In the next part of my MITx series, I'm going to give my own personal commentary about the experience of attending the first two weeks of 6.002x (Circuits and Electronics). For the other parts of my review you can see:
- Part 1: Introducing MITx's take on open education, and a look at the course ware platform
- Part 2: Exploring 6.002x Circuit design, examining the content delivery tools
- Part 4: Post midterm, Reporting on the exam and the updates made to the system
- Part 5: Surviving the Final, Closing thoughts, Future of open education
Circuits and Electronics
6.002x (Circuits and Electronics) is a class about how to analyze and build simple circuits. This means being able to estimate the voltage, current, resistances, or behavior of a given circuit; or alternatively being able to build a circuit in order to produce a specific behavior. To put another way, this course is the study of how to read or create circuit blueprints. When you break these concepts down into their simplest form, the foundations of circuits isn't as complicated as you might think.
The recommended requirement for this class is that you have taken an AP physics course, and have linear algebra and basic calculus under your belt. Supposedly you can take a look at their open course archive to find Physics II as an equivalent per-requisite. Another option might be to take a look at the Khan academy magnetism and circuit videos, of which there are over 20 videos on the subject (at about 10 minutes each). Personally I have taken a basic circuit course before, and am confident enough in my math skills that I should be able to handle the advanced materiel in this course.
One of the basic principals of the 6.002x Circuit course starts off rather simply. The amount of voltage (V) that exist at a specific part or element of the circuit (in this case a resistor) is equivalent to the current (I) multiplied by the resistance (R). Or to put simply:
So if you have two of those values you can solve for the other. Which means you are just solving for x. This is no more complex then the physics equation where Force equals Mass times Acceleration. Eventually though, when you start dealing with circuits that have multiple parts and end up with several resistors in a row (series) or several resistors next to each other (in parallel) you start seeing some more complex equations like:
Ok, that was a loaded example and isn't quite as daunting as it seems; But the point is, solving for unknowns gets a little more hectic as circuits become more complex. At one point I did have to go back and refresh some algebra techniques during my work which I haven't had to use in ages.
Eventually the material will get into more and more complex circuits, deal with logic circuits and behavior, and eventually cover all of the building blocks that you would use in later classes to study the design of more complex circuits like computer hardware.
First week of class
In the course information, it is stated that a student will probably spend about 10 hours a week on the course material. For my first week of class I spent well over 20 hours on everything...
This is not indicative of the average student...
Part of the reason for this was that I kept distracting myself by working on the review and examining the functionality of the website a bit more then was necessary.
More importantly, the other reason the first week took me so long is that I had to train myself how to study again. For instance would it be better for me to get an overview with the lecture and then do the readings, or struggle through the readings and then reinforce it with the lectures? I also went on to struggle with many exercise problems, before I got to the part of the readings that explained the easier short cut methods for solving the problems.
It also didn't help that there was something like 130 pages of reading assigned for the first week of class. Which when going through, stopping to take notes, and walking through the text book exercises; took a good bit of time. Still, everyone is going to have their own study style, reading speed, and aptitude with the material at hand.
I have now settled into a routine where I read the first part of the reading, watch the first lecture, and then do the same for the second reading and lecture before attempting the homework or material. The text book seems to be a much more through explanation of the content, and while it takes a little more time to get through it helps put the lectures in a better context when you get to them; rather then trying to do it the other way around.
I should also note that a lot of the pages of the text book are specific example problems where the text book walks you through the steps. The diagrams and explanations take up a non-insignificant amount of page space so 130 pages of reading isn't as bad as it seems. Working through these exercises are a pretty effective reinforcement mechanic on the text book's part as well.
Second week of class
As an experiment, I made a point to keep much better track of my time spent on the course for the second week. This week consisted of two lectures, about 80 pages of reading, homework, and a lab. The reading was divided into two chapters, each chapter supporting a different lecture for the week. I made sure to be fully focused on the course work, and then timed how long each segment took. The results were as follows (h:mm):
Reading 1: 1:50
Lecture 1: 2:50*
Reading 2: 1:30
Lecture 2: 1:05**
Lab work: 1:34
Total Time spent: 11:12
This is much more in line with MIT's 10 hour a week estimate.
I wanted to point out here, for the three hours spent on Lecture 1, almost two hours of that was spent going over one or two particular exercises that were giving me trouble. Each of the lectures is broken up into several video segments, interspersed with exercise problems which can sometimes be pretty involved.
In this case I was dealing with a problem that involved the same equation I posted earlier. It was made even more complicated because in the next part of the problem I was suppose to figure out another value which resulted in the equation:
I was having trouble with the algebra in getting from the initial equation into a form that looked like that, and this version above actually simplifies down more with some additional algebra. I knew what the final answer was suppose to look like, but I just couldn't get the simplification method down and that kept giving me the wrong answer in the second part.
This is one of the benefits of having an online delivered class experience though. I could stop in the middle of a lecture to take as much time as I needed to go over a specific exercise or concept until I understood it. For this problem, I was able to go to the discussion page and find several post about the problem where people were giving different explanations about how to arrive at the answer.
