Opinion guest column

The view from the virtual classroom

Does MITx live up to the hype?

MITx and its spawn, edX, are much in the news, but do they merit the hype? Let me give you the view from the cheap seats.

For the last nine weeks, I’ve been plowing through the pilot class, 6.002x, along with roughly 90,000 unseen classmates. I also was a Course VI major in the Class of 1970. So I’m one of the few (probably) who’ve seen it both ways.

Here are the headline observations:

Here in the back of the virtual lecture hall, I’m having a lot of fun. The concept works. You can really learn this way.

It’s no substitute for the real thing. There’s no UROP, no late-night bull sessions, no personal contact with the professors. There are none of the things that create a culture, and few exercises of the creative mind. Skeptics point out, quite correctly, that this replicates only the low-value tier of an MIT education.

Perhaps so, but it’s still great stuff. MIT has a tradition of superb lecturers and lucid instruction in basic skills. Anant Agarwal has skillfully transposed the best of that online. He conveys infectious excitement about the material he’s teaching, which is no small trick when you’re speaking into a recording machine. And he’s clearly more impressed with his subject than with himself.

It’s the greatest bargain on earth. You can’t beat free.

In place of tutorials, there are discussion forums. You can usually find help when you need it, but you have to hunt. Some people think the forums are just great, but I’d rather have a real TA.

Thinking ahead, it’s hard to envision this seriously changing life on campus. There should be spill-over benefits, such as the slick little lab simulations. In general, though, the transfer of benefits will run outward.

Beyond the campus, this could change the world. Imagine you’re running Dogpatch Community College, or its equivalent in the developing world. Add a local tutor to augment this, and you can offer top-flight technical education at minimal cost. This can drastically extend the offerings and reduce the cost of education worldwide.

Imagine what happens if other institutions take the bait, as Harvard seems to have done, and this develops as its proponents envision. We could see a global flowering of abundant knowledge for anyone, anywhere. It’s as available for the amusement of old guys like me as for the launch of young people’s budding careers.

Not quite the impact of Gutenberg’s press, but if you think about, not necessarily far short.

To add a personal note, I undertook this with trepidation. After graduating in Course VI, I spent my entire career in nontechnical jobs and thus I had to knock 40 years of rust off my math skills. It was a pleasant surprise to find it comes back. Not without work, but the old neural pathways, though disused, are still there. Thanks for that, MIT.

It’s also fun to see how the field has changed. The physics and the calculus are the same, of course, but the applications are different and so is the syllabus. In the late 60’s it was all about signal processing. Now it’s all about digital devices. It also appears we’re covering more ground than in my old 6.01.

The mathematical derivations — the reasons why the math works — seem clearer now. Maybe I didn’t pay as much attention before, or maybe that’s the result of four decades’ forgetfulness. Or maybe it’s to Professor Agarwal’s credit. But I have the sensation of deeper understanding.

Overall, count me a believer, on the basis of real experience. I’m sure our numbers will increase.

Reid Ashe ’70 is a member of the MIT Corporation and a former Tech managing editor.