A decade ago, MIT broke ground with its OpenCourseWare initiative, which made MIT course materials, such as syllabi and lecture notes, publicly accessible. But over the last five years, MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif has led an effort to move the complete MIT classroom experience online, with video lectures, homework assignments, lab work — and a grade at the end.
That project, called MITx, launched late last year. On March 16, Reif announced that Agarwal would step down as CSAIL director in order to lead MIT’s Open Learning Enterprise, which will oversee MITx’s development.
“Circuits and Electronics.” Co-taught by Agarwal, Panasonic Professor of Electrical Engineering Gerald Sussman, CSAIL co-director and Senior Lecturer Christopher Terman and CSAIL research scientist Piotr Mitros, the course — 6.002 in MIT’s course-numbering system, 6.002x in its MITx iteration — has more than 120,000 enrollees. Logged into the discussion forum as “aa,” Agarwal tests the MITx interface, gauges students’ reaction to online tools and sometimes answers their questions.
Teaching 6.002 to MIT undergraduates, he developed a program, called WebSim, that allowed students to process real-world electrical signals — such as the audio signal from an MP3 player — by assembling virtual circuits on a computer screen rather than physical circuits at a lab bench. “I’ve been hacking around on it for 10 years,” Agarwal says. Aspects of the software that 6.002x students are now using to fulfill their lab requirements were modeled on WebSim.
The development of such online-learning tools will be crucial to MITx’s expansion. “How do you put a chemistry lab online?” Agarwal asks. “We’re just getting started here. Figuring out how to tailor the platform for MIT’s many disciplines will require collaboration across all our schools.”
Grading has to be automated as well, as it is in 6.002x. “How do you automate the grading of free-form responses, like essay questions?” Agarwal asks. “I can imagine researchers at MIT getting very excited about that question.”
Indeed, Agarwal says, MITx is not just a tool for democratizing education; it’s also a tool for education research. “I want to disrupt how education is done,” Agarwal says — not just online but on campus as well.
For instance, he says, if lectures and grading could be automated, professors and TAs would have more time for working directly with students, perhaps on open-ended research projects that mimic — much better than problem sets do — the way in which science and engineering are done in the real world. Similarly, web tools developed through MITx could enable students to learn in a more interactive fashion, at their own pace — and on their own schedule. “There’s no way I would get up for an 8 a.m. class,” Agarwal says. “But I do a lot of work at night.”
Ultimately, Agarwal says, part of the appeal of working on MITx is that “no one knows how it’s going to evolve. But it has the potential to change the world.”