Eventually I found a guy who had posted a full algebraic prof online using images he had created by hand and uploaded to the site. From this I was able to figure out the algebraic steps I had been missing, and then solve the whole thing myself. After which, I could continue with the rest of the lecture from where I had left off.
The Content for lecture 2 and reading 2 was on logic circuits, dealing with AND/OR/NOT and True/False equations. As a computer science major I was already well versed in this matter, so much of the lecture ended up being redundant. This led to another good thing about the online learning format: I was able to skip ahead in the lecture so I didn't waste time on topics I already understood.
In many cases, I was able to use the videos 1.25x or 1.5x speed function. When I didn't need to focus on any specific point to much, this allowed me to get the general information a lot quicker. In the few parts of the video I did need to pay attention to I could simply set it back down to 1.0x speed and take my time with it.
Homework and problems
Both the homework and the Lab had at least one problem which gave me pause. Eventually, after reading around and working through them I was able to come to the solution. But thinking about this issue again raise a concern.
In the exercises or even the homework, if you are struggling with a specific problem you can submit answers multiple times and eventually reach the correct answer. (So say I end up calculating the values 1.4 and 0.65 and I believe 1.4 is the answer they are looking for. This turns out to be wrong so I enter the other value and get the correct answer) Afterwards you can then reverse engineer the solution with the work you did and figure out exactly how the problem was suppose to be solved, or make sure you fully understand concepts that allowed you to arrive at the answer. That is great. You learned something!
The issue is, once those problems are already answered, you don't have a way to practice applying that knowledge again to make sure you solidify what you just learned. Once the midterm and final come around, which make up the majority of your grade, I doubt that we are going to have the benefit of submitting our answers multiple times until we get the right answer.
So while the homework and exercises do a great job in helping you work out how a problem is done, they don't give you the chance to make sure you can execute those solutions consistently and efficiently.
What I think would be extremely valuable addition to the site, is having a way to practice automatically generated exercise problems.
Given the mathematics based content in the circuit course this is absolutely doable. You could give the same problem again, only with a slightly altered circuit (resistors in parallel instead of series), swap a voltage source with a current source, randomly generate the numbers of the known variables, or change which variables are known and which you are solving for.
To be fair, the textbook does have several examples and problems at the end of each chapter, with select answers in the back. It would just be convenient to have that exist with the web content as well.
The professor and main lecture speaker Anant Agarwal has done a great job with the video lectures. All of his lecture transcripts are based directly from the course plans he has used for the past several years, and he is a fairly clear speaker who is easy to listen to.
He also has interspersed into the lecture segments, some videos of amusing in class demonstrations he has given previous years. Don't want to give away any spoilers but there is at least one chainsaw involved. It would not surprise me if MIT selected this particular professor to run their flag ship class for this very reason.
Just a quick aside about note taking with the online course. There isn't any direct support for note taking integrated into the site lectures, but there are some indirect ones. Both the wiki and discussion sections give areas where you can have persistent information that you've written down about any and all parts of the course.
Personally, since I've been reading the text book online I keep a note pad file open on the side and write down definitions and basic examples to reinforce the material I'm learning.
The one thing I've found really valuable though, is having an art program and a tablet device to write with. Being able to easily write out equations, algebraic proofs, and most importantly being able to draw the circuits has been a big deal when working though the material.
Of course, I could do the same thing with a pencil and notebook... but... technology! Plus I've been able to save all of my course work, notes, and pictures into directories for each week of the class. Of course everyone will have their own preference and style, but I've found having the drawing program on screen next to the content has been really helpful.
As of today I've already finished the first two weeks of content by the start of the second week, despite the fact that none of the assignments are due for another week. The material for week 3 just became available as well, so I'm well on track to keeping ahead of everything at my own pace.
The most valuable thing from the MITx experience by far, is the ability to control the pace at which you learn. It has given me the ability to:
- Take as much time as I need on a specific part of the lecture before moving on
- Skip or skim through parts of the content I am comfortable with
- Get instant feed back on exercises and homework to see how I am doing
- Allowed collaboration with thousands of people through the discussion boards
- Do the course work when it is convenient for you. A few hours at 5pm each day, or all at once at 3 am in the morning
- Keep all of your notes, content, and course material in one place on your computer.
MIT has been continuing to tweak the system even as the course progresses, and we are seeing new features appear every day. There are a few I wish existed like dynamically generated exercises, and a little more documentation about how to put diagrams or math equations within the forums. Otherwise there haven't been any real lacking or broken features.
Students wanting to take the class still have to be self motivated enough to keep up with it however. The course work is challenging and is using the same type of content and problems that are given to MIT students. The homework or exercises only have about one to three problems each but can take up to 30-60 minutes to solve. The fact that the content is being kept to a high standard makes me excited about the prospect of the other classes they will eventually offer, and how completion of these classes will translate into certification or recognition in both an academic and professional environment.
Studying for the exam
In the next part of my review, Post Midterm, I will give an update of my experience, cover any new tweaks or features they have made to the system, and of course let you all know how their exams are carried out. Hope to see you all then! (figuratively)