When is a new paradigm really a new paradigm?

The title of this article is indeed intended as rhetorical. Nevertheless, we feel that the instructional offerings we present through the Math Emporium here at Virginia Tech represent a first step in truly escaping the tyranny of the 'seat-time' paradigm. While 'tyranny' conjures ugly images and seems inappropriate in this context, especially when used in connection with what is arguably the most successful educational system in history, we must respond to pressures which are reshaping our world in a fundamental way (perhaps a story for another time). This is made all the more difficult by the inertia of our success. The Math Emporium represents a determined effort on our part to face up to some of these issues.

The paradigm.

If John sits daydreaming in a traditional classroom, the class goes on without him. If he sits lost in reverie in the Math Emporium, the computer in front of him patiently waits; there will be no progress, no completion of assigned tasks, until he does something--until he takes an active role in learning. In the same way, if Mary stays silent in a traditional classroom, bewildered because the Einstein in the front row answers all the questions before she can digest the information, the material may be lost to her. At the computer in the Math Emporium, however, no one else answers the questions, so Mary must understand all of the material before going on to the next level. And, if either student finds the computer explanations lacking, she or he can always turn to one of the teaching assistants or professors on duty for personal help.

The role of the faculty member in this setting changes from the traditional classroom orator (ok, that's not exactly the right image, but you get the idea) to a listener. He or she now listens to a detailed explanation of the student's current stumbling block and then offers the, perhaps, ten words which once again smooth the way to further progress. This is a radical change not well-suited to all faculty (to be taken in multiple ways!). However, we are at great peril if we do not explore these alternatives. Moreover, it is important to also keep in mind that we are focussing on large enrollment course offerings.

The facility

The Math Emporium opened in August of 1997, home to two courses involving students from arts and sciences, engineering, agriculture and life sciences, and business. It is now used by over 7000 students in a dozen mathematics classes involving students from all the colleges in the university, plus students who use the emporium to work on other classes, such as teacher preparation courses for aspiring teachers. Several million dollars were spent to remodel and equip a former department store at one end of a small shopping mall with 500 computers arranged in study pods of six workspaces each. The emporium stays open 24 hours a day, staffed by mathematics faculty 14 hours a day, so that students can pick their personal best time for learning mathematics.

In the Math Emporium, students can take advantage of diagnostic quizzes, an electronic hyperlinked textbook and interactive, self-paced tutorials. There are armies of tutors, GTAs and faculty in the emporium to give students personal help when they do not understand the tutorials or quizzes. Thus, the risk for alienation of students through computer-driven instruction is turned, instead, into an opportunity to spot and correct problems before they become critical. Some traditional lectures by professors are also available along with help from a conventional tutor lab.

The idea of teaching math in a computer enhanced environment got its start in the spring of 1993 when the mathematics department began using a computer program called Mathematica in two of its first-year calculus courses. With only 78 computers and nearly 2,000 students taking the new classes each semester, assessments that included a common final exam showed that students in the new initiative were performing at or above the level of students taking the traditional course. The students' final grades in the new program were half a grade higher than those of students in traditional courses, and later assessments showed that their performances in other mathematics or engineering courses were better than those of students from the traditional math classes. This success drove the expansion of these offerings, but not quickly enough, culminating in the big leap.

A learning community

With its 500 computers, open hours, and staff of instructors, the emporium is a technologically based experimental answer to the problem of teaching more students with fewer faculty and less money. But it is also an experiment in building a learning community. "When we became aware of the discussion in higher education about the value of learning communities, we began to see the possibilities of the social interaction involved in learning math, and the connections it has to other courses at the university," said Bob Olin, chairman of the Department of Mathematics. "The Math Emporium may appear to be about physical space and equipment, but it is more about people and creating active learners. It is an example of how thinking creatively about course delivery can enhance student understanding of a subject and make the learning more inviting and engaging. The Math Emporium gives students in large introductory courses a way of connecting to the subject, to the instructors, and to each other in a way that is new and exciting."

Quoting from the proposal which funded the Math Emporium over three years ago,

A unifying thread for this project is the desire to build a vigorous and sustainable mathematics learning community. Information technology provides the tools to excite a new and richer intellectual conversation that serves more effective learning well. More importantly perhaps, the technology ensures that this new scholarly community will not be confined to the university. First, these powerful tools allow us to build natural bridges to schools and to serve as a public mathematics resource. Second, and more significantly, while the direct jump to entirely online courses is a formidable one, the design of this enterprise is focussed on staging just such a transition. In time, this facility will become a virtual learning center.

we can see a very intimate relationship between what WebCT is building and the goals of our project. That is why we are so delighted to be joining forces in a partnership with a grand vision indeed!