Speaking to students in Simmons Hall on Wednesday evening, Provost L. Rafael Reif and Chancellor Eric Grimson explained how MITx — the Institute’s new initiative for online learning — could not only bring aspects of MIT’s education to the world at large, but also enhance and enrich the educational experience of students on campus.
“Our goal is to use this as a platform to strengthen the residential student experience,” Grimson said. The informal meeting was one of a series of sessions with undergraduates and graduate students to explain MITx, as well as to gather input and suggestions on “how you would imagine using this, and what you would like to see,” he said.
The MITx concept, Reif explained, grew out of a series of meetings over the last five years in which faculty, administrators and student representatives explored “ways we could use technology to enhance what we do on campus.”
MITx’s pilot class is now under way: 6.002x, Introduction to Circuits and Electronics. So far, more than 120,000 people worldwide have signed up for the course, which is now about halfway through its semester, Grimson said. At least 20,000 of those students have been actively keeping up with the course’s lectures, exercises and online tests.
For MIT’s own students, Reif said, materials developed for MITx classes will add an extra dimension to their on-campus experience. In some cases, he said, MITx might replace existing lecture components with online versions students could watch at their own pace, repeating segments if necessary to make sure they understand. Instead of a classroom experience defined by passive listening, MIT students might actually “experience increased face-to-face interactions” with each other and with instructors, Reif said.
When MIT students used online lectures and exercises, instructors would also have access to data about which sections students sailed through and which were more challenging. When students got to recitation sections, teaching assistants would have a clearer sense of which topics they needed to focus on, Grimson said.
MITx itself is an experiment, Reif said, and will be closely monitored so that course materials and the interactive experience can be improved as needed. The software platform developed for MITx is open-source and will eventually be released to the public: Beneficial modifications made or suggested by anyone around the world will be incorporated into the platform at any time.
“We believe this is the future,” Reif said of interactive online education as a supplement to campus learning. The software platform will be offered to other institutions for use in their classes — providing an alternative to a trend toward online educational materials developed by for-profit companies, he added.
Grimson noted that the software allows students to personalize their learning experience: Lectures are divided into short segments, often interspersed with “finger exercises” (short, simple practice problems) to help students make sure they’ve grasped a concept before moving on. During each lecture, a transcript scrolls by on the right side of the screen, highlighting the passage currently being spoken. Clicking on any word in the transcript immediately moves the video to the corresponding passage. And the speed can be adjusted, faster or slower, without affecting the sound of the speaker’s voice, allowing students to listen at whatever pace they are comfortable with.
MIT will provide its own instructors with tools to help develop online versions of certain courses, but “the faculty will use it in whatever way they think is best,” Grimson said. While some lectures may move online in favor of interactive or hands-on elements during class time, “I don’t think the lectures will go away,” he said.
Feedback and suggestions from online learners and MIT students will guide MITx’s use on campus: Which courses should be adapted to online versions? How should they be structured? How can online coursework be designed to complement and supplement the on-campus experience?
“That’s an example of exactly how we will learn from you,” Grimson said Wednesday in response to a student question about different learning styles and student preferences. “If it turns out that there are two or three different populations that learn best in different ways,” then perhaps MITx can provide options tailored to those styles, he said.
While MITx courses will be available to everyone, “for the foreseeable future, the focus is on us,” Reif said — with an emphasis on adding value to the educational experience of MIT’s own students.