I recently signed up for 6.002: Circuits and Electronics, an introductory level course and the first course available from MITx, MIT’s free, online school. Unlike MIT’s Open Course Ware, which has an incomplete selection of videotaped classroom lectures (some courses are more complete than others) and assorted problem sets, the MITx course has been designed from the ground up to be completed online.
Each “week” of class has two lecture sequences, a homework set, and a lab.
The lecture sequences each take about an hour and a half to complete, and are broken up into 2-5 minute segments. Some segments feature virtual chalkboard sessions, others feature clips from actual classroom demonstrations. Occasionally, the professor will ask you to solve a simple problem in the middle of class to reinforce a point. The video segments then switch to an untimed online mini-quiz. The student answers in a text field and get simple correct/incorrect feedback or can even choose to have the correct answer revealed. Then the video lectures resume.
The interface is well designed and makes it easy to pause or resume long lectures at will. Additionally it features the ability to slow video down to 3/4 speed, or even advance it to run at 1.5 speed, and has a complete audio transcription that runs with the lecture. Also available is an online version of the course textbook.
Homework sets are much like the mini-quizzes, only the option to reveal the answer is unavailable, and the homework sets come with due dates. The labs feature a slick, online circuit simulator / analyzer.
At the time of this posting, the course is about a third of the way through and has not yet held midterms.
Let’s answer the all important question up front: Is it possible to learn from this online class? I say yes. But I have to qualify a few points. (And also disclose that I’m a working mechanical engineer and I also took “volts for dolts” once, the ME version of intro to circuits)
First, I think the professor is excellent. Presumably, he has a passion and a talent for teaching, and has volunteered to teach this online class.
Taking this course required a fair bit of discipline on my part to actually watch the lectures. It’s not a scheduled lecture that only occurs at 10am on Tues/Thurs. There’s some flexibility to it, which for me invites procrastination. It certainly helps me that homework sets come with due dates.
While the online circuit simulator is certainly pretty cool, it’s not quite the same as actually building the circuit on a breadboard and making measurements with a multi-meter. It occurred to me, for example, that you could come out of this course and not know what a resistor color code is.
I also note that I haven’t gotten “stuck” yet. I’ve been able to follow the lectures and I’ve been able to solve all the homeworks. I’m left to wonder what would happen if I needed help from a classmate. I mean, there’s certainly a social aspect that’s missing from the lectures, the group homework sessions and study parties. I’m not sure a team project could ever be assigned in this setting.
All things considered, this is certainly a viable way to learn the material.
Invitation for Discussion
So what does this mean? For one thing, there’s an exciting effect from a scalability point of view; the best educators and lecturers can now reach an audience of thousands, where before they were limited to a large lecture hall.
I’m curious what the implications of a free course are for a university charging upwards of $5000/class. Free is an awfully hard price point to compete with; in fact, Chris Anderson has an entire book on the subject. College campuses could differentiate by offering an actual campus, a supportive learning environment, and face to face interaction at office hours for students needing real help.
Ultimately, I think the matter will depend on whether people will respect an online degree. Perhaps a day will come where it’s not your degree that matters, but the body of work you have your name on. (In fact, this is how it is after you’ve been in industry for several years.)
In the meantime though, the single course currently offered is a wonderful educational supplement. I imagine talented high school students will benefit tremendously (in a lot of ways, it’s like taking an AP course), and students who care more about the education and not the degree.
Thanks to Extrudedalumniu for the MIT picture