Teaching College Algebra Online: Student Characteristics

At the beginning of the semester, I asked students in my online class to introduce themselves in the forums.  One tiny thing that I’m very glad I did was ask students to mention in their introduction why they were taking this course online.  When I designed the course, I expected it to be full of nontraditional students, people with families and full-time jobs.  I did have some of those, but not nearly as many as I expected.  I’ve pulled the following from the students’ introductions:

I decided to take this class online because I need another mathematics credit to switch from a BA to a BS degree, and with 16 credit hours no other classes seemed to fit into my schedule!

I’m taking it online because I’m taking a lot of hours as well!

I’m a Math Major, Senior, taking this class as an elective and as a refresher since I want to teach high school.

I am also a Senior and taking this class as an elective.

I’m a 3rd year PR person and currently working with a band out of Austin. online courses are much easier to accomplish while on the road!

I am taking this class online because I live in San Antonio and this will save me a lot of time and fuel.

I also live in San Antonio and need the flexibility. I commute two days a week for other classes, so this online course saves me from sitting in a classroom!

The reason I am taking this class online is because I do not live in San Marcos anymore. But math is extremely difficult for me so I hope taking it online isn’t too hard.

I’m taking this semester from home and will be returning to the San Marcos campus in the fall. Since I live in The Woodlands, online was kind of the only option 🙂

I live in Austin and work part-time waiting tables, so I decided it would be easier (time-wise) for me to take this class online. So far I really enjoy having the free time, not being in the classroom, that it makes doing the homework not as arduous. I also like watching the lectures online because they go slower and break it down by the sections. Hopefully the lectures continue to be this thorough.

I decided to take this course online because the class wouldn’t fit into my schedule and thought it would be a good way to save gas if i took it online!

I’m taking 16 hours this semester to get into the program next fall, which is why I decided to take this class online. I like the flexibility because I also work and have a puppy.

I am taking this class online because I’m taking a lot of in class hours and it’s easier for me to study math on my own.

I commute from Round Rock on MWF if anyone might want to pitch in for gas Id be happy to pick them up..Carpooling is cool.

I decided to take this course online because I feel that I learn better when teaching myself compared with sitting in a traditional classroom.

I would definitely agree on the choice for taking online classes. I would rather take online classes than take traditional classes, especially since most classes are a good 45 minute driver w/o traffic from where I live. I also like being able to have some flexibility since I work a full time job. It’s nice to make your own schedule for when you do your homework for the most part.

I live in New Braunfels with my husband and 3 awesome kids who are 10, 12, and almost 14.  I work Monday-Friday from 8-5, so online classes tend to be easier for me. Luckily, Texas State has offered a lot of my classes either at night or online, which works out well.

[I’m] in the online experience as I travel for work and can’t really commit to a set class schedule.

I am currently enrolled in a 9 hour block course off campus so I was looking for a class to take that wouldn’t make me drive all the way into campus this semester and I enjoy math so this class seemed like a good fit.

I chose the online class because it’s easier for me to work more hours at my job with an online class.

I also work and this course allows for the flexibility I need.

I decided to take the class online because it helped make my schedule work for the semester.

I only had a couple classes left, so I am commuting from San Antonio and needed the flexibility of the online course. I learn math by teaching myself so this is a good way to take a math class.

I have an extremely busy schedule so I felt like this was the best way to take this class.

I live in Taylor.  For those of you that don’t know, that is about 20 minutes northeast of Austin.  Obviously, it would be about a two hour drive to get to San Marcos.  I normally attend online or at the Round Rock campus.

Hoping to finish up my undergraduate work this semester at Texas State, and taking online college algebra was the most convenient way to do that.

Online classes are really my only option as I live and work in Austin and San Marcos is quite a hike for me.

I took on a couple of online classes because I live in Austin and work in Lakeway so I thought it be smart to save on gas.

I chose taking this class online because it works well with my schedule.

(For those not familiar with Texas geography, the main campus of Texas State University is in San Marcos, a small town halfway between Austin and San Antonio.  We have a small satellite campus in Round Rock, about 50 miles north.  The Round Rock campus offers only certain types of courses, which does not include freshman- or sophomore-level math.)

I know that, as a university we have a lot of students that commute from all over central/south Texas, but I was surprised that so many students wanted to take an online class for that reason.  Even more surprising to me were the traditional students, generally on campus, who took the class to fit into their schedule.

