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could be greatly improved by locating it on campus.”
Virginia Tech professors and administrators say there was
neither time nor money to build an on-campus facility in 1997,
when the acute need for a large space developed. Had the
computer-based courses taken over existing on-campus space,
they say, other classrooms would have been displaced. By fall
1998, the emporium’s second year of operation, it had freed up
space in 64 classrooms, each with a 40-student capacity, and
another 12 classrooms with a 100-student capacity.
Also, officials say, an on-campus facility would have cost
about $19 a square foot to build, while the mall department
store could be leased for about $1 a square foot.
State budget cuts also played a role. Virginia Tech’s state
support was reduced by $72 million during the 2002 and 2003
fiscal years. “The pressures, forces and influences that led
to this are at least 15 years old,” saidMikeWilliams, a math
professor and a former university
associate vice president. “We’ve
not been treated very well by
state financing.”With personnel
cutbacks, “the faculty was being
squeezed big time in what they
had to deliver,”Williams said. So
some administrators and faculty
members started looking at ways to
make better use of technology.
Among academics,
Williams said, “change comes
hard. Everything is fought over. The smaller the issue, the
bigger the fight.” In the early 1990s the university started to
prepare faculty for transitions in technology. Once the math
department sawwhat could be accomplished with computers,
“I think the emporium is
a good idea but one that
could be greatly improved
by locating it on campus.”
—Matthew Vetting,
a junior at Virginia Tech
Math Instruction at Virginia Tech
May 2008
ll of the computers at Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium
have been replaced, some of them a couple of times, since
published an article about this program in January 2005.
“We replace about a third of them each year,” saidMichael Williams, a
Virginia Techmath professor, and the director of theMath Emporium.
Featuring 550Macintosh workstations, the cavernous facility is still
housed at the same location, a former department store across the street
from the campus. And it has reached the limits of its size.The number
of students who take a complete emporium course (one that has no
formal classroom component) has increased about ten percent. But
because somany other classes make use of the emporium, and because
students also like to use it on an informal basis, limits have been put in
place to prioritize the availability of the computers.
“When we were giving final exams,”Williams said, “we had a line
out the door, for a 45minute wait, for those free-use computers, which
are used commonly for group work and other kinds of studying. But
we had to limit the amount of free-use time in order tomake sure
computers are available for test takers.”
Do students generally like the emporium? “Some love it; some hate
it,”Williams said. “Probably more of themdislike it, but they’ll tell you
things like, ‘I don’t like to have to teach it tomyself.’ What they’re missing
is that, in the end, you teach everything to yourself.That struggle is what
changes your mind andmakes for
learning. In the emporium that
connection is painfully obvious.
In essence, it amounts to hard
In the last few years several
courses have been added to the
emporium’s offerings, which
included college algebra and
trigonometry, differential
calculus and introductory
linear algebra. “We also run a
two-semester business calculus
course, and a two-semester
course for architectural students,”Williams said. “We also have another
course, like the linear algebra, that’s first-year multivariate calculus. We
generally take on a course over the summer, and then rewrite it for the
That will change this summer, however. “We are at a limit, and
cannot support any more students, so we have to put a freeze on
converting more courses, though there are certainly more candidates,”
Williams said. “Virginia hasn’t been kind to higher education through
the years. Our staffing is way down, and it continues to fall.”
Although there is often resistance, particularly among faculty,
to converting courses for the emporium, it all comes down to cost,
according toWilliams, who would like to see to it that savings realized
from the emporium remain within the math department. “It’s such
a total change in the way you approach education, and it requires a
substantial effort tomake the switchover,”Williams said. “The thing
that makes the emporium go economically is critical mass—it’s scalable.
And that leads you to large enrollment classes. We tend to look toward
specialty service courses with high enrollments. Cutting costs on them
will result in real savings.”
The recently implemented course for architectural students, which
is a mix of calculus and geometry, is a good example. “We’ve had such
a squeeze, and it was next on the chopping block,”Williams explained.
Noting that there were a number of instructors who were upset about
the change, he added, “It’s not a happy thing.”
Perhaps the most important benefit of this approach is that these
courses become more available to students. “There’s a real emphasis
around here about not putting capped enrollments in place for math
classes,”Williams said. “When you start capping courses, that’s when
graduation times lengthen significantly, because students can’t get spots
in the courses they need.”
Virginia Tech’s Math Emporiumwas a trailblazer, of sorts, and has
beenmuch imitated in the decade since it was established. Carol Twigg,
executive director of the National Center for Academic Transformation,
cites the emporium as a prime example of the positive results that can
be achieved through technological transformation in higher education.
“It was the first such program,” said Twigg, whose organization has
assisted in the development of many more. “We based our approach on
what they did at Virginia Tech,” she added. “The two stories are like the
micro and the macro.”
—Todd Sallo
Virginia Tech’s
Math Emporium
was a trailblazer, of
sorts, and has been
much imitated in
the decade since it
was established.