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its labs began to be
crowded. That was a good
pressure but one that had
to be relieved, Williams
Virginia Tech, with
a current enrollment
of about 25,600 at the
Blacksburg campus,
promised the state to
take more students by
2010, with no increase in
state funding, said Anne
Moore, associate vice
president for learning
technologies. From 1992
to 1995, the additional
students did not arrive.
But in 1996 enrollment
jumped, whether through
admissions office
miscalculations or other
reasons, and the math
labs were overflowing.
“People were wanting to get off a burning platform” and knew
something had to be done, Moore said. The math emporium
was the answer.
Comparing costs of traditional classroom teaching and
emporium-based classes is difficult, math professor Mike
Williams said. For example, whenmath faculty wrote the
software for the college algebra and trigonometry course, they
made it a bit more difficult than before, so comparing results
would be like comparing apples and oranges.
Student performance has improved since the emporium
opened. In fall 1997, the first year for the redesigned linear
algebra course, 68 percent of the students
received C grades or better. By fall 2002, 90
percent were earning at least a C.
The student success rate also has
improved at the University of Alabama,
which established a Mathematics Technology
Learning Center, modeled on the Virginia
Tech emporium. In fall 1999, only 40 percent
of students taking traditional math classes
were earning grades of C-minus or better,
but after three years of the technology-based
approach, that has increased to 60 percent.
Early on, some Virginia Tech math
professors were skeptical about computer-
based courses. “I think they saw it as
something that would change the ultimate
outcome, that it was more of a gimmick than
substance,” said Robert Bates, then dean of
arts and sciences at the Blacksburg school,
now provost and academic vice president at
Washington State University. “Some would
say that our classes had gotten too big, and if we would just
go back to smaller classes we could educate students.” But
“some students need individual attention; some don’t,” he
added. “Some can move faster through the material. If we
can individualize the students’ experience, we can teach them
“What is (traditional) teaching?” askedMikeWilliams. “It’s
40 to 80 students in a room. A broadcast, not unlike watching
TV. A very passive act. The majority are zoned within 20
minutes. My view is that the lecture is not worthwhile. But
there are those who are very prideful about their material,
being the ‘sage on the stage.’”
One instructor with many students is highly inefficient,
Williams added. “What we have now is one-to-one. We train
our helpers to be good listeners, not to solve the problem for
the student but to figure out the right question to make the
light go on. The work of discovery changes a person’s brain.
We try to understand exactly what it is the student doesn’t
Teaching methods have not changed in upper-level
courses, according toWilliams. “I am not sure this would be
worth doing for courses of less than 500 students,” he said.
“There are about eight courses for which this works. Of 11,500
math enrollments, 8,000 are registered at the emporium for
some activity that requires grading.”
Virginia Tech has been in one financial crisis after
another in the last decade because of state budget cuts and
tuition freezes. Meantime, said Provost Dixon Hanna, the
math department was struggling because of the university’s
large engineering and science enrollments. “The math
department here is much larger than at most institutions,
and it was struggling getting its classes taught.” Under these
circumstances the department was willing to take a chance on
the emporium.
In order to succeed with the emporium approach, “you
really have to have people who believe in it, who are willing
to do almost anything to keep it from falling on the floor,”
saidMonte Boisen, who helped start the project at Virginia
Tech and now is math department chairman at the University
of Idaho. “It requires an amazing amount of commitment.”
Frustrations can abound when software doesn’t work as it
is supposed to, or, as happened soon after the Virginia Tech
emporium opened, someone plugged in a vacuum cleaner and
shut down the electrical power supply completely.
The emporium project could not have succeeded without
strong support from top campus administrators, including
then-President Paul E. Torgersen. “We’ve always been very
innovative about anything having to do with technology,” said
Torgersen, who was president from 1993 to 2000 and now
teaches industrial engineering. “We were the first university to
require PCs of all engineering freshmen.”
Some other departments thought that math was getting
undue attention—and money—and were not happy,
Torgersen recalled. “Anytime you do some initiative, it
comes at the expense of somebody else,” he said. “If you just
sit around and hand out money evenly, you’ll never make
progress. Once you decide you’re going to do this, you just
do it. This was a train on a fast track and there was no way we
were going to stop it.”
Kay Mills is the author of “This Little Light of Mine: The Life
of Fannie Lou Hamer,” and four other books.
Math professor Mike Williams says state budget cuts
are one reason Virginia Tech turned to the computer
lab solution for large-enrollment math classes.
“My view is that
the lecture is not
worthwhile. But
there are those who
are very prideful
about their material,
being the ‘sage on
the stage.’”
—Mike Williams,
a Virginia Tech
math professor