Thursday, October 09, 2008

Online calculus

A couple of profs in the Math department here are kicking around the idea of creating an online Calculus course.

When I took calculus (shortly after Newton invented it), it was taught in a huge lecture hall. The professor spent the period with his back to the class, writing equations on the chalkboard and saying things like, "It is therefore intuitively obvious that..." (Have I ever mentioned that Calculus was one of the reasons I switched majors from engineering to education?) That's not the way it's done here. Class sizes are small, and the profs really interact with their students on the fly.

That's one of the reasons that Calculus is one of the courses that students like to take at a community college. Still, we could reach more students if we could put the course online, or perhaps in a hybrid format.

One of the profs (call him Luke) is using Adesso CyberPads in his F2F classes. Students can hand-write their homework on paper using the special pen and the electronic pad. The CyberPad creates a digital image file that the student can then sent to the instructor. This is very handy for classes that meet once a week or Monday-Wednesday. If a student has a question on Wednesday night she doesn't have to wait until Monday.

Luke has proposed that we create an online Calculus course around this tool. He's got serious questions about how to structure the instructional content, because his teaching style is extremely hands-on. We hashed thing over during lunch last week with two other professors from the department. One of them (call him Vince) was vocal in his opposition to "canned" online courses that consist of nothing more than a publisher's Blackboard cartridge. yesterday he wrote:

It may have taken me a couple weeks, but here's my opposition to on-line courses as they are currently done at LCC. There's a TV in my classroom. What do you say if instead of me lecturing in Calculus, I just put in the DVDs that come with the book and we watch them as a class? What would people say about that kind of education? In many ways, it's better than on-line, isn't it? At least the students can pause the DVD and I can explain things to them. At least the learning is "synchronous" and they can interact with each other. Plus, I'm available during office hours and via e-mail. Somehow, I don't think people would think very highly of this kind of learning environment. I'm sure students would complain, and people like Jim would lose respect for me. Could I honestly say this is in the students' best interest? Would people honestly believe that this is academic freedom? Somehow, I don't think so. So, how is on-line, especially how it's done in our department, any better than this?

Valid issues. I asked him if I could open the discussion to the wider community (that's you) and he agreed. Here was my initial response:

Vince raises some very important issues.

There is currently no central authority regarding the content, format, or quality (however that is measured) of online courses at Lakeland. The quality of an online course is up to the instructor and the department. As a result, we see a wide variety of online coruses. Some instructors create their course sites entirely from scratch, including self-produced multimedia elements such as narrated powerpoint presentations, recorded lectures, or videos. Some departments have developed standard templates for high-enrollment courses, and instructors have little leeway in the way they facilitate the course. Some instructors use a publisher's course cartridge (which can vary in quality from abysmal to outstanding), and do little other than monitor students' progress. Others extensively modify and rearrange the pre-created content, putting their own spin on it, and use the online forums to facilitate deep, reflective, substantive class discussions.

Classroom teaching shows the same range. Some instructors read out of the book or off the powerpoint slides, some just work problems with their backs to the class, others are dynamic and engaging, responding to the students.

The online environment isn't any better or any worse than the classroom. It's just a different set of affordances and constraints. The question is, is it possible to leverage the affordances (and work around the constraints) in the particular knowledge/skill domain? What do we give up, and what do we gain? What CAN we give up? What must we NOT give up?

A common reaction is, "I can't give up the ability to respond in real-time to a student's question." But let's drill down - what's *really* at issue there? The root principle is that we want to identify the moment that a student gets lost, and at that moment, bring them back on track. But it's not always necessary to repeat information or give an alternate presentation. Sometimes the student just needs a little more time to work out how you got to Point B from Point A. Can we do that online? Sure. It's just a question of how we want to do it.

So - what do you folks think?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There are a couple of things that come to mind. First, students often get lost because they forget the sequence of steps to problem completion. often, these folks stay in the background because they are embarassed to ask the instructor to repeat themselves. While an instructor may not think so because the classes are small, it still happend more oftem than thought. Of course one of the plusses about online, when well constructed, is that the student can resturn to a concept as often as needed until the point is clarified. Second, a well constructed online class offers numerous opportunities for s2s and s2i interaction. Additionally using tools that allow a student to step through a planned problem solving scenario helps with understanding and concequently selecting the correct concepts to solve a problem (branching power points are great for this). I helped a stats instructor with all of these types of issues. He is most pleased with the outcomes of his classes. He indicates less questions come through that the student should have 'picked up' in class and that the questions that are posted are of better quality (more thoughtful). This is definitely NOT a 'TV' environment, this is an interactive environment, much like the f2f it's just the student is more self directive and the instructor is more facilitative. Do not overlook the inportance of facilitating the's extremely important.