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Are Math Lectures Inefficient?

cmares28 Posted by cmares28 in Economics & Personal Finance on Apr 25, 2012 8:26:34 AM

Via The Washington Post:


"There are no professors in Virginia Tech’s largest classroom, only a sea of computers and red plastic cups. In the Math Emporium, 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."


"Virginia Tech 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.


“When I first came here, I was like, ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’” said Mike Bilynsky, a freshman from Epping, N.H., who is taking calculus. “But it works.”


No academic initiative has delivered more handsomely on the oft-stated promise of efficiency via technology in higher education, said Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit that studies technological innovations to improve learning and reduce cost. She calls the Emporium “a solution to the math problem” in colleges."


Think about all the inefficiences that are associated with classroom learning. There are distractions everywhere: the distance between you and the teacher, the other students, the other objects in the room, the windows, etc. If you space off for a minute or two it is likely that you will miss out on some piece of valuable information. A solution to this problem is to take courses that require repitition to attain mastery out of the classroom and put them on the computer. Most introductory coursework is used to lay the foundation for more rigorious work. Our educational model pushes those who have not achieved an understanding of the basic concepts to move on to the next topic anyway. As they continue on in their academic life, their understanding decreases at an increasing rate because they do not understand the fundamentals. The students frustration grows, they give up easier, and some quit going to school altogether.


44% of four year college students never graduate, 71% of two-year students never graduate, given the expenses associated with getting a university education these two statistics are a huge deadweight loss of time and money. Maybe we need to rethink some of our pedagogical techinques to work on improving  not just the number of kids who go to college but the number of students who complete their education and actually learn something. Self-paced, computer based learning, where the student can narrow their focus to just a computer screen seems to gaining some momentum. Virginia Tech's model for implementing a large-scale effort in this direction should be applauded.