not provide students with an equation editor. This routinely results in long battles with the courseware to overcome syntax errors when entering complex expressions that include fractions, subscripts, exponents, nested parentheses to enforce order of operations, etc.  There’s no way to see how the system has evaluated your expression, so figuring out whether it’s the answer or the syntax that’s wrong can be very frustrating. To see what it looks like to get the immediate feedback of seeing how the system has interpreted your input, play around with Wolfram Alpha.  This is the minimum kind of functionality that MITx should have. Better yet, the courseware should incorporate an actual WYSIWYG  equation editor.
  2. Are we there yet? How much further? The video sequences that combine lectures and demonstrations are nicely chunked into reasonable portions. And you can readily see how many segments there are in a given sequence. But there’s no indication of the total length of video in each sequence. Should each student really have to load up each segment of video, check the length in the player, and do the math? From the standpoint of student time management, knowing the total length of the whole lecture segment would be extremely useful and trivially simple to include. Definitely seems like an oversight. It may be worth noting that a few student discussion board threads have noted that some MITx lecture segments are longer than the equivalent classroom lecture videos from 6002 in MIT OpenCourseware, but I think that reflects good instructional design in segmenting the lectures and isn’t something that I think warrants criticism.
  3. Online presence for learners. Knowing who’s online and providing some kind of way to communicate synchronously (with opt-in settings for making your online presence visible to others) would be a significant enhancement. In a similar vein, giving students the option to reveal their geographic location and search for others who have made their geographic location visible would be nice. The first few discussion board threads along the lines of, “Anybody else out there in Greece?” were kind of fun, but it’s clear that many students would like to connect with others in their home country or city, and the course platform should probably facilitate that.
  4. Student content ratings. The ability for students to rate discussion board content is very well implemented. Now MIT should take this same functionality and apply it to the posted course content – specifically the lecture segments and community-contributed wiki content.
  5. Annotation capability for the lecture videos. OK, so this is a a bit of a stretch goal, but this is MIT we’re talking about, so no reason to let them off easy on a difficult coding challenge. Something confusing in the lecture? Find an error in the transcript? It would be so nice to be able to make a note on the fly. And in the spirit of seeing the annotations of others when you’re reading on a Kindle, being able to turn on/off the annotations made by others would be an interesting feature to pilot.

Continuing the spirit of critical reflection in this post, I wanted to draw attention to some reaction MIT’s own faculty to this initiative. I hope we’ll hear more from their faculty and students in the near future as MIT reports on the outcomes of the pilot course. After the announcement and prior to the start of the 6.002x pilot, MIT’s faculty newsletter featured a piece from Provost L. Rafael Reif (as of 5/16 slated to be the next President of MIT) with the institutional rationale for the initiative (MITx: MIT’s Vision for Online Learning) as well as several interesting editorial pieces from MIT faculty:

The Faculty Chair: Freshman Advising and MITxSamuel Allen (Professor of Materials Science and Engineering) writes about the crucial mentoring relationship between faculty and undergraduates and posed the question,

“If MITx is wildly successful, what is the future of the residential education experience that has been our mode of teaching for MIT’s entire history?”

A Contrarian View of MITx: What Are We Doing!? Woodie Flowers (Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering) draws an important distinction between education and training, makes interesting comparisons in the relative levels of investment and impact of MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative and the much newer Khan Academy, and considers the possible impact of Apple’s foray into the eTextbook market. Professor Flowers also speculates about goals and motives of MITx and similar initiatives in relation to the competitive higher education market for students and educational content.

“If they [Apple] does for textbooks what iTunes did for music distribution, the tipping point will be passed…holding the for-profit world at bay seems to be one of the unwritten strategic goals of MITx.”

Finally, the editorial board of the newsletter summed up the state of affairs with regard to the changing landscape of higher education:

“The future is murky, and change may happen fast: The 50-minute lecture may turn obsolete overnight, yielding to 12-minute video chunks; we may lead, or we may fall behind; we may resist, or we may embrace; but one thing is clear, we better not ignore.”