Review: MITx’s Online Circuit Design and Analysis Course

This latest experiment in remote learning is not for a casual audience

Photo: M. Scott Brauer/MIT

Electronic Lecturer: Anant Agarwal led the first course to be offered under MITs new large-scale free online learning initiative.

MIT’s Anant Agarwal has a thing for chain saws. The professor of electrical engineering and computer science said so himself as he welcomed his vast horde of online students. And it was a horde: More than 150 000 of us from dozens of countries had signed up for MIT’s inaugural MOOC, or massively open online course, which began in early March and ended in June. The course, dubbed 6.002x, was an adaptation of MIT’s undergraduate class in circuit design and analysis and was part of the university’s MITx initiative, which aims to offer anyone with an Internet connection access to a selection of its courses. Participants were lured by some powerful enticements: the prestige of MIT, the opportunity to learn from a renowned professor, and the price—free. Although MIT has made course materials publicly available for over a decade, this is its first online class involving scheduled instruction, supervision, and testing. Only participants who formally signed up for the 6.002x course can earn a credential certifying successful completion; MIT has not announced when the course will be offered again.

In an early recorded lecture, which plays as a YouTube video, Agarwal dons full Blues Brothers regalia to demonstrate noise margins, a chain saw his source of system noise as he bobs to a disco tune, while laughter resounds in the classroom. But any 6.002xers who mistook his professorial charisma for a lack of seriousness, expecting a gentle tiptoe through circuitry basics, were swiftly disillusioned. The curriculum, identical to that of the classroom MIT course, was challenging. Spanning almost the entirety of the 1000-page course textbook, which Agarwal coauthored, each of the 14 weeks of class included 2 to 4 hours of lectures, online exercises interspersed with lecture sequences, a homework problem set, and an online lab, which involved building and testing simulated circuits. Optional video tutorials supplemented the lectures with solved problems and math refreshers. Midterm and final examinations rounded out the busy calendar.

screen shot MIT online circuit design
Image: MIT
Hands-free Notes: The MITx software allows web users to play back lectures delivered on a virtual blackboard, line by line. Click on the image to enlarge.

“Massively open” means massively scalable, and the MITx organizers managed to create an impressive suite of shared resources. These included an online version of the course textbook; an always-available “circuit sandbox” lab environment complete with virtual signal probes, sweep generators, and oscilloscopes; and—most critically—a lively and well-managed discussion board.

So how did it all compare to a live class? Astonishingly well, it seemed to me. The ability to pause lectures, which were delivered on virtual blackboard slides that Professor Agarwal marked up as he spoke, was something of a revelation: Gone was the multitasking stress of trying to take notes and listen at the same time. The lecture sequences “remembered” where you left off, so segments could be viewed outside a fixed schedule. And the lectures themselves felt surprisingly personal.

The problem sets, while self-marking, tended to escalate in difficulty. You entered an answer, clicked on the “check” button, and after a pregnant pause, the grading software delivered a scarlet letter X or a green check mark. For the exercises and homework problems, you could answer as many times as you liked. Participants quickly learned one reason that engineering is so amenable to online instruction: Guessing is pointless, and answers are not a matter of opinion. Hours were spent fighting the scarlet letter, and when the green check mark of achievement at last arrived, it did so with embarrassingly potent psychic force. But the “aha moment,” as Agarwal likes to call it, must necessarily precede it.

Here is where the discussion board proved indispensable. While many a pleasant undergraduate hour may be spent groping for enlightenment with equally clueless classmates, posting a question in this forum could get you the right answer in 20 minutes—or provoke some fascinating interchanges. The social dimension of the educational experience did not feel slighted by the remote format.

Of the original city-size class population, 5800 passed the final exam, and 7157 earned enough credit overall to pass the course and receive a certificate of completion. MITx offers no course credit, and who knows what value the marketplace will ascribe to the credential we received. But we’ve flashed our oars in MIT waters, and we’re secretly, insufferably, pleased with ourselves.

About the Author

Steven J. Frank is a graduate of Harvard Law School and an intellectual-property attorney in Boston. He is the author of Intellectual Property for Investors and Technology Managers (Cambridge University Press, 2006.) His March 2009 article for IEEE SpectrumThe Death of Business-Method Patents” looked at court decisions placing new limits on what can be protected by patents.

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