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New MITx online physics course combines latest in learning technology with classic videos

MOOC pairs cutting-edge online assessments with legendary lectures and demonstrations by MIT professor Walter Lewin.
Walter Lewin performs a classic demonstration.
Walter Lewin performs a classic demonstration.
Photo courtesy of Walter Lewin

Much attention is given to the automated assessments that play a key role in allowing massive open online courses (MOOCs) to scale, and rightly so, as these tools permit hundreds of thousands of learners to receive an unprecedented level of feedback on their work. A new MIT MOOC starting Sept. 9 — 8.01x Classical Mechanics — combines these cutting-edge assessments with lectures that have an unmatched pedigree in digital learning history.

"With this course, we are creating a whole new experience for the millions who have enjoyed my lectures," says Walter Lewin, professor in the Department of Physics. "Where before they got only the experience of sitting in the classroom and watching, now they can really test how well they understand the concepts. They can communicate with other students and even get occasional help from the course team."

Throughout the '80's and '90s, Lewin's "Classical Mechanics" course had been a "can't miss" experience for thousands of MIT undergraduates, with in-class demonstrations that included Lewin risking death by pendulum and riding a fire extinguisher-powered tricycle across the classroom. Recorded in 1999, Lewin's lectures were used for one of MIT's early experiments in digital learning, Physics Interactive Video Tutor (PIVoT).

When MIT announced the MIT OpenCourseWare effort in 2001, the videos were quickly adopted for distribution on that site as well, eventually reaching an audience of millions. In 2005, the videos were moved onto YouTube, and copies with translated subtitles have appeared on sites such as (Chinese) and Shamsuna Al-Arabia (Arabic).

Now, Lewin's classic lectures are being paired with the latest technology in online learning, the scalable assessment tools used for massive open online classes. While Lewin famously answers all of his fan mail, until now it was impossible for him to provide feedback on work completed by the millions that watched his videos. The interactive capabilities of the edX platform now provide a rich new experience for learners built around the lectures that includes feedback on assignments.

Students enrolled in the new MOOC will now be presented with lecture questions interspersed in the videos, and complete online problem sets that will be graded automatically. Responses will be either numerical or formulas, rather than open-ended responses, to support computer grading. The course also includes a forum that will support interaction between the enrolled learners, allowing them to support one another and receive some support from the instructional team. Students enrolled in the course will have the option of auditing the course or earning a certificate of mastery.

In addition to 8.01x Classical Mechanics, MITx is offering five other new courses on the edX platform this fall, and is currently offering one summer course, 8.MReV Mechanics ReView, which starts June 1.

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