Photo and text: Office of Digital Learning
Last fall, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and MIT Office of Digital Learning piloted a full-credit online course for a small cohort of residential students. The popular 6.002 (Circuits and Electronics) was offered as 6.S064, leveraging an existing massive open online course (MOOC) available via the edX platform and adding a private discussion forum for MIT students.
The Teaching and Learning Lab conducted an assessment of this pilot, which is now published as an internal working paper. This preliminary assessment suggests that there are benefits to an online-while-on-campus course format. Specifically, the students who completed 6.S064 reported more flexibility with scheduling and less overall stress relative to their traditional classes. While the findings are based upon a small sample, the pilot bodes well for the possibility of allowing more student choice in how and when they learn.
Sanjay Sarma, MIT vice president for open learning, says, “We are committed to shaping the future of digital learning, and the 6.S064 experiment is a prime example of how we can use digital learning to enhance the residential experience. Moreover, due to the online format we are able to assess a student’s experience in ways that are simply not possible in the traditional classroom.”
The impetus for the experiment came from a group of students who were frustrated by course scheduling conflicts and were seeking a solution for completing courses off-cycle, particularly while participating in off-campus internship programs. The students approached members of the EECS faculty and requested access to a self-study program. In response, MIT faculty members Anant Agarwal, David Perreault, and Anantha Chandrakasan successfully petitioned the MIT Committee on the Undergraduate Program to conduct a pilot of 6.S064.
The experimental course allowed campus students to enroll in 6.002X, the first MOOC offered by MITx in 2012 and one of the inaugural offerings from edX, the online-learning platform founded by MIT and Harvard University. Professor Gerald Sussman served as the faculty lead for both the open online course and the experimental on-campus version. For the latter, additional support processes were put in place, including a private discussion forum only for the residential students. Teaching assistants also updated campus students via weekly emails and regularly posted to the online discussion board.
“The goal was to experiment with new teaching methods that enhanced the student experience and provided more flexibility,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and EECS department head. “This offering allowed us explore and respond to what our students have long said they wanted: more flexibility, more on-demand learning, and more control. We are thrilled with the response from students and possibilities for education delivered in new ways.”
The campus-based course team met weekly to review data on students’ progress and reached out to those who were having difficulty by encouraging them to attend in-person office hours. Three on-campus events were held for students, including two meet-and-greet sessions and one review session prior to the final exam. At the end of 6.S064, Anne E. Marshall, associate director for assessment and evaluation, analyzed the data of the course, exploring self-reported student and instructor reactions and learner data (use of resources, time on task, quizzes and assessments) generated by the edX platform.
Thirty-one students enrolled in the experimental online course and 27 completed it. Of those, more than half reported scheduling conflicts as the reason for enrolling in 6.S064, suggesting that on-demand formats have up-front benefits for residential learners. The students also reported less overall stress with homework problem sets done online as compared to traditional classroom assignments. Encouraged by real-time feedback to assignments, the students tended to rework problems until they could answer them correctly. The online exam format, however, could also increase stress, as students were not awarded for partial credit and did not have access their graded exams to review errors. To address this issue, this spring, instructors experimented with allowing students to submit written work for partial credit on the final exam.
An analysis of the students’ feedback revealed that most of the students’ learning time was spent working on homework and viewing lecture videos. Students saw the online homework as very useful because it provided immediate feedback and allowed multiple attempts to get a correct answer. This means, students had to keep practicing until they were able to understand the material well enough to get a correct answer, instead of waiting for assignments to be graded to know if they had the correct answer. According to the report, students rated 6.S064 as significantly less stressful than their on-campus classes.
“One of the biggest problems with most standard classes is the massive delay in the problem-solving feedback loop. Students spend hours and hours on a problem set, then they have to turn it in a wait a week to find out whether they understand the material. It's very clear that instant feedback is the best way to learn something. Imagine if you were learning tennis, but you had to wait 10 minutes after you hit a shot to see if it went in. You'd never learn. I think the unbelievably slow feedback loop in standard problem sets is a huge hinderance to learning.
EdX's online problem sets fix this problem pretty easily,” wrote Kenneth Friedman in his blog post “A Glimpse of the Future of Education.”
To better understand the learning outcomes in this pilot, the authors of the report compared the distribution of final grades between students in the online class and three sections of the traditional 6.002. Even though the classes compared were taught by different instructors that might have different teaching styles and topics of focus the research concluded that the distributions are comparable. There was a slightly greater percentage of A’s and B’s earned in the online format. However, this difference was not statistically significant.
“This preliminary work highlights ways in which the edX platform can enhance student learning while addressing some of the challenges students face with residential classes,” said Marshall. “Our ongoing work on this project will help to identify approaches to using this technology to make more transformational changes across curricula at MIT and elsewhe