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Coughlin, S. (2012) MIT launches free online ‘fully automated’ course, BBC News, February 13

This article provides details of MITx’s first course, 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics, being offered to anyone anywhere in the world, without charge or prior entrance requirements, with an MIT certificate for successful completion. This course uses the same curriculum as the on-campus course with the same name. From the report:

The MITx version has been designed for online students, with a virtual laboratory, e-textbooks, online discussions and videos that are the equivalent of a lecture. It is expected to take 10 hours per week and will run until June.

MIT is making a distinction between the certificate on offer for online students and the fully-fledged degree available to campus-based students. It will also make the MITx material available for its own students.

The university says it has “earmarked a few million dollars” for the project and will look to philanthropists for potential future funding. But the university, famous for its science and technology research, has its own endowment currently worth $8.5bn (£5.4bn).


This is a very important development, for a number of reasons:

  • For me, the most interesting of several aspects of this course is that it is fully automated. Presumably it will be delivered without the need for any instructor to interact with students or to facilitate learning or even to mark assignments. The advantage of this of course is that it will enable an unlimited number of students to take such a course. All the cost is in development, and none in delivery
  • Second, it offers a program that is likely to be valuable to many who could not otherwise access a course of this quality.
  • MITx will put its name to a qualification acquired using this method, unlike earlier Massive Open Online Courses, such as the Artificial Intelligence course offered by Stanford University professors.
  • although it is open to all, there will still be an on-campus course for MIT students; however MIT students will also be able to take the online version and presumably receive credit if they pass successfully (this needs to be confirmed though)
  • it has a number of interactive components, such as student discussions (but without an instructor) and automated feedback and testing. It will be interesting to see how this differs  in design from other online courses, and how well this works, in terms of completion rates.

However, it also raises as many interesting questions:

  • automated online courses are not new; in fact the main form of computer-aided learning in the 1970s was programmed learning, based on behavioristic principles of punishment (failure) and reward (positive feedback). However, in the 1980s there was a move away from behavioristic approaches to teaching, at least in post-secondary education, because it did not develop critical thinking skills (although it worked very well for certain learning tasks). Interestingly also in the 1980s a great deal of money was invested in automated teaching based on artificial intelligence using cognitive psychology principles. This also failed quite spectacularly. It will be interesting to see how this course works out, and whether MIT is happy with the kind of learning it leads to. Maybe we have learned how to automate courses better, after all.
  • is this a business model that could be replicated in other universities? Or is it still heavily dependent on philanthropy?
  • if students complete a series of such ‘certificate’ courses successfully, will MIT award a degree? If not, why not? If on-campus students can take this course for credit, and online students perform to the same level, why shouldn’t the credits be worth the same? Or is there something the on-campus students are getting (say interaction with a real professor) that leads to a superior outcome? If so, why isn’t that ‘extra’ outcome being assessed if the two versions of the course are of the same quality?
  • how well can automated teaching be extended beyond quantitative, objective subjects such as engineering? Or even within engineering, such as design? This depends of course on whether you see education as merely transferring knowledge or as a developmental process that needs support and facilitation.

You can probably see where I am going with these questions. I am trying to ignore my gut reaction that this is in fact a step 30 years backward in e-learning, and I wish to give this very interesting experiment the benefit of the doubt, and I really do wish it well. I also hope this experiment is fully evaluated, as it has tremendous implications.

In my view, making such courses open is terrific, but ONLY if they lead to engineers with the same quality as those who are privileged to be inside the tent. Or doesn’t it matter if the online students aren’t quite as good? With an MITx certificate won’t they still get good jobs?

What do you think? (Your answers will not be automatically marked).



  1. One other concern I have is the same concern I have with every course. How was it designed. Will it be just like every other intro circuits class (with many failing, dropping out, changing major, and even many of those who do pass still not really understanding the material), or will it acknowledge decades worth of educational research on how to teach circuits and engineering better. Will there be any research-based assessments of students’ understanding and engagement after and during the course to see where it can be improved.

    • Doug, there probably is no such thing as the “perfect” course. Like anything in life it is what you make it. Yes, could students potentially drift through and not really have a perfect mastery? Probably, but I know many students who did that in traditional brick and mortar schools. An education is not an entitlement, and graduates should never be considered equal even though they might have the same degree. There will be a learning curve I am sure translating education into the digital format. Look at how much traditional schooling changed over the years, even high schools changed greatly. My father only need 16 credits to graduate from high school I needed 28. So does that mean I have a better mastery? Not necessarily. It still depends greatly on the individual. After all that’s what is hired the individual not the degree itself.

  2. Good PR for MIT and the faculty in question. I looks like something put together inside the faculty by enthusiastic tech heads without much input from older, more worldly wise MIT Learning Design professionals.


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