It’s midnight, and Anant Agarwal is still at his computer.
He’s not, however, tying up administrative loose ends before stepping down as director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Neither is he exchanging ideas with his collaborators on the major microchip-design project he’s leading, nor debating strategy with any of the other board members at Tilera, the chip company he founded in 2004.
Instead, he’s in an online discussion forum, talking about basic circuit design with students around the world — a group that includes high schoolers, undergraduates, mid-career professionals and at least one octogenarian retiree.
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.
MITx is born
“I’ve done a few startups, and even as a professor, you want to eat your own dog food,” Agarwal says. Hence his late-evening sessions on the bulletin board for MITx’s prototype course, “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.
On at least one occasion, one of those answers drew a skeptical response from another forum participant. “Someone said, ‘Whoa, is that really true?’” Agarwal says. “And someone else responded, ‘What do you think aa stands for? That’s Anant Agarwal!’”
In fact, the discussion forum has emerged as a vital educational tool in itself. Before 6.002x launched in early March, “the thing that kept me up nights was worrying how this thing would scale,” Agarwal says. “We have the number of TAs you would expect for a class with 100 or 200 people. How were they going to keep up with all the questions?”
To Agarwal’s delight, however, he’s had to ask the course teaching assistants not to answer forum questions too readily. “The students usually figure it out for themselves,” Agarwal says. And that, he believes, improves their educational experience. “I know from teaching, you never really learn something until you have to teach it,” he says.
Learning to teach online
Beyond the discussion forum, 6.002x students have built their own communities around the course — both online, through vehicles such as Facebook groups, and in the real world, meeting in person to discuss course content and assignments.
via PDDNet ᔥ
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