Earlier this year, the New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.” Massive open online courses have captured the public imagination because they offer a blueprint for a fundamental shift in the delivery of education. But like any story that unfolds on the public stage, attention has largely focused on some key players who are shaping the space. Equally interesting, however, are the developments that occur outside the limelight — the innovative and unanticipated ways that students and educators use open course material to enrich learning experiences. The creation of 6.003z Signals and Systems is a case in point.
It’s well known that MIT is a leader in the open education movement. The launch of the first MITx course occurred exactly one decade after OpenCourseWare published its first courses in 2002. Taken together, both OCW and MITx offer a highly complementary vision of breadth and interactive depth — a sort of open educational ecosystem, OCW has systematically published a wealth of course material that covers virtually the entire MIT curriculum, while MITx offers a smaller but more comprehensive type of online course for student certification.
When the first MITx prototype course, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics, launched in May 2012, more than 150,000 eager students registered and a smaller core of 7,000 actually passed the course. One of them was Amol Bhave, a 17-year-old high school student from Jabalpur, India who graduated near the top of his MITx class. After discovering that MITx would not immediately offer its follow-up course, Systems and Signals (6.003), in Fall 2012, this enterprising student took things into his own hands.
A programmer since fifth grade, Amol created a new course website from scratch in a few days, then partnered with two other MITx students, Ashwith Rego from Bangalore, India and Daniel Segal from Montreal, Canada, to create a new course. They populated it with an array of quality open education content — video lectures and supplementary material from the OCW site, discussion and wiki content supported by the MITx platform, Rice University Professor Richard Baraniuk’s Systems and Signals textbook from Rice’s Connexions open digital repository, a Wikibooks version of Systems and Signals, course notes from a former 6.003 student, and their own tutorials — and called it 6.003z.
That’s all it took. Suddenly Amol and his partners found themselves running an online course for 1100 students around the world, including India, Colombia, Russia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Chile, Spain and Mexico. The centerpiece of the course is a beloved series of lectures that were recorded almost 25 years ago by MIT Ford Professor of Engineering, Alan Oppenheim, and are now published on OCW. Although the use of overhead projectors date the lectures from a different era, they represent a superb and timeless summary of what Professor Oppenheim describes as the “richness and beauty of the foundational concepts,” for the Systems and Signals course.
When Professor Oppenheim learned about the homemade 6.003z course, he was thrilled. “It’s a perfect example of a grass roots effort that is strong and motivated simply by the power of learning,” he says. “I’ve been in touch with the organizers of 6.003z to applaud them.” In a personal note of encouragement, he told Amol and his partners that he was particularly inspired by the “growing trend for motivated people around the world to make effective use of the rich resources that are available through the Internet — driven purely by the desire to learn the material.”
The 6.003z site demonstrates what happens when an open education ecosystem reaches critical mass: Different learners can self-organize and assemble course material from a broad variety of different sources. Each new effort improves the whole.
Spurred by his success, Amol says he’s planning some improvements to his platform, so that it allows students to follow the course at their own pace, and gives them the ability to upload their own tutorials. “I have already followed many OCW courses, and told all my friends at school. Now, I want to give online education a little push,” he says. Asked if he was worried that MITx might create new courses in the future that render his own course sites obsolete, Amol responded like a true scholar: “I’m not worried about competition — it’s learning. As long as people gain education, I am fine.”