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Debugging 6.001

The web-based lectures being piloted in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (6.001) this semester offer promise as an innovative teaching tool. However, they should not become substitutes for traditional lectures -- a mistake the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has unfortunately chosen to make.

Classes relying exclusively on web-based lectures, as 6.001 is doing this term, offer only meager opportunities for students and faculty to interact. Students no longer enjoy the benefit of asking questions in lecture and receiving an immediate clarification of a confusing point. The teaching staff is robbed of the opportunity to gauge instantaneously student reaction to the lecture, and loses the ability to adjust a lecture to keep student interest. The impersonality of the web robs both faculty and students of the ability to gauge each other’s performance, progress, and awareness of difficulties in the course.

Perhaps a more troubling effect of moving lectures to the web is that the class undercuts what many MIT students, faculty, and administrators have sought to build for so long -- a stable, vibrant community. Instead of going to lecture, asking questions, and discussing problems with fellow students, those enrolled in 6.001 may now sit at home, alone in their rooms, and receive lecture with zero personal communication by staring into a computer screen. A critical component of MIT community and camaraderie is the shared experience of attending lecture with one’s peers. 6.001’s system guts this very important aspect of MIT life.

That is not to say that the web-based education tools employed by 6.001 are without merit. Quite the opposite -- lectures are now available for students on demand, students may replay lectures if concepts are unclear the first time, and questions inserted into the lecture force students to think about the concepts they are learning. But we believe these tools are better offered as a supplement, not a replacement, to the traditional lecture format.

The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science should consider the program employed by Physics I (8.01) to assist students of that class. The Physics Interactive Video Tutor (PIVoT) offers students slides and videos over the web, available for download on demand. But students in 8.01 still attend traditional lecture and have the opportunity to ask questions and receive clarifications from their professor. PIVoT brings 8.01 students the best of both worlds.

While 6.001’s instructors are right to include technology in their course program, it is dangerous to do so by eliminating traditional lecture-based learning. We recommend that the course use web-based materials in tandem with traditional lectures, instead of relying on one to the exclusion of the other.