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.
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.
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.