Two-year Vice Chair's Report

The Top Ten Myths
Online Mathematics Teaching

Jim Ham The teaching of online mathematics classes has gained popularity in recent years. Students love these classes because of the flexibility they offer in accommodating their busy work, school, and family lives. Faculty are curious about this class delivery system and wish to accommodate all students who are motivated to learn. College officials see the potential of attracting more students and hence more money to the college, especially students from a distance who might not otherwise attend the college. Having taught an online precalculus course for two years I would like to share some of my thoughts on teaching mathematics online in the form of a Top Ten list of myths about online teaching.

  1. Mathematics courses are taught entirely online or entirely face-to-face; there is no happy medium. There is a continuum of Web infusion into mathematics classes. Some instructors use Web sites to supplement a face-to-face class. Students may use a site to view daily assignments, download course documents, and link to resource sites, or they may use the Web to complete an assignment or two. There are the half-and-half online courses in which students meet an instructor face-to-face two hours per week (for a 4-credit course), and do the other half independently online. And then there are the 100% online classes where teachers and students may never meet.
  2. Students will come from all over the world to take your course. Occasionally you will receive an online inquiry from California or China, but most of the students enrolling in online courses are local. Since the courses are advertised locally, mostly local students register. For exposure at the state level, community colleges in Michigan can list their online courses with the Michigan Community College Virtual Learning Collaborative (VLC). Last semester I had two students who registered through the VLC and lived over two hours from the main campus, but this is rare.
  3. Students will bring to your online class strong prerequisite skills. Online students need mathematical and technological prerequisite skills as well as high motivation and self-discipline. An online course is no place for the procrastinator. Students lacking any of these prerequisites are destined to fail in an online mathematics course. In online mathematics classes, students find overcoming their math deficiencies to be an insurmountable task. Lack of technological prerequisites can also lead to failure. Students need skills in using several software applications and a hardware system that allows them to access the course site online with ease and regularity.
  4. Students will succeed in online courses at the same rate as face-to-face classes. If we consider grades of C or better as the measure of success, there are statistics that contradict this. Several mathematics instructors around the nation report success rates in online courses near 50%. At Delta College and other colleges in the state, the success rates in several sections have been lower than this. Delta has had more success with our online statistics course than either precalculus or intermediate algebra courses.
  5. Testing students in online classes is suspect since you can never be sure who is at the other end of the computer taking the test. Most online mathematics classes require traditional proctored paper-and-pencil exams. Students are required to visit a testing center or other testing site to take their exams while being monitored. I have found testing centers, high school principals, and local librarians to be very helpful in proctoring exams.
  6. Compared to traditional classes, online classes offer no additional benefits or impediments. Some students thrive in the online environment. Every student has a voice in class, not just a vocal few. Students who do not participate in online discussions are called "absent". Because of the writing necessary to communicate in the online environment, students may satisfy a writing graduation requirement. On the other hand it can be very difficult to establish community in an online course. There is no nonverbal communication. Community is establish by frequent daily e-mail communications between teacher and students and among students. In sections where community is not created, the class degenerates into a collection of independent studies.
  7. There are no additional technological skills needed by online instructors in teaching mathematics on line. I have used the following technologies in teaching precalculus: Netscape Navigator for browsing the Web, Netscape Composer for composing Web pages, Netscape AOL Instant Messenger for synchronous (live chat) communication, Microsoft Word's Equation Editor or MathType for entering math symbols into course handouts and Web pages, a scanner and image editing software to create Web pages of hand-written materials, Adobe Acrobat to create PDF files, Adobe Reader to download PDF files, and Blackboard, a class management site. Other online software tools such as LiveMath Maker, TI InterActive, and various Java math applets offer potential for learning mathematics online.
  8. Faculty can teach an online class with the same time commitment as a face-to-face class. The up-front time commitment to design the course including learning the technology, creating Web pages, designing Web-based assignments, and conducting a face-to-face orientation session is enormous. During the semester course notes must be created daily in a publishable and student-friendly format, complete with mathematical symbols. All teacher-student interactions must be written down using e-mail. A five minute face-to-face conversation may translate into twenty minutes of typing and two pages of written text.
  9. The teaching of online mathematics courses is a fad that will soon go away. Online courses are becoming more popular, not less. Students are becoming more sophisticated in their use of computers. Faculty are figuring out creative ways to make online mathematics courses work for more students. Online tools are being created daily to facilitate the teaching of mathematics online. The day is quickly approaching in which all college mathematics professors will be teaching at least part of their loads online.
  10. Any mathematics professor can teach an online mathematics class. There are instructors who love the online teaching environment and others who hate it. Each of us must eventually answer the question for ourselves: Does online teaching offer an environment in which I would thrive?

Jim Ham, Two-Year College Vice Chair

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