At first glance, an MIT class without p-sets, exams, or essays sounds almost too good to be true. For 3.091 Professor Michael J. Cima, it is his semester-long experiment to test whether students learn better when residence-based instruction is combined with online instruction.
According to the 3.091 class website, the online component of the class includes lecture clips and short exercises on the MITx platform to test understanding. The video clips are drawn from past 3.091 lectures, and lecture and recitation formats will remain more or less the same as in previous years. Cima hopes that the online learning sequences will free up class time to take more questions and do more demonstrations this term.
Cima stated that the largest problem that has emerged thus far is the number of upperclassmen who registered for the course without the intention of attending lectures. He said that they had scheduled other classes during 3.091’s lecture times and planned to just take the assessments to pass the class.
In response, Cima said he had to reluctantly implement mandatory recitation and lecture attendance. Students must now attend at least 80 percent of lectures and 80 percent of recitations. In an email sent to the class last Friday, Cima wrote that students will now have to swipe their MIT ID in one of several card readers that will be placed outside of the lecture hall starting with Friday’s lecture.
“My first concern is the integrity of the experiment,” explained Cima in an email to The Tech. “The objective is to compare the combination of online and residence-based instruction to residence-based alone. A large cohort only doing on-line assessment would compromise the interpretation of outcomes. Secondly, I do not have permission to give GIR credit for a totally on-line course. That may come one day, but my guidelines do not include this scenario.”
Two students, Rachel M. Nations ’16 and Miren Bamforth ’15, said that they prefer more flexibility when it comes to lecture attendance.
“Between going to lecture and recitation and the assessments at night, I don’t really use the online portion since I feel like I’ve already devoted more time than I would like to a subject outside of my major,” Bamforth pointed out. “If lectures weren’t mandatory, I would use the online material, and, in my opinion, learn more material more thoroughly. The online material is more flexible towards different learning styles.”
In addition to having to attend lecture, instead of taking traditional pen-and-paper exams, students in this semester’s Introduction to Solid State Chemistry class must pass at least 27 of 37 assessments online, which consist of a single problem each. These assessments are taken in a teaching assistant-proctored environment, and span all 14 units of the semester.
Although students can retake an assessment as many times as they wish, there is a 24-hour lockout period between attempts. An Athena cluster is reserved in the evening most days for students to come in and complete the assessments.
“The idea of having assessments like this is a good one but it is still in the early stages of implementation,” Bamforth remarked. “Usually it is noisy and crowded in the assessment room. I am fine with this type of assessment for a GIR (General Institutional Requirement) that is not relevant to my course of study, but I wouldn’t want to have assessments like this for the classes in my major; I’d rather have to sit down and make sure everything is cemented in my brain for an exam than to try to add in little pieces constantly.”
On the other hand, Nations said that the new assessment system heavily influenced her decision to take 3.091 this semester. “The idea of no p-sets, quizzes, or long exams definitely appealed to me as well as did the flexibility and chance to work at your own pace that the whole system affords.”
Nations said that she dropped 3.091 last semester because “the teaching style didn’t really work [for me] … and so the online system was very appealing.”
According to Kunal Mukherjee G, a 3.091 TA, a few bugs in the code have been found, but “the students have been surprisingly cooperative thus far, in that they weren’t upset when it messed up their test experience.”
Mukherjee continued, “We think we need a better system to answer questions that students have right after the [assessment] and are working towards this aim. Currently this is supposed to happen in the examination area but it’s not possible to do this effectively during busy hours when there are lines of students waiting to take the exam.”
The changes have affected not just students, but TAs as well, who now have to proctor the online assessment sessions.
“I was a TA last year and the responsibilities have changed slightly,” explained TA William F. Dickson ’13. “This year, the office hours are combined with the proctoring sessions, and each TA is required to proctor one session (3 hours) each week. The biggest difference is the learning curve associated with troubleshooting the software and bugs in the code.”
Although this version of 3.091 is currently only set to last for one term, it is possible that this version of the class will be repeated in the future. Cima noted that a report will be made in the spring on the results of this term’s 3.091 class. Depending on the outcomes, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) might approve another run of this class.
“I think that the idea is a very progressive concept for education in general,” stated Dickson. “This entire process may end up being the ‘MIT-sanctioned’ proof-of-concept for online education. MIT’s taking a large risk in approving this class in the first place, because the repercussions of a successful run could mean an entirely new approach to education by universities.”
William Navarre contributed reporting.