Tie And Jeans

Surviving 6002x – Week 5

I just turned in the Week 4 assignments for MITx 6002x, and it felt like time for a personal reflection and check-in. Although I have the sense that there are a large number of students following the course, I haven’t seen many blog posts or write-ups from active participants. Last week, there was a great one from Sam Feller at engineerblogs, which had a quote that just floored me.

“I also note that I haven’t gotten “stuck” yet. I’ve been able to follow the lectures and I’ve been able to solve all the homeworks.”

This has NOT been my experience.

I can posit a half dozen reasons for this; my over-mathy math background which has left me ill-equipped to deal with actual semi-precise numeric answers, the fact that I took plenty of Science Fiction courses at University but never any actual Science. The end result is that I’m barely hanging on to the course, finishing each week’s HW and Lab on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, then stealing lunch breaks during the next week to follow the lecture sequence and skim chunks of the textbook.

My most important questions for this course, and online courses in general, is whether they help bring academic material to people who don’t like/enjoy/fit the traditional school model. For all my personal struggles with the material in 6002x, I’ve found that I really enjoy having just one such class to struggle with at a time. The texture of the difficulty is very different from the other demands on my time. For whatever reason, this has allowed me to keep the time I set aside for 6002x to feel like a net positive for my life, new learning about a new hobby, rather than a drag or drain.

That strange bit of mental alchemy is something I struggled with throughout my actual school years. That I’ve been able to pull it off for 6002x in part comes in large part from the mysterious benefits of age. Instead of balancing the weight of homework and the pressure of exams against a collegiate social experience, now I’m working around the joy/frustration of fatherhood and teaching. In short, I’m having to find a balance between lots of things I really want to do, but with a clear hierarchy of personal importance. When we visited NYC over spring break, I never fretted about looming HW deadlines. But once the little girl was asleep in our hotel room, I pulled out the iPad and headphones and watched lecture videos. While the online tools help somewhat with this process, the real benefit is being able to choose a subject that I find personally fascinating, one I’ll happily choose to read about before bed in place of a novel.

“I’m left to wonder what would happen if I needed help from a classmate. I mean, there’s certainly a social aspect that’s missing from the lectures, the group homework sessions and study parties.”

For me, the answer is just the same as it was when I struggled with Tensor analysis in college – IRC! While I went to a small math school and really benefited from the closeness of the few undergrads and grad students in the department lounge, I spent as many hours in #math. Importantly, I spent enough hours there to feel like I wasn’t using it as simply #domymathhomework. The IRC channel for 6002x (irc.mitx.mit.edu #6002) is similar in a lot of ways. Yesterday, as HW4’s deadline loomed, the channel was full of new names and had at least 3 interwoven conversations about specific HW/Lab problems. This morning, it’s back down to the speaking “regulars,” talking about a few problems from HW5 and HW6, but also about the current projects on everyone’s workbench, the cramped hassle of D-SUB connectors, and oscilloscope shopping (anyone have suggestions for my Makers?).

Swinging by #6002 on a Sunday night can easily boost someone’s HW score from 0 to 50% by simple observation. But I’ve found that showing back up on Monday morning is what actually develops a learning community that will help sustain me through the entire course.

Finding the resources, both personal and social, to keep up with the increasing complexity of the 6002x material will be my primary challenge over the remainder of the course. Although much of the coverage suggests that MITx’s major innovation is the potential for accreditation, I think that’s far less important for individual learners. If your goal is to propel yourself through the material, the addition of evaluated exercises (both the graded HW and the non-graded Exercises), along with worked problem videos across the curriculum, is far more powerful. I don’t know how well MITx will serve people who already know the material and just want the university’s imprimatur for their CV. But as an amateur who just wanted to learn something new, I’m finding MITX to be a huge improvement over the equivalent OCW material.

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5 thoughts on “Surviving 6002x – Week 5

  1. Glad to see a post like this, though I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that I’m not the only one struggling.

    I haven’t blogged about the course. In fact, I stopped blogging completely when the course started, so I could put more time into the course not already taken up by the necessities of work, being in a relationship, eating, sleeping, etc.

    At least you have the math background. I’m trying feverishly to catch up in that regard. Lucky me I have managed to collect high school math and college algebra and trig textbooks from used book sources. Unlucky me they don’t appear to cover all I need to know. Off to Khan Academy to try to gleen that little bit of insight that is keeping me from those clear “aha!” moments.

    All in due time.

    To think I’m trying to wire a fuel and ignition timing computer into my car…

  2. tieandjeans on said:

    Hi Cody-

    I’m not sure if having the math background has actually helped me at this point, other than I’m not freaking out completely when fol in IRC talk about the DiffEQs and nasty integrals in Week 6 and 7. I’m spending plenty of time watching various worked problems and trying to extract some useful tools to apply to the course sets.

    Over the first two weeks, the course was a huge (nearly infinite!) time suck for me. This has diminished a bit, but that just means that I’m now facing long Friday and Saturday sessions with a host of material to cover. I’m so glad they switched the due-dates to Sunday instead of Friday!

    But my biggest lesson has been to recognize this process as a function that operates with the time and attention I give it, and returns various and fluctuating amounts of understanding. The function is non-linear, and especially so for values reasonably close to zero. This means that instead of worrying about the absolute correctness of my HW or the upcoming midterm, I can just commit to doing *something* every week, every day, and know that I’ll get some measurable return.

  3. i think i’ve averaged about 20 hours a week on this course so far, time i didn’t know i had until i started this :).
    Conceptually i find the course not that difficult, but the HW of the previous weeks were sometimes very tough (week 6 & 7 are easier). With a few small steps of theory you’re expected to make a big leap. All the material is there, you just need to put it together, which takes time. I find that this doesn’t actually help my understanding or recollection, it just wastes a lot of time in collecting additional info and resources. Thank god i bought the Wolfram Alpha ipad app long ago (i didn’t even remember i had it since i never used it) but it now saves me heaps of time doing calculations, finding derivatives and integrals.

    I am worried about the exams though since i eventually get the right answers but it always involves quite a bit of trial and error. After the midterm i’ll probably re-evaluate if it’s worth sticking it out till the end.

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