I suspect that at least some students took the class believing that it would be easier, with watered down content.  Of course, no one said that in their introduction in the discussion forums, but then they wouldn’t, would they?

Teaching College Algebra Online, Second Phase of Reflection: Learning Activities

The course I designed was broken into 22 learning modules.  This was not a self-paced class, so everyone had to complete the modules on the same schedule.  Each learning module had a required reading, one or more videos, a learning activity, and a homework assignment.  The required readings were short–usually something I had typed up, although for a couple of them I directed students to an online resource, or made some part of the textbook section required reading (every learning module had the relevant section of the textbook as an optional reading).  I’ll talk about the videos in detail in another post.

The learning activities are what I want to focus on today.

For many students, College Algebra is the only math course they have to take, primarily to fulfill their core requirement.  From our undergraduate catalog, page 45:


In order to acquire the fundamental skills and cultural background that are the marks of an educated person, all students at Texas State complete a program of general education core curriculum courses, which serves as the common foundation for all majors and accounts for about 38 percent of the approximately 120 semester credit hours required for a bachelor’s degree.

At the end of the bachelor’s program, the student is prepared not only in a departmental field of study, but also in the general abilities of questioning, explaining, and learning that remain universally useful in a rapidly changing world. Texas State graduates have the raw materials to build solutions as they fulfill career and civic responsibilities.

So my College Algebra classes are designed with this in mind.  Learning rote procedures is of limited use in fulfilling civic responsibilities.  Developing mathematical habits of mind, on the other hand… but that’s a whole ‘nuther post….  (At the same time, College Algebra must prepare students to take future math classes, because it is a prerequisite for many of our classes.)

In my in-person classes, we have group activities and discussions where these skills are built.  Group activities in an online class seemed impractical and undesirable, so we had individual activities, that I was hoping students would discuss in the forums, but that never happened.  I need to figure out how to encourage that kind of participation.

In an in-person class, I can provide support by floating around and giving hints and encouragement where needed.  In online classes, students seem to be shy about asking for help, and I can’t hover and eavesdrop and offer help  (well, I guess I can offer help, I just haven’t figured out a way to do it that they are likely to take me up on).

In the online class, each learning activity had an assessment that was completed through our LMS assessments tool.

The learning activities I designed really came in two flavors: ones where the activity itself (well, the technology in the activity) gives students feedback on whether they are on the right track, and ones where the feedback only comes after I had a chance to review their responses in the assessment tool.

(And horrible confession:  I did not realize until week 12 of the semester that when I type comments into our LMS’s assessments tool, they are not shown to the students by default– you have to enable that option for each assessment.  So for most of the semester, students weren’t actually getting any feedback at all.  Gakk.  I feel so guilty for that.  And who in their right mind thought that was the appropriate default?!?)

The total lack of feedback was a major problem, and I really wish I had realized about that before.  Because as I rework the learning activities, it sure would be nice to have reliable information about the difference in learning activities that give feedback immediately versus in a few days’ time.  I think having immediate feedback is helpful, as long as it can be done without disrupting the point of the activity.  If it turns into a click-everywhere-until-the-bell-dings, it has lost most of the point.  Except… then the activities are assessed by asking students questions about the activity.  So maybe I need to worry less about that, and just make sure (a) the students are aware that these activities have a point, and (b) assessments are doing more than just checking that students are jumping through the hoops.

An example of an activity that gives immediate feedback can be found here.  Before doing the activity, students are supposed to have watched videos going over the set operations: union, intersection, complement, and set difference.  The videos go over the meaning of the operations, and some examples with some discrete sets and some intervals.  No mention is made of venn diagrams before the activity.

An example of an activity that does not give immediate feedback can be found here.  I think it’s basically a good activity, but with this one more than any other, I wish there was a way for students to have a discussion about the activity (preferably before they look at any other resources about function transformations, but I have to know my limits).  (And yes, I know introducing it as a\cdot f(x+w)+k is non-standard, but I’ve found that it makes the left-right shift more obvious than a\cdot f(x-h)+k, while allowing us to have a conversation afterwards about why x-h is more useful than x+w .)

I still have a lot to think about here.

Teaching College Algebra Online: First Phase of Reflection

When I began designing the online college algebra class I taught this semester (which is the first lower-level math class to be put online at Texas State) I had a very clear picture of what I did NOT want to do.  Which was brought into extra-sharp focus when the Pearson textbook representative tried to push me to use their “one-click” solution.  (Incidentally, the new Pearson rep we have is a lot less prone to unintentional insults, so that’s nice.)  I really don’t think that even the best online course can be as good as a small in-person course, but I set my goal to be as good as the large lecture-hall courses.

