The Future of Education

The Future of Education

The Overiew

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.

Some Thoughts

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


I’m both scared and amazed at the prospect of many more people learning about circuits. On the one hand, it could potentially threaten my job (though that’s not likely). On the other hand, it provides many more people for me to talk to about electronics! Plus, the number of people signed up for this are peanuts compared to the number of enthusiastic engineers in Asia. So bravo MIT! And all the other schools doing this sort of thing! (Stanford is one that definitely is.)

I don’t think electronic courses can ever fully replace face-to-face learning, especially for more introductory material. I took a course as an undergraduate that was basically a hybrid of classroom/online. The lectures were all online, but we did in-class quizzes once a week and held a discussion section. The professor had recently become CIO of the university, so he didn’t have the time to lecture, but was by far the departmental expert on the topic. I liked being able to watch lectures on a more convenient schedule, but I would have missed the classroom interaction and the group study aspects.

I think that University of North Dakota was the first to have done this. Their Distance Engineering Degree Program (DEDP) is ABET accredited and has been around for a long time. In fact, I think that they’re the only ABET accredited online program in the US.

I’ve been a part of the DEDP program for the last couple years. I work in the auto repair industry and didn’t decide until my early 30s that I wanted to go to school for EE. I have a well-paying job (more than I’ll ever likely make as an EE) and there was no way I was going to give it up to go back to school on campus. I decided to give UND a try. I’ve been very impressed with the program.

The DEDP program works like this…The DEDP students view the same lectures as the on-campus students. The lecture is available for download or streaming within an hour of it being completed on campus. The DEDP students also complete all the same homework assignments and quizzes at the same time as on-campus students, but must scan and upload their work. DEDP students are required to designate a proctor (for which they have guidelines) and take all their exams with a proctor. The only time that DEDP students need to go on campus is when labs are required. Labs are offered once per year in the summer over a 1-2 week period. Afterward, students are given a couple weeks to write up lab reports and submit them.

There are some drawbacks to a program like this. Any questions you have are done via email or phone calls. When I watch a lecture and have a question, I have to call the prof and wait for a return call (may be up to a day later) for an answer. It also takes a ton of discipline. There is a big difference between taking 1 MIT course and taking a few classes each semester online. Life gets in the way sometimes. The learner needs to remember that their online class is no different than one offered on campus and set aside the time to do the required work. Aside from those minor disadvantages, the program works very well.

What I’m actually more interested in, is what peoples thoughts are on this being FREE. yes, I agree it is easier to learn when you have a teacher, but at what point do you say I’m willing to work a little harder to save several thousand dollars?

I think that it’s only free for a short time. From what I understand, MIT is going to charge for the courses starting sometime later this year.

Even though it’s free, there is still a ton of work to be done. So it’s not like that many more circuit designers will be created (although I think more EEs would be great).
I say YES, it’s totally worth the effort to deal with doing the work online. I love that free eliminates the barrier to entry.
I think this is the direction of education in the future. I hadn’t heard that MIT was going to charge for the classes, but I had heard that they might charge to get a degree from it.

As a student, I much rather prefer the face-to-face and teamwork aspects of a traditional college learning experience. On the topic of cost, regardless of free or not, I would opt for the tuition-based traditional setup.

At this point in time, the MIT open course system seems to be for those who want to learn more (which I totally am for, and might take advantage of in the future, nor would I mind paying a small amount for per course). Right now, there is certainly an advantage to having a degree from an ABET accredited program, and should MIT offer something along those lines, perhaps some would choose it.

I am going to point out what probably everybody is thinking but nobody is talking about:

I am also an active student at MITx. I am not the least surprised that 120,000 students worldwide signed up for the course. As MIT personnel did point out, this number is greater than the entire population of past MIT graduates. The demand for knowledge and the self-discipline to achieve it is real.
It baffles me that MIT, and to be fair, other universities with similar programs, are not giving credit to students who successfully complete their course offerings. To me, this is equivalent to a restaurant throwing away good and unused food that could be used to feed somebody else. The educational platform is there and developed, demand is huge, proof of student knowledge is beyond doubt… and yet, no official credit is given (not counting, of course, the “certificate” which has no credits attached).

I do understand that the current business model has to protect those who do pay hefty fees and go through all the hassle to enroll and attend classes at the MIT brick-and-mortar campus. However, everybody knows that one of the biggest problems of this country is the price of higher education. By offering these types of classes, MIT and others are proving that online education could cost a fraction of what it currently does – while reaching many more people than it ever could with a brick and mortar campus.

I am hoping that some of the universities offering these new programs have the courage (and morals?) to give some sort of official credit to students enrolled. Of course this would then probably put out of business a good number of other for-profit university-businesses charging huge dollars for the same.

I would be happy to pay a fee. I know others would too.

There is no excuse for the price of college tuition these days. People are tired of it, the country can’t afford it, and it only benefits a very small number of people.

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