Math professor explores benefits of online classes on campus

This is a different kind of math classroom. To start with, it's very quiet. Most of the students wear headphones, and the teacher isn't standing at the front. Instead of lecturing, Dr. Larry Ray, professor of mathematics, has pulled up a chair beside a student to help work through a tricky problem. As soon as that student understands, he hurries off to the next raised hand. This is a new online/offline hybrid mathematics class at Union for students taking precalculus and calculus. 

Lectures? Grading? That's the software's job. This new model gives the teacher time to focus on what really matters: individual attention. 

“Students are preferring more and more online material, and most do well online,” said Ray. “But there are people who need more than just a computer to help them understand, which is why we also have laboratories set up where students can come in and get helped by a teacher or teaching assistant.”

Forty new HP Probook 4440 laptop computers in the new mathematics lab make it possible for students to come into a classroom to work on assignments, quizzes and tests, or seek help from Ray or a teaching assistant. These new computers were made possible in part by a $20,000 gift to the Krueger Center made in honor of Clifton and Leonora Ray by their children and grandchildren.

The newly structured classes were built using courseware from Hawkes Learning Systems, which is installed on the HP Probooks, but can also be used by students on their personal computers. This enables them to learn calculus and do their homework on the go. 

The online system caters to a wide variety of learning styles by allowing students to listen to the lecture, watch videos or read the course content. The online-based class also removes the need for textbooks, cutting back on costs for students.

“The lecture, quizzes, homework and exams are all online,” said Ray. “Students move on to the next lesson once they have mastered a section. They master it after going though the lecture, doing the review and getting a passing score in the homework assignment. If a student does not have a passing score, Hawkes is able to essentially ‘see’ where the student is struggling, present a review of the specific concept, and then give the student another chance to redo a parallel assignment until mastery is achieved.”

“I was very skeptical when he first said the course would mostly be online,” said freshman Katie Dieter. “I tried doing precalculus online in the past and I ended up having to join a traditional class because the system was really frustrating. Hawkes is a very different system. The assignments are a lot more focused and it is really easy to handle all the material.”

The courseware allows for individualization, too. “I really like it because it allows me to go at my own pace,” said freshman Larissa Bovee. “Dr. Ray is always there if we need help. We can go slower in some lesson, but I can get my work done ahead of time if I want, too. For math, I really like it more than the traditional classes.”

For those who need a little extra help with an assignment or the whole course, Ray designed outside class time to provide them with one-on-one assistance. “Five days a week, students can come in during those lab times and get help,” said Ray. “No appointment is needed, assistants are available during those times to help students, even if its just on one problem they can come in to get help and keep on going at their own pace.”

The success of calculus and precalculus online may soon open the door for students to take other courses online including Math 017, a beginning course for students who need to work on various math skills before taking regular college courses. “Students don’t particularly like remedial courses because they don’t count towards their graduation credits,” said Ray. “But online courses could give students the opportunity to work ahead and move on more quickly to college-level courses.”

Ray hopes the new online approach to mathematics will benefit both students and instructors. “Students have instant results for assignments and exams,” he said. “Grading is done by the Hawkes system and scores are recorded immediately in the teacher’s online grade book. The program generates help if there are any misunderstandings with some of the questions.” Being able to see mistakes or incorrect answers instantly gives students the opportunity to fix mistakes immediately or ask for help from their instructor on the spot instead of waiting a few days for assignments to be graded.

Online math courses that can be individualized for learning style and pace is one more way Union College is seeking to give the best educational experience possible for every student.

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