For Anant Agarwal, MITx, the Institute’s new online-learning initiative, isn’t just a means of democratizing education. It’s a way to reinvent it
It’s midnight, and Anant Agarwal is still at his computer.
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.
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.
Late one night, Agarwal was logged in to the forum and saw a post by a student who was having trouble with the material and planned to drop the course. “Many of the students responded saying, ‘Hey, we’ve found a little group of us who are working on this course in your neighborhood. Hang in there. Don’t quit. We’re going to help you,’” Agarwal says. “That was pretty amazing.”
A man with a plan
His selection as head of the Open Learning Enterprise, however, may have more to do with his innovations in online education. Teaching 6.002 to MIT undergraduates, he developed a program, called WebSim, that allowed students to process real-world electrical signals — such as the audio signal from an MP3 player — by assembling virtual circuits on a computer screen rather than physical circuits at a lab bench. “I’ve been hacking around on it for 10 years,” Agarwal says. Aspects of the software that 6.002x students are now using to fulfill their lab requirements were modeled on WebSim.
The development of such online-learning tools will be crucial to MITx’s expansion. “How do you put a chemistry lab online?” Agarwal asks. “We’re just getting started here. Figuring out how to tailor the platform for MIT’s many disciplines will require collaboration across all our schools.”
Indeed, Agarwal says, MITx is not just a tool for democratizing education; it’s also a tool for education research. “I want to disrupt how education is done,” Agarwal says — not just online but on campus as well.
Ultimately, Agarwal says, part of the appeal of working on MITx is that “no one knows how it’s going to evolve. But it has the potential to change the world.”
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