Sunday, September 25, 2005

And now the CT

Unbelievable. One day after I go online with this and start to talk about all the garbage the University likes to spew about how the Math Emporium spins straw into gold and lets students walk on water, we get one of the most insane fluff pieces in the Collegiate Times itself. This is really shameful. I had wanted to take a longer look at the article I took the quote in my last post next, but I can see I'm going to have to rip this one apart first.

The beginning of the article ("Math Emporium Frees up Classroom Space") talks about (reasonably enough) the budget crisis and its effect on classes. Not directly of course. It talks about how the increase in enrollment has lead to a shortage of classroom space. But now why would the University be trying to squeeze more students in than can fit in the classrooms? Oh right--to try and get more tuition.

Well here comes the Math Emporium to the rescue! No need for a classroom if you just take your classes online, so we can just squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze more people out there until the whole thing pops. (Leave me my fantasies, OK?) And if you've ever been out there near a quiz deadline, you know squeeze is the right word.

But from there, the article quickly turns into a discussion of how much "better" the Math Emporium is than those nasty old classroom-based classes:

"Back in the early 1990s, there was a lot of emphasis on using technology to improve things which is why we decided to convert in 1997 from the traditional classroom instruction to the Math Emporium-based technique," said Michael Williams, associate professor and director of the Emporium. ... Williams said the state supported the program to use technology for classroom instruction and decided to begin with the math department.

"The philosophy was to turn students into independent learners," Williams said.

Independent part achieved; students aren't getting any support from anyone anymore. We're not so sure about the learning part. And here's my major question about the whole "making students more independent" thing: Could they name one specific thing happening in courses at the Math Emporium that is designed to help students become more independent, other than providing absolutely no support to students? Throwing someone into a lake is not really a philosophy of teaching swimming.

So let's see what we learn about the Math Emporium, once again as compared to those nasty, nasty, actual classes:
"We were wasting time with the lecture classes because students were only paying attention for around 10 minutes or would lose a step in a math process and couldn't recover."
OK, quick show of hands: Anyone ever felt like the Math Emporium wasted your time?

This is also where the article enters the surreal. Let's see, traditional classroom: I miss a step in the beginning of a problem, and say for instance, forget to square something or lose a negative sign. A real live human being looks over my work and lets me know: "Your reasoning was right, but you forgot to square this term at the beginning... 9.5/10".

Now let's try the same scenario at the beloved Math Emporium: Look at that, my answer isn't one of the four approved answers I can click on. I can't figure out what went wrong--looks like the same way I've studied these problems. Let's try the closest answer--oops, that was wrong, I just got a 75 on my quiz, with no explanation of why. I'm no better equipped to understand what went wrong. I don't know what step I missed, I don't know how wrong or right I was, and the student next to me who had no idea how to even start the problem has just gotten that question right because their guess was luckier.

In fact, in a lecture class, a lot of steps get "recovered" everyday. And when I look for help, I have a teacher I know and who knows me. A teacher who may have some idea what my background is, what homework problems I'm working on, and what may be giving me trouble. Either in class or during office hours, I can get some help with this. At the Emporium, I can keep putting up a cup until I find someone who will attempt to explain it to me. At the end of course, any minor error on my part results in an instant 75 on my quiz, no matter how much I understand or don't understand the material.

Oh yeah, and notice that the amount of time it takes for students to stop paying attention is down from 20 minutes (see the quote in my last post) to 10 minutes? That's halved in less than a year. Amazing. (And yes, it's the same guy quoted both times. He's obviously gdesperatesparate--his anecdotal evidence is getting more ridiculous.)

The article goes on to quote a student who "doesn't mind" the Math Emporium (what a ringing endorsement--must be the best they could get). Then we get the following gem:
"When we started out, we tested out by having parallel sessions with traditional lectures and the technology-driven emporium class and then measured the future success in calculus courses," Williams said. "The emporium-based class was found to bring more prominent success in the future for math students, but we haven't done this test since then because it is hard to do a statistical analysis of this due to the difficulty in pinpointing what is being measured."
So what's he saying here? Let's break it down.

