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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Emporium Model: Not a Magic Bullet for Developmental Math

I've written and spoken about the emporium model many times.  It's not that I'm against the idea of using computers to offer self-paced instruction.  That model can be excellent for students who are just shy of placing into college level, have few skill gaps, and are motivated.  What I don't support is the across-the-board use of it to replace developmental math programs, from arithmetic through intermediate algebra.

My concerns are many when it comes to this use of the model.  For one, I do not believe learning is mimicking what is seen on a computer screen. It's a far more complicated process that involves humans because the brain is complex. And learning math is not just moving letters and numbers on a page or screen; it is also complex.  Two students figuring out an exercise or an instructor talking a student through steps is not the human interaction I'm speaking of.  Of course, those types are necessary.  But beyond that, there are deeper aspects that only a qualified instructor can offer, insights needed to truly build understanding in a greater way. 

I have a colleague who will joke that no doctor would ever say, "I don't need to understand how to do the liver surgery.  Just point me in the right direction and I'll cut."  That's absurd.  But the type of "learning" we offer through emporium models, particularly in developmental math, is little more than procedures and "how's" with very little "why" along the way.  We break math down into tiny bits so that students can learn them, but we never connect the dots and put the puzzle back together so that students can see the bigger picture.  They get a set of disconnected skills that have no meaning between them, something that is necessary to use the skills in later courses.

It begs the question:  what is our goal here?  As a country we are in a huge rush to get students through developmental math, even to the detriment of the student. We want great statistics, not great learning.  As an educator, good pass rates are important to me because they are a measure of our programs.  But I'm more interested that my students learned something, that they were pushed and came out on the other side better for the experience.  That they did more than endure a series of tests and checked off a set of skills they can do.  Math is a amazing subject, but you have to step back away from the trees to see that beautiful forest.  And it takes a well-versed guide to make sense of what you're seeing.

I'm not saying technology shouldn't be used or that lecture is the number one way to offer instruction. Quite the opposite actually. I believe we need balance and emporium models are too extreme, offering an unbalanced method of math education.  Like the Khan academy, I think they have a place and offer something additional to developmental math programs for particular populations of students.  But as a replacement across the board for all sections and students?  I don't think that respects the great variety of needs or learning styles for students nor the variety of teaching styles and strengths of instructors.  For a redesign to work, respect must be present or faculty will resist.  Or they will succumb temporarily only to reject the model when administration changes.

What got me thinking about this topic was an opinion piece in the Chronicle, Don't Confuse Technology with College Teaching.  One part in particular caught my eye:

A set of podcasts is the 21st-century equivalent of a textbook, not the 21st-century equivalent of a teacher. Every age has its autodidacts, gifted people able to teach themselves with only their books. Woe unto us if we require all citizens to manifest that ability.

Most people find math intimidating.  And most returning adult students find technology intimidating.  So a course on a subject that they struggle with that is solely using technology for instruction and help is a person answering their questions only, is not usually a welcoming prospect.  Students want and deserve more.

Students usually do not move faster through the content either, a often used selling feature of the emporium model.  More often than not, they will move slower.  So policies and deadlines become very important.  The most success our emporium ever had years ago was when it is was so rigid that self-paced could not even be used in the description.  And "success" was a pass rate on paper.  Ask the students and they disliked the model for two reasons:  the experience in the course was not what they wanted and they feared that hadn't really learned anything, causing them to be at a disadvantage in the next course.  After years of trying to make this model work, we dropped it, taking the elements we liked from it and working them into a new, hybrid model of instruction.  That model is just an option in our program, not an approach that every student experiences unless they want to.

My other big concern are the unspoken reasons for choosing the model.  Administrators are often picking this model and imposing it for the sole reason of cutting costs. While a successful developmental math program can save the college costs down the road, that is not usually where the cost-savings come from. Administrators quickly do the math and realize that when the computer is offering the instruction and grading the assignments, there's really no need to cap class sizes at 24 or 30. Some colleges assign several hundred students to an instructor for a section and use tutors or teaching assistants to staff them. The need for qualified, full-time instructors drops quickly. This is the unsaid way of saving money.

From the Chronicle article:

Can technology make education less expensive? College is expensive, but colleges do things other than educate. Many courses simply convey information and provide technical vocational skills. These could be automated, presumably at savings. The price tag includes the campus experience—an education of a different sort—with all its lovely, cherished amenities.

But the core task of training minds is labor-intensive; it requires the time and effort of smart, highly trained individuals. We will not make it significantly less time-consuming without sacrificing quality. And so, I am afraid, we will not make that core task significantly less expensive without cheapening it.

Food for thought.


  1. Kathleen,
    Exactly! Our 2 year college has gone 100% ALEKS for dev. math and I never thought it was a good idea. But often I find that this is "no country for old men" when it comes to mathematical education decisions.... I'm retired HS and current adjunct. One of our VP's passed this article to us at a department meeting today. Thanks!

  2. This model is shocking to me. I love math and teaching math. I retired a few years ago and missed the joy of seeing light bulbs go off in front of me. So I returned as an adjunct college instructor for developmental math and college math. My training in math education has been to "construct" math learning. I feel our education system has failed us. Students are no longer given basic number sense. They come to college unable to perform basic math operations without a calculator. Students entering college do not even know basic multiplication tables. How can they do fractions with no understanding of multiples and now we are throwing this at them. They will be pressing buttons until they get a correct answer - not knowing how they came about the answer but thrilled to move on. Is this education? Where does critical thinking come in? I thank you so much for your article. At least I know I am not the only one who is disappointed in the lack of concern for rich education. It is sad that making monetary profit outweighs the gift of knowledge.

  3. Yes! this stuff is not worth. I loathe Aleks software entirely... Ok so say I ask for it to explain how to do a problem which it shows me the first problem. Then I attempt to do the next one and get it correct but then subsequently screw up the next problem, it will say if you miss two more problems we will move on. It does not do enough explanation as it is says due to this property but it does not make one lick of sense... This math crap is a curse not a blessing. The instructor finally gets around to finally showing us a little bit of what we are working on but moves way too fast and acts like we all know what she is doing and why. I have not been in stupid math in over a year and she could give two shits. The guy next to me COMPLETELY fails his first test and has to be downgraded to math 094, ok so is that not saying something??? I have taken two tests now, I passed the first one with a 72 percent, next, I failed with a 45!! WOW, the difference was linear equations and then moving onto factoring. I am so rusty but fuck it...