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Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced today that registration has opened for its first online course through MITx, its new online spin-off devoted to offering “interactive” online versions of MIT courses to people not enrolled at the prestigious university.

The first course is an adapted version of Circuits and Electronics, an introductory course in which students learn the basic architecture of computers and gadgets.

Participants will watch five- to 10-minute video tutorials, read an e-textbook, and complete homework assignments, virtual laboratories and two exams. At the end of the course, they will receive a cumulative grade and a certificate from MITx.

“We’re trying to model it, as much as possible conceptually at least, with how we do it at MIT,” said Anant Agarwal, the MIT electrical engineering and computer science professor who will be teaching the course, in a phone call with media last week.

Registration will cost nothing, and there is no limit to enrollment.  The “modest” fees that the university has said it will charge for MITx will most likely be tied to the credential, according to a spokesman. He said pricing has not been determined yet.

The assignments and exams will be graded by computer programs. MITx does not plan to include any protection against cheating beyond an honor code and the natural obstacles inherent in the complexity of the assignments and exam questions. The completion certificate will note this explicitly, Agarwal says. In the future, MITx may pursue more sophisticated checks on dishonesty, he added.   

One homegrown e-learning innovation MITx hopes to bring to bear in its inaugural course is a virtual circuits laboratory that will allows participants to play with chips and resistors and orient themselves to the building blocks of microprocessors — all via a browser window. Instead of handling a breadboard and connecting components with their hands, the MITx registrants will do so by clicking, dragging and dropping in “the gaming equivalent of a physical lab,” Agarwal said.

The simulation software will run on MIT servers; participants will not need especially powerful computers in order to use it, Agarwal said. Also, MITx will be making the source code for its software infrastructure available to other institutions for free.

What will the certificate from MITx be worth in the job market? That remains to be seen. But those who earn a certificate can be expected to come away with at least a working familiarity with the underlying physics of circuits and electronics, said Rafael Reif, the university provost, and that may well be a boon to their job prospects.

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