First, he talks about how much more successful students once were who took math at the Emporium at some point in the past. Then he explains that they stopped doing the analyses because nobody had any frigging idea what the hell they were measuring, if anything. So on some nebulous, undefined, something, people who studied at the Math Emporium were much better at it, whatever it was.

Second, I have to wonder what the "later math courses" were. Let's see, 1015 goes on to 1016, and that's about it. I see there's also a 2015 and 2016 in the catalog, but I don't think most students go past 1016. (The enrollment numbers are a lot smaller anyway.) Now 1016 wasn't always online, so I'm assuming they mean performance in this class for benchmarking 1015.

Of course, this is really measuring people who could pass 1015 at the Math Emporium in the first place, as opposed to those who (a) failed; (b) late dropped; (c) avoided taking 1015 and decided to take it somewhere else and transfer it instead. I have no doubt that there are math brainiacs taking 1015 who don't care that there is no teacher and they just have to teach themselves. And I have no doubt that these students usually do better in later courses than students who actually need someone to teach them. Whaddaya know: If you can pass 1015 at the Math Emporium, you can do anything. I think we're back to the "throw 'em in the lake" philosophy of teaching swimming again.

Let's continue in the article and see what they include as dissent to the new orthodoxy of the Emporium:
Some students feel that the traditional lecture-based classes would yield a larger learning environment, but determining an alternative to the emporium is nearly impossible.
I'm not sure what this person means by a "larger learning environment". I don't think we have any classrooms larger than the Emporium. Maybe they meant to say "better" or something? Who knows. Maybe this person learned to write at the "Journalism Emporium."
"Even though I feel like I didn't learn anything by taking math at the emporium, I don't see how else they could get the information out to such a large number of people, said (name), junior biology and psychology major.
This is it? This is the full extent of opposition to the Math Emporium? A quote which starts off as semi-opposed, but which ends up supporting the Math Emporium, even though he "didn't learn anything by taking math at the emporium." If he didn't learn anything, what was the point of doing it at all? If the Emporium doesn't teach anything, why not just eliminate the classes altogether?

And how could they get this information to so many people without the Emporium? How did they do it before we built this monstrosity? Oh right, there were actual classes, with an actual teacher. Some classes are still taught that way, even with large enrollments. But I digress.

Williams said that the Emporium has been financially advantageous because it costs less to run the classes in that way and Virginia Tech doesn't have enough building space in order to hold the classes in an on-campus building.

Here's something I buy. The Math Emporium is cheap. (Remember my comments about "outsourcing" professors jobs last post?) To be honest, I'd be less annoyed if the administration just admitted, "We can't afford to teach real classes, and we're doing what we can, and that's why we have the Emporium." Not that I'd let 'em off the hook, but I'd give 'em some credit for honesty. And it might be a good place to allow some changes that might make the damn place better.

Notice what happened here? The article started off as "news" about there not being enough classroom space, and suddenly became a big puff piece on how great the Emporium is, and how, golly, there just isn't any other way to do things anyway. But we're fortunate it's so great. This is front page news?

I almost find it hard to believe that the CT felt it necessary to just quote all the talking points of the Math Department about how great this all is, and didn't bother to ask any questions about this. I particularly like the "factoid" box at the bottom of the article, which includes under its first bullet point the following:
The Emporium is equipped with software that provides a better learning tool for students.
They actually published this on the front page. The Emporium just is a "better learning tool for students." This isn't (supposedly) an editorial. This is just a statement of "fact" on the front page of the paper. Not: "The Math Department claims", or even "Scores on such-and-such are higher since..." but just "The Emporium ... provides a better learning tool...." Not even an answer to the question "Better than what?"

It seems maybe the Math Emporium wasn't popular, and the university decided they'd better do another PR piece on how students should just love it. And the CT knows to ask "how high?" when the administration says "jump." If someone in power says it's better, well, they'll run an article saying it's better.

Finally, at the end of the article, we're promised that it has nothing to do with the on-line courses being low-level courses the math department doesn't care about; really it's just about the size of the enrollment:
"We aren't targeting freshman classes in particular, just the largely enrolled classes because that is what makes the system work the most efficiently," Williams said.

I'd like to look into this claim a little more carefully next time. What do we actually see, courtesy of Hokie Spa. Stay tuned...


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