Agarwal is leaving CSAIL to direct MITx

Steps down as CSAIL director in order to lead MITx team full-time

Anant Agarwal, director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), announced yesterday that he would step down from his role as director to fully devote himself to the Open Learning Enterprise (working title), which runs theMITx initiative. Since its announcement last December, MITx has caught the eye of MIT faculty, the world of higher education, and 120,000 people who signed up for the pilot course, 6.002x.

“I am writing to let you know about an extraordinarily difficult decision that I have made to step down as the director of CSAIL in order to serve as full-time director of the new MITx open learning enterprise,” Agarwal wrote in an email to CSAIL yesterday evening. “As some of you may know, I have been trying to lead both CSAIL and MITx these past several months, but I have come to realize that this situation cannot continue indefinitely.” Agarwal was named CSAIL head last July.

Though Agarwal has been spearheading the development of MITx and its prototype course since last year, he now takes the reins of the project full-time as it begins to get more attention from students and faculty, and as it prepares to expand its course offering for the fall term. Faculty devoted their January/February newsletter to discussion on MITx, and the Undergraduate Association has started to consider the project’s impact on students. Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 and Provost L. Rafael Reif will hold “overview of MITx” sessions with students next week and in early April.

6.002x, an online prototype version of MIT’s introductory circuits and electronics class, went live to the world on March 5, and Agarwal, who also co-teaches the course, says 120,000 people have signed up so far. But less than three months from unveiling to prototype seems fast — why so quick?

“I think MITx is very, very important for MIT,” says Agarwal. “It’s critical that we get out there and do it fast.”

The rapid pace of technical development, Agarwal adds, is thanks to the course development team. In addition to Agarwal, Gerald J. Sussman ’68, Christopher J. Terman PhD ’83, and Piotr Mitros ’04 are working on 6.002x. The course was a “heroic team effort,” according to Agarwal.

Agarwal plans to run MITx like a nonprofit startup, inspired by the small-team energy that has come to typify Internet startups from Silicon Valley to Kendall Square. The MITx team, in fact, is looking for office space in Kendall Square, either in an MIT building or not.

Agarwal says he’s been surprised by what he sees as a community that has developed around 6.002x. 6.002x students — from all over the world — have taken advantage of tools like a discussion forum and wiki to help each other learn the material, much more than expected. The need for 6.002x course staff to handle questions is mitigated by more advanced students helping others.

“I was petrified about what was going to happen when people jumped on the discussion forum,” said Agarwal. “Whether we could scale, or whether we could handle all the questions.”

User response to 6.002x has been positive, said Agarwal. Reviewers on — originally established to host questions and answers about Stanford’s online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course — gave MITx glowing reviews.

“I just peeked at [6.002x] and I assure you guys, this course is the best among all in terms of course content and layout,” wrote one reviewer.

“This is miles ahead of both Coursera and Udacity. Nicely done MIT,” wrote another, referencing two other online educational platforms.

Still, users have also asked for improvements. Homework deadlines were changed from Friday to Sunday to better accommodate work schedules, and some users have asked for better navigation of the online textbook, for instance.

And though many faculty have greeted MITx warmly, some have raised concerns over its implementation. Agarwal acknowledges that there is a debate to be had over what form an online educational experience should take.

“Clearly there are concerns, and some very valid concerns,” he said. “We’re breaking new ground and we’re trying to figure out what works best.”

MITx has garnered “a lot of interest” from other universities since December’s announcement, though Agarwal declined to say precisely who was interested in the platform. MIT has billed MITx as an open system that other institutions can leverage to offer their own courses.

Agarwal will continue to serve as CSAIL head until his successor is picked by a search committee — the same committee that picked Agarwal, according to his email to CSAIL yesterday.