What did the MITx experiment teach us?

The ambitious online project is gearing up to offer new courses in the fall - but what did the trial teach us?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

MITx, the brainchild of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was announced last December. Now the platform, which offers MIT courses for free to a virtual community of learners around the world, is gearing up to expand its portfolio of free learning materials.

Online courses, although open to debate about their effectiveness, have proven popular in the West -- inundated with mobile technology and often busy lifestyles. Those with prior commitments, such as families or full-time positions can find it difficult to squeeze in courses and qualifications, and this is where online learning can prove particularly useful.

The first prototype course available on MITx, "Circuits and Electronics," also known as 6.002x, debuted in May. Following its launch, MIT and Harvard University announced a collaborative effort to develop edX, an organisation that will allow other academic institutions to take advantage of the MITx infrastructure and offer similar services.

Platforms like MITx offer this kind of gateway. Whether subscribers are adults with a busy day or children that have needs better suited to home schooling, it's unlikely digital education is going to be passed to the sidelines anytime soon.

However, the concept is in its fledgling stage. On the brink of expanding their portfolio, MIT and Harvard have taken stock of just how successful the first course proved to be, and where improvements can be made.

Almost 155,000 people registered for 6.002x. Out of these subscribers, 23,000 tried the first problem exercises, 9,000 passed the midterm, and 7,157 passed the course as a whole.

When I first glanced over these numbers, I felt slight disappointment at such a high rate of 'drop-outs'. However, if you compare this to the numbers of students who may opt for the course on a physical campus, it may not be such a bad result after all. As Anant Agarwal pointed out, "If you look at the number in absolute terms, it’s as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT."

Furthermore, that is 7,157 people who passed the course and now have an enhanced knowledge of electronics -- something that is needed desperately across the globe. That may not make much of a dent in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) worker shortage, but it's certainly a start.

Remember, this was just one course, and one prototype. Agarwal also believes that rates of completion will increase once more courses are on offer, saying:

"In some sense, this course popped up out of nowhere. It requires a background in physics, a background in calculus, a background in differential equations. Over time, edX will have courses on each of those three prerequisites, and we can point students to those courses if they don’t have the background."

Once 'foundation' courses are available, I tend to agree. The first of its kind, but with no 'core' knowledge training available, once it expands, it is likely that rates will increase. Quality concerns have plagued online course providers since they first came into existence, but MIT and Harvard have stated that no watering-down of the assignments will take place.

Online students may groan at this, but when you consider this in relation to online learning as a whole, making these kinds of decisions can ultimately benefit distance-based courses. If MITx proves successful, then other providers will be able to marry the same quality of online courses to physical ones -- and potentially this could improve the reputation of distance-based learning.

The MIT team were also pleasantly surprised at how the students reappropriated the MITx technology, customizing it to suit their own educational ends. One group of students, disappointed that the follow-up course 6.003 "Signals and Systems" would not be offered in the fall, used materials from MIT's OpenCourseWare project to create their own online course, dubbed 6.003z.

"They’re now a bonded community,” Agarwal says. “They asked us if there was a way they could keep the community alive. So we agreed not to take the [6.002x] website down. All the students who had previous accounts could continue interacting on the discussion forums and so on."

It seems the prototype didn't just offer knowledge on electronics. Instead, the students bound and promoted a community -- a support system which no doubt made it easier to continue and pass the course. Spurred on, other learners worked to improve the MITx system; some creating online text viewers for mobile devices, whereas others developed a bolt-on video viewer so media could be streamed in sequence.

Taking this on board, the edX team is working to make it easier for students to customize their courses further. For example, Agarwal says one job on the list is to turn a semester-based course into a full year, to compensate for students with a lot of demands on their time.

A current change the team has made after student feedback is to post videos where teachers work out problems onscreen rather than simply present the complete solution.

"We learned a lot about how to do a course like this," Agarwal says. "Clearly, that is influencing us a lot in where we go from here."

It seems that if online courses are going to succeed, interaction is still a necessary component. Whether it is a pre-recorded video of a teacher working out a problem or students creating a community themselves, digital learning has to blend both components as well as flexibility to keep learners keen and their self-motivation high.

Ultimately, students subscribed to the course from over 160 countries for the trial course. The majority were based in the U.S., India and the Unite Kingdom. Columbia, Spain, Canada and Brazil also featured in the top 10.

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