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Macalester hosts first online course in mathematics

Over the course of the summer, students were provided with the unique opportunity to take an online math class taught by Professor Chad Topaz. Co-taught with Professor Tina Garrett of St. Olaf College and with much help from Barron Koralesky, Associate Director of ITS, the class was conducted online through the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) to any interested ACM students. It is the first online course offered through Macalester.

“Calculus: A Modeling Approach,” or CMA, was based on a calculus course already taught at Macalester.

“It is not a traditional calculus curriculum,” Topaz said. In contrast to a traditional calculus curriculum, CMA starts with multivariable calculus and “focuses not on mechanics but on application, and utilizes computers heavily.” This made it a perfect candidate for online instruction, he said.

The class was structured using seven different components to help facilitate a classroom-like learning environment. Material was taught using screencasts, which are video lectures students watch on computers. Real time annotation by professors accompany each screencast, and students can download a PDF version for review.

“Screencasts are also learner-centered because pause and rewind features allow each individual student to revisit challenging concepts at a pace that is appropriate for her or him,” Topaz said.

As soon as a student watches a screencast, they complete a short quiz on the basic concepts of the screencast. This is called a checkpoint, and provides instant feedback to the student to make sure they have correctly understood the material.

At the end of each unit, students complete unit homework assignments followed by a unit test. Each students gets two tries on the unit test.

“The ‘two trie’ mechanism encourages and incentivizes each student to give special attention to her or his own particular points of challenge,” Topaz said.

In addition to the core components of the class, many different tools are also available to the students. Piazza is a web tool that creates an online community for students to interact with each other in a learning environment.

“I think taking this class made me more aware of all the tools available for learning,” Madeleine Blain YEAR TK said. “I detested Piazza coming into the class and now I think it’s a fantastic way of staying engaged with the class.”

Small-group tutorials and office hours were also included in the online course to help facilitate a classroom-like learning experience.
Students like Blain found these tools very helpful.

“We actually got to chat with the professor over video chats once a week,” Blain said, “which made it much more like an actual on-campus class than I ever would have expected. Online classes structured in that way are extremely useful tools. I would certainly take another online class with a Mac professor.”

Beyond his own course, Topaz had a vision for the future of online teaching at Macalester.

“I would like to see Macalester offer a selected number of online courses solely because it would provide students with some curricular flexibility that might allow them to more easily complete requirements, study abroad, participate in intensive internships or other experiential learning,” Topaz said, giving the example
of one student who completed the summer course while traveling extensively in India.

Blain shares this viewpoint.

“With a student body comprised of people from all over the globe,” she said, “who love to travel and do incredible things, especially over the summer, online classes provide an opportunity for students to complete coursework and still do the things Mac students love to do!”

However, for soon-to-be math major Jamie Morrow ’15, the online classes hold less appeal than the traditional classroom experience.

“Personally,” Morrow said, “I would not take an online math class because I need the classroom environment to learn effectively. That being said, online classes work well with some people’s learning styles, and I think that especially for lower level classes, mathematics and otherwise, an online option would be worth taking.”

October 18, 2013

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