I decided that pencil-and-paper tests were important, both for academic honesty reasons, and because there are a few questions on every test where I feel that the process is way more important than getting the right answer, and I insist on grading student work for those questions.  Because the main purpose of offering the online course was allowing students flexibility, it was important to allow them to take exams at other testing centers, but I also didn’t want anyone missing an exam because they have to make a choice of $30 for a test, versus not making rent that month, so I offered a free proctoring session on a Saturday for each test.  Most people took it with me, but there were several people who took it at other testing centers, both at Texas State (or at our Round Rock campus, which is about an hour and a half away), and at places around the state, plus one student who was in California for an internship.

The grading scheme was 45% exams, 25% final exam, 15% homework (we used Pearson’s MyMathLab) and 15% Learning Activities. The number one change I’m going to make next time is spending a lot more energy on getting student buy-in for the learning activities.

Problem proposals are hard to write.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday writing a proposal to participate in a two-week Technology Integration Workshop given by my university.  The idea is, you pick an issue you want to work on, and they coach you on instructional design, provide mini workshops on specific technologies, and mentor you through your project design.

I wrote my proposal on wanting a more robust and authentic assessment tool, and briefly mentioned my previous incarnation of the blog project.  They wanted the proposal to be written on a problem, not a potential solution, which makes sense– they don’t want you to come into the workshop committed to doing one specific thing, because deciding on solutions is part of it–but that made it very hard to write. I had already planned on revamping my blog project for the fall semester, and it would be great to get some help and feedback doing that, but if the workshop takes me in a different direction, that would be great too.  (And bonus: there’s a stipend for completing the workshop, which would even leave me a little something after childcare!)

Fingers crossed-- wish me luck!

Fingers crossed by Terriko, via Flickr

I really hope my proposal gets accepted, but I wasn’t really satisfied with what I submitted.  Some of that may be my usual battle with toxic perfectionism, but really it felt super-weird to write a proposal of a problem.  I could have detailed all of the things that I wanted to correct about how the blog project went the first time– there’s tons of stuff I could have written about that.  But I felt like that would paint me as not being open to other solutions to my dissatisfaction with traditional assessments, and I definitely want to keep an open mind about that.

Keeping fingers crossed!

(Oh, and how awesome is it that Texas State not only holds these workshops, but gives a stipend for participating in it?  I love it here.  Now, if only the math department could get it’s scheduling act together, it would be the perfect place to work.)

The semester is over! And I didn’t horribly traumatize my college algebra students!

I have been wanting to write about my experience teaching college algebra online, but I have been also very afraid to.  And honestly, during the semester, I just didn’t have the energy to properly reflect on things, other than to realize that I hated everything (not really everything, but sometimes it felt that way) I had prepared beforehand. And so I was spending a lot of time creating better materials.  And sometimes I think I got swept up and redid things that were just fine the way they were, or at least not significantly better after I redid them.

So my initial reflection as the dust settles is this:  it really wasn’t that bad.  And by that, I don’t mean it was easy.  It wasn’t easy. Holy mackerel, was it ever a lot of work!  And I’m not talking about the creating the videos and activities, even.  There’s a lot of work that would have needed to be done, even if I had kept the original set of materials I made.  People seem to think that I taught online so I could work less, now that I’ve got a baby.  Ha!  I worked about 55 hours a week.  I had a nanny for around 30 hours each week, and then worked whenever M was asleep, and a good chunk of time on weekends.  (I do think it will be a lot easier to do it again now that I’ve done it once, though.)

But it wasn’t that bad in the sense that I don’t think I destroyed anyone mathematically.  And yes, I was worried that I would.  Trying something totally new in teaching is always risky.  And it’s easy to teach badly online.  (And by “easy” here, I still don’t mean “not a lot of work”.  There’s probably still work involved.)  Lots of people teach badly online.  I had set my goal to provide at least as good a learning experience as the large 300-student lectures, and I think I did that.

Real reflections will come later (naptime is almost over, and I want to wrap this up quickly), but some quick thoughts:

  • Putting stuff “out there” is scary.  I used YouTube to publish my videos (my university has a system where I could force the students to log in to watch the videos, but YouTube just seemed easier).
  • You really don’t realize how often you misspeak until you’re recording everything all the time.  And sometimes you don’t catch things even when you’re watching them later.