Saturday, October 01, 2005

What a difference seven years makes.

In 1998, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article critical of the Math Emporium, which was a year old at the time. The university's PR machine responded quickly with a letter to the Chronicle, which the Chronicle was diplomatic enough to publish. That letter appears here in its entirety.

To the Editor:

The headline of your February 20 article about the Virginia Tech Math Emporium, "Students Dislike Va. Tech Math Classes in Which Computers Do Much of the Teaching," does not accurately depict the comprehensive nature of the emporium and its potential as a learning environment. Although the voiced discontent of some students is a part of the Math Emporium experience, your article, and particularly its headline, fail to draw a true picture of the situation.

The Math Emporium offers much more than computer tutorials and on-line mathematics courses. It is designed to serve students who have a wide variety of learning styles. For example, students can watch and listen to lectures recorded on CD-ROM ... . Students' learning is further supported by a myriad of professors and teaching assistants available in the emporium 74 hours per week. These teachers are ready to help in a variety of ways, from a quick suggestion on how to work a problem to a full, individualized lecture on a topic.

2005: The lectures on CD-ROM are no longer offered. The "myriad of professors" is currently two, who are scheduled in overlapping morning and early afternoon time slots when students are most likely to be in other classes. The number of hours that staffing is available has shrunk from 74 to 58. Floor staff are forbidden from offering a "full, individualized lecture on a topic". In other words, every point mentioned in this paragraph (and those following) has been eliminated or curtailed.

In the linear-algebra course, students have the choice of going to actual, live lectures sprinkled throughout the day to accommodate their schedules -- but, as even your article pointed out, only one-third of the students, at most, have chosen to attend those lectures. Our experience with pre-calculus students is that only about 5 per cent attend the optional lectures that are made available to them. Consequently, our students are voting for the new methods over the old with their feet.

2005: The "actual, live lectures" are a thing of the past for the linear algebra course. In the other courses -- 1015, 1016, and 1525 -- a 30 minute "help session" is offered in only one timeslot per week, and if you are in another class then, you're out of luck.

A few students voiced concerns to your reporter about the Math Emporium approach, but studies in progress indicate that students learn better under this method. We are well aware of the fact that many students are accustomed to passive learning and, at first, find active learning to be uncomfortable. Therefore, we go to great lengths to help students make the necessary adjustments. After the initial adjustment period, most pre-calculus students say they like many things about the emporium-based course. The two that stand out are the self-paced nature of the course and the fact that they can take as many as three versions of each test, with coaching offered to support their learning between attempts.

2005: "Studies in progress" are conducted internally. To my knowledge, no review of the Math Emporium by a body external to the university has ever been published. "Self-paced" is a misnomer; these courses have weekly deadlines that are electronically enforced. Statements like "Deadlines for Graded Quizzes 2-14 will not be extended for any reason" appear in the course contracts for all of our online courses. As well, students may now take each test only once in 1114, no more than twice in 1015, 1016 and 1525. The "Coach's Corner" has been long, long gone.

While we are concerned with our students' comfort level, the design of the courses offered in the emporium focuses on student success. We taught several experimental courses in smaller computer labs before moving to the full-scale Math Emporium courses. We used the results of extensive assessment of the experimental courses to design the current courses. Of course, the process of assessment and development is an ongoing one. ...

The ellipsis here was part of the originally published letter; I don't know if this was an omission by the Chronicle or part of the original text. 2005: Ongoing development means moving more courses online; this year, 1525 has been replaced with an online course, and 1526 will be moved online in the spring. Except for an early transition from commercial material to in-house material, there is little apparent ongoing development of already-existing courses.

The rest of the letter is general fluff, and not a specific rebuttal to the Chronicle article; I'm posting it without further comment. I'll mention that Robert Bates and Robert Olin have both left the university, and Sally Harris has transferred internally to another position.

The statistics clearly show that students are understanding core concepts better after taking mathematics in the emporium. We are seeing grades rising and failure rates dropping. We expect that our subsequent evaluations of student learning will also show the value of this educational experience. Furthermore, given that it is believed that most college graduates will have to retrain themselves several times during their careers, and given that active learners are in a far better position to use the World-Wide Web and other resources to retrain themselves, we are convinced that the emporium experience will add great value to our students' education. The importance of these objectives for our students far outweighs the negatives associated with the degree of discomfort that our students are experiencing and, we feel, should have been the subject of the headline of your story and should have played a more prominent role in the article itself.

At a time when universities are faced with decreasing revenues and increasing numbers of students, it is imperative that new ways of teaching be explored. With the Math Emporium, we are not only offering a new way of teaching but are conscientiously evaluating the results of the new approach in an attempt to find the best methods for teaching in a new age that will have vastly different expectations of graduates. ... The many universities that are using technology to improve the quality of the education their students receive would be well served if prestigious publications such as The Chronicle would promote informative discussion of the pedagogical issues involved in such enterprises as the Math Emporium so that we all could learn from each other.

Robert C. Bates
College of Arts and Sciences

Robert Olin
Department of Mathematics

Sally L. Harris
Public-Relations Coordinator
College of Arts and Sciences
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Va.


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