MIT Masters Course Offers Innovative Online Tutorial Tool

MIT Materials Online Master’s Class Focuses on Interaction and Engagement

Hands-on Tutorial Education Comes Online

After watching a video, students build a visualization to improve the hands-on approach to online learning.  Image courtesy of Rachel Zucker and MIT.

After watching a video, students build a visualization to improve the hands-on approach to online learning. Image courtesy of Rachel Zucker and MIT.

An MIT Master’s course on material science is bringing more hands-on practical learning to online students.

The idea revolves around a classic in-person tutorial style of education. The instructor demonstrates a task or concept, explains its importance, asks the student to repeat the task, and then critiquing the student’s efforts. MIT has dubbed this format of education “master class.”

When on-campus, “student clearly benefits from that interaction,” said MIT Professor W. Craig Carter, “but the students who are sitting in the room listening to the critique and how the student is doing — the playback — also receive a benefit. That’s where real learning takes place; not only is it the theory associated with practicing something, but it’s practicing itself.

“The challenge with distance education is how do you put in that kind of practice, direct critique and gentle criticism, not only by the instructor, but by the other students?” asked Carter.

Answering his own question, Carter has brought this master class teaching technique to his online material science class. He achieved this by integrating Mathematica notebooks and Woldfram Language for solving problems.

How Online Tutorial Education Works at MIT

The current prototype can allow a proctor to handle 12 students that are directly interacting with the content and another 50 to 60 observing their input. The program can then rotate which students are observing the problem solving and which are directly engaged in it. “This is my vision for how this thing could scale and yet maintain this face-to-face interaction and this gentle criticism. Education shouldn’t become fully automated,” Carter says.

He’s designed individual tutorials that describes and visualizes a problem. This is then coupled with further readings and video, such as the one below.

“Then bits of code are presented for the student as kind of prototype method of attacking the problem,” explained Carter. “So you give the student a little push and a little help, and then you give the student a challenge — go off and solve this sub-problem and try to do it yourself. I sit there and I say here’s the challenge problem, I’m going to be quiet for 10 minutes while you give this a shot.”

The student can then attempt the problem, fail, succeed, or wait for the time limit to expire. After this time the proctor gives the student a passcode to access a solution different to the one they attempted. For the student that doesn’t attempt the problem, Carter said there isn’t much he can do. But for those that try the problem he said:

The solution the system supplies is “not going to look anything like the solution that the student who solved it got, and it’s not going to look anything like the path that the student who didn’t solve it went down. What I’m trying to do is force the student to read when the solution comes across, and there is a timing that limits the speed at which the solution can be viewed. But after they go through this key-encoded solution, successful students will learn by seeing an alternative method and then students who tried and failed will appreciate the subtleties in the solution because they now understand what needs to be done because they’ve put it into a direct context.”

Students’ progress through the course material notebook, and move onto the next module.

“The student can’t just skate by without doing that critical thinking,” explained Rachel Zucker, a PhD that worked with Carter on the educational tool. “The idea is they try, and then they fail, and then they learn to succeed. The goal with this technique was to require critical thinking as they learn, and at the same time, their Mathematica skills get progressively stronger, so they basically pick up programming along the way.”

Pros and Cons of Online Tutorial Learning

As a proctor is currently needed for this setup, it can limit the size of the class and reduce the asynchronous nature of online learning. This is an issue as two general advantages of online learning is its improved scalability and asynchronous education. However, Carter is trading this scalability and freedom to give the students a real personal touch. None-the-less, as the program is still online it still allows students to access the material off-campus.

Zucker notes that at first, creating this level of hands-on education in an online setting takes time to set up. “Prof. Carter had this vision of how it should look, and he worked directly with Wolfram, and I would say it took well over a year just to get the back-end programming for these pop-up windows, and the pacing and getting everything the way we like. I was pretty involved with helping him with the aesthetics and the details of how it felt. So he had this sort of this high-level vision, and then I tried to help with the details. I’ve been kind of the nit-picky one about colors and how it should look,” she said.

However, now that this program has been created, an interface tool has been made available to make it easier for other professors to create educational content in Mathematica. Carter himself has made 200 tutorials and hopes to create an entire material science curriculum and later expand it into other STEM disciplines.

The Future of Online Tutorial Education

Additionally, Carter has been working with former Wolfram research programmer Kyle Keane to add some research infrastructure to the teaching method to better improve online education.

“We need to be very thoughtful about managing the student’s cognitive load while they are using the system,” Keane explained. “The interface should at least not distract from the content, but we are hoping to go beyond that to build an intuitive interface that bolsters learning.

He added, “We can do analysis on all of the keystrokes, where the mouse is going; we can quantify the students as they are using the system in all sorts of different ways,” he says. “The system will include ways to measure comprehension, engagement, and anything else we can fit into it.”

In the future, Keane hopes to have the educational tool built into a Raspberry Pi. He hopes that it will be able to run a free copy of the Wolfram Mathematical software and access the content without an internet connection. IT will be interesting to see how they would solve the proctor problem with this set up.

“We want to change the way education is done at a distance; no more passively reading text and watching videos. With computer programming exercises, you can actively engage students in the entire process,” he says.

Written by

Shawn Wasserman

For over 10 years, Shawn Wasserman has informed, inspired and engaged the engineering community through online content. As a senior writer at WTWH media, he produces branded content to help engineers streamline their operations via new tools, technologies and software. While a senior editor at, Shawn wrote stories about CAE, simulation, PLM, CAD, IoT, AI and more. During his time as the blog manager at Ansys, Shawn produced content featuring stories, tips, tricks and interesting use cases for CAE technologies. Shawn holds a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Guelph and an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.