Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the founders of online education provider edX, is experimenting with delivering one of the core classes for its Mechanical Engineering majors partly online. This year 11 students are participating in a pilot program that allows them to take Mechanics and Materials II – a requirement for first and second-year engineering students – via taped rather than traditionally delivered lectures.
What sets the course apart isn’t just the control it offers to students over their own scheduling — the technology provides other unique benefits. For example, those who wish to bone up on a particular concept don’t need to listen or fast-forward through the entire lecture to do so. All they have to do is pop the term into the search box, then the algorithm returns a video cued up to the exact moment when the professor begins to cover the topic in question.
The similarity to the ease and convenience provided by the internet search engine giant Google are intentional.
“It’s like Googling your class,” says Ken Kamrin, the Class of 1956 Career Development Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “It’s a clickable, searchable index of videos … something that might be considered as part of the next generation of textbooks.”
“These are exciting times for online education,” says Pedro Reis, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering. “There’s huge momentum at the moment for developing technology, through edX and other MOOC platforms, to deploy to a very large number of students. We’re saying, ‘Let’s take that approach and apply it to benefit our own students.’”
Although those who enroll in the online section of the regular courses are not required to attend lectures, they’re not entirely free from timed obligations. They still have to attend small-group recitations and take the proctored exams.
Kamrin explains that the idea is not to supplant the traditional education environment, but to use technology to offer options. Basically, students who would be in dire straits due to scheduling are being helped out by advances in distance learning.
MIT calls the approach “semionline” perhaps to distinguish it from massive online open courses offered on the edX platform and via OpenCourseWare. It uses technology developed in-house by the school’s office of Educational Innovation and Technology, the Office of Digital Learning and the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
In 2012, Reis and Kamrin videotaped lectures and recitations from 2.002 and tracked the points at which new topics were introduced. The team then organized the videos, creating a tree of clickable topics and subtopics. A student can watch lectures in sequence, or search a topic and watch related videos along a particular topic’s “branch.”
“I like how many resources there are on the website,” says Chan, who often will watch video lectures from the comfort of her room. “It’s presented incredibly well.”