Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Teaching Math Lit online: Part 1

As I start the new spring semester, I've been thinking about my fall semester in which I taught Math Lit online for the first time. I've taught online for years and I've taught Math Lit for years, but online Math Lit seemed like a daunting task. I had talked to some instructors around the country to get ideas, but it was really a step off a cliff. And unlike other online courses I've taught for the first time, I didn't get everything figured out before we started. It made for a lot of challenges until we got into a routine. This post is provided to prevent you from having to be a guinea pig and instead benefit from my mistakes.

My goals were to incorporate the special traits of the face-to-face experience but in an online environment. What I found was that every single thing I was used to doing face-to-face had to be adapted. This was by far the most challenging online course I've ever made or taught, but it was also the most rewarding one. I really knew all my students and they knew each other. I felt very connected to them and their work and the best news is that the pass rate was phenomenal at 83%.

In this series of posts I want to share what I tried, what worked, and what needs work. My method is by no means the only way to go about this type of offering. I welcome any suggestions and ideas. Please check out the Math Lit instructor forum and join it so that we can discuss this course offering more.

Let's look at each component of the course one at a time. In this post, I'll look at the aspects of a section (Explore, Discover, Connect, Reflect). In the next post, I'll talk about doing homework, using the focus problems, and some other miscellaneous issues.

1. Explore

Each section of Math Lit starts with an Explore that has a problem that students have to try without necessarily having very much machinery to do so. It motivates the content for the section and helps students improve their problem solving skills, especially because it's a problem and not an exercise.

In the classroom, I always have students get in groups, read the Explore, and then start working on it together. We discuss the results and how it will set a framework for what we're going to work on.

The challenge was making these problems accessible to online developmental students, which I've found to be a set of students that tend to not interact as much in online math classes. They tend to keep to themselves. My solution was to use the Discussions feature of MyMathLab. It was great to have a use for a discussion that was not contrived, as they sometimes are in my other online math classes. Each Explore had its own discussion thread where students could work on the problem together until they reached an answer. Some instructors use wikis such as Google docs to do this and have students work in groups to add to the wiki with their work on the problem. I was struggling to keep my students in as few online platforms as possible, so I used the discussion feature. I used the "post first" feature so that one person didn't post the answer and everyone go, "yep, that's it" or "yep, that's what I got too." Students had to post a reply before they could see anyone else's response. I went through them and replied to each student on what they needed to adjust or try, sometimes suggesting they look at another student's response for ideas. After the due date, I posted a complete solution or referred them to look at a particular student's solution if it was correct and complete.

The problem was that it was basically an individual interaction between me and each student, not a group collaboration. What I'm going to try the next time I teach it online, this fall, is that students have to respond a certain number of times to each other. Keeping track of that and keeping it manageable is another challenge. Because it takes time to do these problems and get feedback to students and them work more on the problems, I made each week's Explores all due on Sunday nights. That gave them a week to work through them.

An additional problem we had is that students would wait until learning the content of the section to do the Explore. In that case, they would use what they had learned from the section, making each Explore basically like the Connect instead of its own exploration. I'm still pondering ways to improve that issue but give them enough time to finish them.

Since our course is large at 6 credits, we cover 4 to 5 sections each week. To make the workload more manageable, I made a few Explore discussions extra credit each cycle. This reduced the number of required weekly discussions to a more reasonable amount.

2. Discover

The main part of each section is the Discover in which skills and concepts are developed and practiced. In the classroom, I do some of the Discover as whole class and some in groups. While I wanted to students to work with each other to learn the content, it just wasn't feasible for time reasons. All these students were logging on at different times and trying to get the content done. There was no synchronous component to the course. Having to wait for other students to discuss each problem would take forever. We already had that challenge with the Explores.

So my solution was to have students work on the problems in the Discover on their own. I made a video showing them what I wanted them to do. They were supposed to open the ebook while they worked in the textbook. They were to read any exposition or examples, work any numbered problems, and watch any videos that accompanied the ebook. I tried to think what I would want if I was a student and one thing was the answers, to know that I was on the right track. So for each cycle, I made a document that had all the answers to the Discover problems that were numbered. They were supposed to work problems in the book and then check them, but I'm sure some students just worked backwards from the answers. Not ideal, but it's not something that can be controlled. Ultimately I concluded they were adults and would go through the learning process in a way that worked for them.

But, doing those pages in the book was essential. In some of my other online classes, students have seen the content and will just skim the book and do the homework. But this course is problem-based, not skill based, so the process of understanding the goals of the problems and sitting with them cannot be skipped. I kept telling students throughout the first week to do the book pages first, but they weren't. I received tons of questions on homework and there was confusion.

So my solution was to collect pages from each week of work. I thought this would be really time-consuming, but it was one of the best components of the course. It was so positive that I'd like to do it with other courses, online or face-to-face. I had to use our campus LMS, which is Canvas, to have the capability to easily grade their papers. Each Friday, I would post an assignment in Canvas with a list of 5 page numbers I had chosen from the sections they had worked on that week. They were to scan or take a picture of the pages with their phone and upload them as PDFs or JPGs. Canvas has a feature called SpeedGrader that allows me to click on their assignment and see each page they upload. I can comment on the page and explain how I got their score. I scored each page as 2 points (0 points for not turning it in, 1 point for doing anything on it, 2 points for doing everything on it as stated in the page's directions). To get full credit, they could not copy answers from the answer document. They had to show their own work.

I was able to grade their papers quickly and the benefits were immediate. They started doing the book pages as they went, which made the content make sense, and reduced the questions on homework considerably. I could get them some feedback without having to look through every page they did. It made me feel more connected to them and their progress. Everyone's frustration lifted.

3. Connect

In a classroom, I do the Connects like the Explores in groups. I give students time to work while I mill around giving hints and then we go over the answers. Having a whole other set of discussions for the Connects in addition to the Explores would have been too much. So I had students do these on their own after they did the Discover portion and provided them with answers to check (in the same document I mentioned above). It's not ideal, but it was the best I could come up with. Time was really something I was fighting all the time.

4. Reflect

I had students read the Reflect boxes on their own. Like in the face-to-face class, some students always read them and some never do. I tried to post comments on discussions and use announcements that regularly had information on why we were working on certain topics and how they fit together.

In the next post, I'll talk about homework, focus problems, tests, communication, making the content cohesive, and dealing with challenges.


  1. Did you think of putting ebooks inside the LMS for students? Also, any exploration with interactive ebooks?

  2. The book we use has an ebook in MyMathLab.