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Virginia Tech's Computerized Math Classes

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 24, 2012 12:00 PM

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Over at The Washington Post, Daniel de Vise has a great article about Virginia Tech's "Math Emporium" -- the huge classroom, located in a shopping mall, in which hundreds of students take college math courses at one time, all without the help of professors. Instead, students learn from computers, and teaching assistants amble around answering questions.

The space once belonged to a discount department store; students "walk to class through a shopping mall, past a health club and a tanning salon, as ambient Muzak plays." Once there,

the computer is king, and instructors are reduced to roving guides. Lessons are self-paced, and help is delivered “on demand” in a vast, windowless lab that is open 24 hours a day because computers never tire. A student in need of human aid plants a red cup atop a monitor....

Students pass introductory math courses at a higher rate now than 15 years ago, when the Emporium was built. And research has found the teaching model trims per-student expense by more than one-third, vital savings for public institutions with dwindling state support.

Emporium designers removed all the strictures of the conventional university class. Instead of attending three lectures a week, students could come to the lab when they pleased. Instead of 100 instructors leading hundreds of class sections, a rotating staff of about 12 would roam the lab, dispensing help as needed.

The teaching method pioneered at the Emporium solves two problems that have long vexed general math instruction. One is that lecture classes give students little chance to do math. The other is that students in basic math classes often span a wide range of ability and experience. Some have forgotten the material, while others never knew it. The lock-step pace left some students behind and held others back.

It's like Khan Academy brought into the university. Much more at The Washington Post.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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