Disruptive innovation — in education

April 20, 2012

MITx 6002x --- Curcuits & Electronics (credit: MIT)

For Anant Agarwal, MITx, the Institute’s new online-learning initiative, isn’t just a means of democratizing education. It’s a way to reinvent it.

A decade ago, MIT broke ground with its OpenCourseWare initiative, which made MIT course materials, such as syllabi and lecture notes, publicly accessible. But over the last five years, MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif has led an effort to move the complete MIT classroom experience online, with video lectures, homework assignments, lab work — and a grade at the end.

That project, called MITx, launched late last year. On March 16, Reif announced that Agarwal would step down as CSAIL director in order to lead MIT’s Open Learning Enterprise, which will oversee MITx’s development.

MITx is born

“I’ve done a few startups, and even as a professor, you want to eat your own dog food,” Agarwal says. Hence his late-evening sessions on the bulletin board for MITx’s prototype course, “Circuits and Electronics.”

Co-taught by Agarwal, Panasonic Professor of Electrical Engineering Gerald Sussman and CSAIL research scientist Piotr Mitros, the course — 6.002 in MIT’s course-numbering system, 6.002x in its MITx iteration — has more than 120,000 enrollees.

Agarwal, who has been teaching at MIT for 24 years, is a pioneer in the development of parallel computers. Tilera, which grew out of work that his MIT research group began in 1997, has been shipping 64-core chips since 2007. And in 2010, Agarwal was tapped to lead Project Angstrom, one of four initiatives — and the only one centered at a university — that divided $80 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to study massively parallel computing systems.

His selection as head of the Open Learning Enterprise, however, may have more to do with his innovations in online education. Teaching 6.002 to MIT undergraduates, he developed a program called WebSim that allowed students to process real-world electrical signals — such as the audio signal from an MP3 player — by assembling virtual circuits on a computer screen rather than physical circuits at a lab bench. “I’ve been hacking around on it for 10 years,” Agarwal says. Aspects of the software that 6.002x students are now using to fulfill their lab requirements were modeled on WebSim.

The development of such online-learning tools will be crucial to MITx’s expansion. “How do you put a chemistry lab online?” Agarwal asks. “We’re just getting started here. Figuring out how to tailor the platform for MIT’s many disciplines will require collaboration across all our schools.”

MITx is not just a tool for democratizing education; it’s also a tool for education research. “I want to disrupt how education is done,” Agarwal says — not just online but on campus as well.

For instance, he says, if lectures and grading could be automated, professors and TAs would have more time for working directly with students, perhaps on open-ended research projects that mimic — much better than problem sets do — the way in which science and engineering are done in the real world. Similarly, web tools developed through MITx could enable students to learn in a more interactive fashion, at their own pace — and on their own schedule. “There’s no way I would get up for an 8 a.m. class,” Agarwal says. “But I do a lot of work at night.”

Ultimately, Agarwal says, part of the appeal of working on MITx is that “no one knows how it’s going to evolve. But it has the potential to change the world.”