January 2013, MITx 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics Fall of 2012 Course completed!
First, I have to say I’m really impressed with what the MITx group has been able to put together. While a lot of people like to talk about the limitations of an online course format, in my humble opinion it is actually far superior to the conventional coursework. The thing that really amazed me was that I found it much easier to work with the online format, and I learned the material more thoroughly. When I was at university the lecturers would often use pre-prepared overhead projector transparencies with extra space on them to work through problems. This produced a nice linear work-flow which made it easy to write clear and effective notes. The slides themselves were also available later as photocopies for students who had been unable to attend the lecture. I found it worked very well indeed both for learning and revision. Think of it, if you will, as pre-written blackboards. The lecturer doesn't need to spend time writing things down, so you can get on with the business of actually learning. But it all had one major flaw, you had to be there, any time, all the time, to make sense of it all. We were, I think, still kids back then and it was OK. Now we are responsible adults who have to share time between our busy schedules, work and family and we just can't be there anymore all the time. But the need to go over things is still there, after all I am only human.
What MITx had done was essentially a bunch of videos, divided into sessions in which professor Anant Agarwal talks about various material and at the same time draws on the whiteboard. Unlike in a conventional class, you could pause, rewind, and revisit videos. If something was unclear you could go over it as many times as needed. At least, that's what I did. Crammed in between the video lectures there were exercises. They ask you a question, you think about and then enter you answer(s) in one of the text boxes below. If everything went well, you got a green "thumbs up" check mark, if not, there was an alarming red "X". You could keep trying till you got it right. And now here is the really cool part. Their system uses symbolic math processing to determine whether or not the entered mathematical expression was equivalent to the correct answer, even though there may be countless equivalent expressions. And when you have an algebraic expression that contains subscripts (and most of them do!), the system displays you the "two-dimensional" answer underneath, just like as if you had written it out by hand on paper. If this is not cutting edge then what is!
After each video lectures session, there were tutorials, homework and labs. Tutorials covered content from the lectures or related skills such as math or soldering. I wish they had more of them, and not only on the material covered but also on how to use the system itself. In the beginning that was my major stumbling block, there is zero help on how to enter something into the system or how to cough up a mathematical symbol such as π or e; or how to enter an exponent, etc. The introduction to the course said that one is expected to spend approximately 10 hours per week on study. Boy oh boy were they off their mark. I didn't do any counting but this course swallowed up just about every free moment I had this fall!
Homework was about the same as lecture problems, only way more comprehensive.
All labs were based around a simplified web-embedded PSPICE client. I was a bit disappointed at first that the whole course didn’t have a physical aspect to it. I understand that this would incur a potential cost on the part of the students, but I believe this could be done inexpensively with a cheap breadboard and a small collection of components. It need not be compulsory, but I am sure many students would welcome the opportunity to understand electronics at a more physical level. Either way, I would love to see more labs, whether virtual or physical. Getting a real feel for how components work is vital for any engineer. Just knowing that an Amp or a Volt is “so much” and “that much makes a wire melt”. Too many paper engineers don’t have this sense of what is real.
And finally there were the midterm and the final exams. They had exactly the same "feel" and "look" as the homework but you could try your answers only 3 times. Three strikes and you are out! Why three and not one? Well, professor Agarwal says that "this is MIT and the material is hard, MIT-hard", to be exact. And almost all the questions had some sort of a "trick" about them.
For example, just consider one the exam questions on the left. Which is happening, a pulse after every 2T as it says in the text or just T as in the figure? And this is but one example. It's not that they overlooked an ambiguity, it's done on purpose, I guess to make sure that we, the students, read very carefully. But in any event, there has to be more than one try. In the end, I don't know if it was my wits or my luck but I managed to get both exams 100%.
As a final word, I am proud to be among the diligent 7000-plus participants who earned a passing grade and the certificate. And I got an A. You can imagine the smile on my face and see the certificate below. BTW, for verification, the MITx team has kindly provided this link.
Hmm, when do the MITx folks start the follow-up course, this is definitely worth pursuing...