Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Teaching Math Online

Online education is a huge concern for me because I’m teaching my first online class this spring. Even more than that, I’m interested in taking a number of our other classes online. There are significant challenges for math online that primarily text-based disciplines like English and History don’t have to contend with. Technology is catching up quick though. One cool thing about Amatyc was that all the publishers and companies working on technical solutions were there. I got to see a lot of very promising gadgets and apps. One thing that came up between myself and my colleagues was the desire for a publisher platform that taught the students well and gave the teachers great tools to conduct a course. At Tunxis, Sue and I have been using MyMathLab in our on ground classes. This has worked very well for us. It gives us good tools to manage the course, good technical support, and most important, MML is rapidly improving its services. The problem using MML for online courses is that its instructional materials do very little to take advantage of the online environment. A MML course is effectively a regular text book available as a PDF online. Pearson also gives instructors power points, and videos of lessons, but none of the materials is interactive.

At Amatyc I was looking for something that “taught” students better. Plato/Academic Systems has exactly this reputation. I attended a focus group with a bunch of experienced Plato users to find out more about the product. What is agreed: Plato really teaches. They have figured out how to make each lesson interactive. They have chunked learning, so that students look (and interact) with screens not pages. (Read, no scrolling endlessly through a PDF). Students also work practice problems at increasing stages of independence until the concept is learned.

Okay, so what’s bad about Plato? Course administration. Everything MML does well, Plato is woefully ill-equipped for. Furthermore I don’t get the sense that Plato is moving as fast to improve its products. There was a lot of frustration in the room on the part of longtime users. The most promising thing I heard all evening was that Plato reps seemed to hint that they are considering abandoning their course management system altogether and just writing e-books for Blackboard, Vista, Angel, and other course management systems. This seemed like a good idea. Do what you do well, and partner with somebody else to handle the other stuff.

I also attended a MML workshop on online teaching. There were a lot of feature requests from the audience in the question period. One question I asked was why Pearson isn’t having authors develop math modules instead of texts. That is, why their authors don’t write for the screen. I was told that material of this sort is set to be released this January. The two people sitting next to me had even been reviewers for it. This sounds very promising. I’m going to try and get a look at it. I’ll definitely post on that if I can get access.

The good news is that whoever gets there first, these companies, and I expect others, understand how important it is to integrate powerful efficient course management with materials developed for the online student. The good news is we’re getting closer!

(more old school computer pics)


Maria H. Andersen said...

I wonder if you've followed this line of reasoning all the way to its logical conclusion yet ... if we aren't doing anything but running a set of software, then what good are the instructors?

Not just with online software, but with the availability of video lessons on the Internet, we have to be careful to make sure that how we are interacting with students is still something that cannot be done by a machine. If what you do online or in the classroom can be duplicated... then think carefully.

Some older musings here.

Personally, I like using WebAssign, where I can have the students interact and help each other (other human beings).

Unknown said...

This is the history of techne's relationship to mankind. Once a machine can do the job near as well as a human, it's time to hand the job over. I would be worried if the amount of work humanity did was fixed. Our desires seem limitless though (or at least, the one thing that advances faster than techne). I'm sure teachers we'll be put to work doing something.

That is the long term view. The short term effect could be catastrophic. Imagine sudden advances in CMS and LMS put teachers out of business within the course of three years. That really would be scary for us. However, I suspect (and hope) for a smoother transition. We are in the process of slowly moving the more mechanical aspects of our job: our presence, grading, content production, introducing concepts, supervision etc... to the computer side of things. We are still there to handle the higher order questions. eg. curriculum, success rates.

Thanks for the tip on WebAssign! I'm going to check that out.