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6.001 Cuts Lectures, Embraces Web

By Matthew Palmer and Amanda Stockton

6.001 (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Prog-ramming) has joined the growing list of classes at MIT and other universities that students can attend virtually, watching lectures and handing in homework entirely online.

After an experimental recitation piloted the online tutor last year, 6.001 no longer includes classroom lectures. Students must log on to the online tutor from a personal or Athena computer to watch a lecture.

The lectures are available in three formats: slide show, JavaScript, or web page. They cover the same material as an in-class lecture, including narration by 6.001 instructor Professor Eric L. Grimson.

Students answer questions based on the lecture to chart their progress. In addition, all 6.001 problem sets are completed and submitted online.

“Recitation instructors see what students are having problems with the problem sets,” said Jacob A. Strauss G, who helped to develop the online tutor system.

The 6.001 online tutor has not had any major technical problems, Strauss said.

Another computer science course, 6.034 (Artificial Intelligence), is also incorporating online instruction this semester. Students attend regular lectures twice a week and one weekly recitation. In addition, they must log on to one online recitation which includes questions to be submitted online.

8.01X continues online teaching

The online CyberTutor used by 8.01X (Physics I) is a relative veteran of online instruction, having been used for over a year. It is also the least radical of online instruction methods, since students still attend traditional lectures and recitations.

Created by Professor David E. Pritchard and reviewed by other teachers and tutors at MIT, CyberTutor is resource for students to help learn a topic or reinforce their skills.

“I can use CyberTutor to help students be prepared for lecture or review the most important stuff,” said Peter Dourmashkin, 8.01X lecturer.

8.01X’s problem sets have two parts: one in CyberTutor and another to be completed on paper.

CyberTutor is not without its drawbacks, however. Students may not always find the CyberTutor convenient, and some find it difficult to enter complicated formulas in the CyberTutor code.

The system has met with a few small outages, but has generally been reliable.

“Students have been open and patient,” Dourmashkin said of CyberTutor’s glitches.

Students adapt to online tutors

Students have had generally positive reactions to the new system.

“The quality of the lecture is excellent,” said Aman Narang ’04. “I can change the problem sets if they’re wrong.”

Narang believes most of his peers are watching the lectures now. “I doubt they will later,” he said.

“It’s too early to tell,” if students are watching and benefiting from the online lectures, said Professor Paul L. Penfield Jr., a 6.001 recitation instructor. “You could regard this as a beta test.”

The strengths of the Internet, such as flexibility and versatility, have mostly translated well into education.

“It’s just the computer and you,” said Nidhi Sharma ’04, who feels the 6.001 tutor is more personal than the large lecture classes she’s in.

Dourmashkin, 8.01X instructor, said that “CyberTutor is trying to fulfill that part of the physics experience you can do online.”

However, some have questioned whether computerized teaching can adequately replace human interaction.

“Teaching needs peer instructors,” said Dourmashkin, noting that experiments are still done in the laboratory.

Narang calls the 6.001 online tutor “useful” but admits “a professor gets me in the mood to think; [an online lecture] doesn’t get me thinking.”