Thoughts on Online Math Courses

Cerro Coso Community College offers an online AA degree in mathematics. You take three semesters of Analytic Geometry and Calculus (I, II, II), Linear Algebra, and two other elective math courses. (I don’t have to take gen ed since I have a BA or higher.)

A university lecturer friend of mine has concerns over the amount of information learned by students in online math classes, and I think it is a fair concern. Having just finished my first online math course, I thought I’d review it.

First, this is the third time I’ve taken Calculus. The first time was in high school (’95-’96) where I got an A. The second time was at university (’98?) where I got a B. This third time was summer 2012 and I got an A. During college I also tutored high school math for both fun and profit. That’s my math background.

So, let’s begin with the grading structure. Professor Bernstein gives two tests (40% each) and homework (20% total) for every sub-chapter of the book. I have no comment on this since I’m not a professor and I don’t really care how things are weighted so long as I know up front and can plan my studying accordingly.

The homework is done through Pearson’s Website. Problems look more or less like this:

Note that the right hand side column has “Help Me Solve This” and “View an Example” as options. If you click “View an Example” the website will display a pop-up which shows a similar problem which has been worked through.  If you click “Help Me Solve This” the website will take you through the problem step by step, but you won’t receive credit for the completed problem.  The correct answer will be displayed, but you will not receive credit.

This is where the “Similar Problem” button comes in. If you get the answer wrong after three attempts, or if you have the website work through the problem with you, the “Check Answer” button becomes “Similar Problem.” You can click “Similar Problem” over and over again until you work through the problem type and master it. You can sit and do problem after problem after problem until you can do that type of problem in your sleep.

This. Is. Brilliant. I will go so far as to say that all math classes should use something akin to this. Working through a problem until you get it right, then being able to work through three (or four or five…) similar problems is a gift to students. If you want to learn Calculus, you can.

The test, however, is a pain in the arse.  If the test problem tells you to write a decimal to the hundredths and you write down an exact answer in terms of pi, you’re marked off full points for that problem. If you work out the answer on your scratch paper and get .4589 but inadvertently type in -.4589, you’re marked off full points for that problem. (The website can see that you got the right answer while doing your work and merely made a scrivener’s error.) And there was at least one problem where the website didn’t specify decimal or exact and marked me off for writing the exact answer.

Some of these problems were easily remedied with an email to the professor. He was very understanding and acknowledged the limitations of the website. But some part of me doesn’t really expect partial credit when I make a scrivener’s error because were I calculating payloads for NASA explosions could result. (I know they have numerous checks on calculations. I’m just sayin’.) A final note on tests: They are proctored. You have to arrange to take them at a test center or with a qualified person. I took mine at Bakersfield College.

How much did I learn in this class? Well, I learned more than I did last time I took Calc in university, but I have to acknowledge that I’m not the average student. I’ve taken calc before and I’ve tutored math for years. If someone is looking to take a class for an easy A this isn’t it. The lack of lecture puts the onus on the student to master the material herself, and it can be done.

Overall, I’d recommend the course to students who are able to pace themselves, enjoy working things out on their own, and don’t need a structured lecture time. I’d recommend math programs everywhere adopt something similar to Pearson’s website where students have an infinite number of problems to work through to attain mastery. I’m definitely looking forward to Calc II in the fall.

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