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MITx: What the students think

From Buenos Aires to Honolulu to Montreal, a virtual community grows up around the online initiative’s prototype course.

What’s it like taking a course with 120,000 other students?

That is one of the questions raised this spring by the debut of MITx, the Institute’s new online educational initiative. The first offering — a course dubbed 6.002x, or “Circuits and Electronics” — is running from March 5 through June 8, modeled after one of the introductory courses taught in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

Some people taking 6.002x are students at other universities who are using the course to supplement their own educations; others are professionals whose long-running interest in the subject has been fired anew by the course. MIT News recently canvassed students from around the world who are enrolled in 6.002x to see what their experience has been like — so far, at any rate.

Myriam Nonaka, an electrical engineering student at the Universidad Tecnológica Nacional in Buenos Aires, Argentina, finds 6.002x to be “very entertaining,” and singles out the course’s online discussion forum as a place “where you can share and learn.” Indeed, the forum, where students discuss the course and offer assistance to each other, is something that almost all MITx participants cite as a defining feature of the experience.

For Gerardo Muñoz Coronel, an electrical engineering student from Querétaro, Mexico, it’s “exciting … to develop new skills with the support of a virtual-campus community.” Since starting the course, he has interacted in the forum with “nice online classmates” from Australia, Colombia, England, India and Kenya, among other places.

Many of those taking 6.002x already have degrees, and are using the course to sharpen skills for personal or professional reasons. Brian Ho, the owner of a software-development company in Honolulu who has a long-running interest in robotics, has an electrical engineering degree and is using the course to “refresh” his knowledge of the subject.

“We are learning to think intuitively when approaching electrical engineering — an intuition I didn’t have before,” Ho explains. As far as the discussion forums go, he adds, “I equally enjoy helping other students … in the process of helping others, you are actually helping yourself because in order to explain a concept perfectly you really need to understand the subject.”

‘Personally ... it means a lot’

Course 6.002x is being co-taught by Anant Agarwal, a professor in EECS and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); Chris Terman, co-director of CSAIL; Gerald Sussman, the Panasonic Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT; and CSAIL research scientist Piotr Mitros. Upon completing the work, students will receive an “electronic certificate of accomplishment” from MITx.

Agarwal has noticed how much student cooperation is taking place in 6.002x. “What is amazing is the amount of help students are giving each other,” he says. The MITx system includes “karma points” awarded to students who are especially active in helping their peers.

But not just anyone can expect to thrive in 6.002x, no matter how much tutoring they receive: As the MITx website notes, students hoping to succeed in 6.002x must have taken an advanced physics course in electricity and magnetism, must know basic calculus and linear algebra, and must have experience working on differential equations. There is an optional portion of 6.002x, during the first half of the course, in which students can do remedial work in differential equations.

All told, the expected time commitment for 6.002x is about 10 hours per week. “Students are putting a lot of effort into the course,” Agarwal says. “Some are putting in 20 hours a week.”

For his part, Muñoz Coronel, who is in his eighth semester of studying electrical engineering, calls 6.002x “rigorous academic study.” And Murray Pearson, a programmer from Montreal, notes that the coursework “strongly encourages students to actively calculate and think and perform the steps, rather than passively browsing information.”

Like Ho, Pearson has a long-running interest in electronics, and says he wants to “start building some gadgets and having some real fun.” Too often in the past, Pearson says, when he started thinking about ideas for devices, “I had some familiarity with the components but the actual design procedures remained mysterious.”

The lure of 6.002x, Pearson notes, was enhanced by Agarwal’s lectures on MIT OpenCourseWare in recent years. When he found out through an online discussion board that MITx was enrolling, “I signed up immediately.”

Doubtless, the MITx experience will vary for everyone. But Ho offers that for those around the world who complete a course offered by MIT, “for each of us personally, secretly, it means a lot.”

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