Retrofitting MIT’s deep learning “boot camp” for the virtual world

Deep learning is advancing at lightning speed, and Alexander Amini ’17 and Ava Soleimany ’16 want to make sure they have your attention as they dive deep on the math behind the algorithms and the ways that deep learning is transforming daily life.

Last year, their blockbuster course, 6.S191 (Introduction to Deep Learning) opened with a fake video welcome from former President Barack Obama. This year, the pair delivered their lectures “live” from Stata Center — after taping them weeks in advance from their kitchen, outfitted for the occasion with studio lights, a podium, and a green screen for projecting the blackboard in Kirsch Auditorium on their Zoom backgrounds.

“It’s hard for students to stay engaged when they’re looking at a static image of an instructor,” says Amini. “We wanted to recreate the dynamic of a real classroom.”

Amini is a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), and Soleimany a graduate student at MIT and Harvard University. They co-developed 6.S191’s curriculum and have taught it during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) for four of the last five years. Their lectures and software labs are updated each year, but this year’s pandemic edition posed a special challenge. They responded with a mix of low- and high-tech solutions, from filming the lectures in advance to holding help sessions on a Minecraft-like platform that mimics the feel of socializing in person.

Some students realized the lectures weren’t live after noticing clues like the abrupt wardrobe change as the instructors shifted from lecture mode to the help session immediately after class. Those who caught on congratulated the pair in their course evaluations. Those who didn’t reacted with amazement. “You mean they weren’t livestreamed?” asked PhD student Nada Tarkhan, after a long pause. “It absolutely felt like one instructor was giving the lecture, while the other was answering questions in the chat box.”

The growing popularity of 6.S191 — both

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