MIT Increases Student Engagement in Massive Open Online Courses Using MATLAB


Develop a series of engineering mathematics MOOCs that maximize student engagement while minimizing instructor workload


Work with the MathWorks MOOC team to create video tutorials and assignments that students complete using MATLAB Online and MATLAB Grader


  • Two hundred hours of video production saved
  • Forum questions answered by experts
  • Manual grading minimized

“In my previous experiences in creating digital learning content, I had to do all aspects of the project myself. I was thrilled with the level of support that MathWorks provided for our MOOCs—from creating custom videos and helping me create assignments to training and answering forum questions.”

Dr. Jennifer French, MIT

Professors at MIT use massive open online courses (MOOCs) to make their engineering courses available to a worldwide audience. Since MOOC students do not interact directly with the course instructor, it can be difficult to engage them.

Faculty in the math department recently worked with the MathWorks MOOC Support Program to create two of a series of five MOOCs based on the foundational course 18.03 Differential Equations. The MathWorks team helped the faculty add interactive coding examples and problems to the course by incorporating Live Scripts in MATLAB Online and automated assessment. They also reduced the time investment needed to create the MOOCs.

“The MATLAB tutorials and videos that MathWorks provided saved me hours of effort,” says Dr. Jennifer French, digital learning scientist at MIT.

Lessons and assignments from the MOOCs are now being reused to supplement course material in the on-campus version of the course. “MOOCs provide invaluable crowd-sourced editing and debugging of new material,” says French. “MOOC students tend to be vocal about reporting any problems they encounter, and we use their feedback to identify and fix errors before using the content on campus.”


Dr. French and her colleagues wanted to increase student engagement by challenging the students with realistic problems and providing them with immediate feedback as they worked.

Because Dr. French was creating the differential equations MOOCs with the help of just two part-time graduate students, she needed to reduce the time required to create video content, automatically graded assignments, train students on the required tools, and answer their technical questions in the MOOC forums.


MIT faculty worked with the MathWorks MOOC team to create two MATLAB® based MOOCs. The following semester, the faculty reused materials and assignments from these MOOCs in the core differential equations course taught on campus.

MIT faculty and graduate students received training from MathWorks on how to create MATLAB coding problems. The graduate students created the initial problems, which were then refined by French and her colleagues for use in the MOOCs.

Students who participated in the MOOCs watched recorded faculty lectures that introduced new concepts, as well as video tutorials created by the MathWorks MOOC team that showed how to apply those concepts in MATLAB. The MathWorks team provided an interactive learning experience by using Live Editor to interweave instruction and code. They also monitored the MOOC forums and helped resolve technical questions.

The students used MATLAB Grader to complete exercises directly from their browsers. They used MATLAB Online to complete more open-ended problems and final projects, such as modeling nonlinear populations, zip-line systems, and interspecies competition. In the zip-line assignment, for example, the students write MATLAB code to set up and numerically solve a system of first-order ordinary differential equations, enabling them to quantify various aspects of the system, including the minimum and maximum weight of a zip-line rider.

After teaching the MOOCs and incorporating feedback from students, Dr. French worked with MIT faculty to integrate the MATLAB materials into the on-campus courses. For example, students now apply the concepts of Fourier series to perform signal processing using MATLAB. By solving realistic problems using MATLAB, students gain skills that many will apply in more advanced engineering courses.


  • Two hundred hours of video production time saved. “The MathWorks MOOC team created 18 video tutorials for our courses, which easily saved me 200 hours of work,” says Dr. French. “The students loved the videos, the production quality was great, and the videos contained just the right amount of information because they were based on our specific needs.”
  • Forum questions answered by experts. “I use MATLAB, but I am not an expert,” says Dr. French. “Having MathWorks engineers who know all the ins and outs of MATLAB answering questions in the forums was a huge help. I don’t think the course would have been nearly as successful without that support.”
  • Manual grading minimized. “MOOC assignments were automatically graded with MATLAB Grader, giving the students instant feedback and minimizing manual grading,” says Dr. French. “The MathWorks MOOC team worked with me directly, reviewing the problems that I had created and giving me suggestions on how to write the automated assessments.”