Mac's First Online Course

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CATEGORY: Academics
TYPE: Articles

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Published in Macalester Today

Originally published on 02/01/2013

Macalester will pilot its first online course this summer, offering calculus to students of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM). Details aren’t yet worked out, but one thing is certain: It won’t be a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)—noncredit courses aimed at large-scale participation.

The class, to be taught by Mac math professor Chad Topaz and St. Olaf College math professor Tina Garrett, is an experiment. According to Provost Kathleen Murray, ACM top administrators wanted to see if there might be a distinctive platform for small residential liberal arts colleges in the world of online learning. Because colleges were aware that some students choose to take a required calculus course at home over the summer, says Murray, “We wanted to see if we can offer a better option.”

Logistical details, such as registration and fees, are still being determined by an ACM advisory committee. But rather than delay the course, “We decided to ‘build the bicycle and ride it at the same time,’” says Murray. “Thankfully, we have two fabulous faculty members designing the course. I know they believe it could actually be more effective than a traditional classroom experience.”

“It’s not technology for technology’s sake. It’s a chance to provide a service to our students. Offering calculus in the summer may help students who have schedule constraints, such as those who are pre-med, have double majors, or plan to study abroad.”

One of those details is class size, but the thinking is the online class will probably enroll 20 to 25 students rather than the thousands who might take a MOOC. Also, unlike in MOOCs, students will receive academic credit at their home institutions.

“I am thrilled to be a part of this project,” says Topaz. “It’s not technology for technology’s sake. It’s a chance to provide a service to our students. Offering calculus in the summer may help students who have schedule constraints, such as those who are pre-med, have double majors, or plan to study abroad.”

Topaz anticipates offering interactive online office hours and weekly online tutorials, adding virtual face time to the online learning experience.

“I don’t think ACM colleges will ever have a huge number of online offerings,” says Murray, “but if this experiment shows us that we have a distinctive voice in the online world, I expect the consortium will build additional courses. We’re exploring the question of whether there’s a way to offer online instruction that is true to our educational values.”

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“I have never been super confident in math, but I understood why we were studying things in the course, which made it easier for me to master.” That was one student’s assessment of last summer’s applied calculus course that was Mac’s first foray into online education.

The eight-week course, taught by math professor Chad Topaz, and St. Olaf colleague Tina Garrett, was offered through the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM). Barron Koralesky, associate director of Mac’s Information Technology Services, provided extensive technical expertise.

Sixteen students from eight ACM colleges enrolled, including three from Macalester. Topaz aimed for both flexibility and community, with students able to complete their work any time of day or night from anywhere in the world. One student even took the course from India. The weekly workload included watching instructors’ video lectures, participating in an online tutorial, and contributing to an online community forum.

Although the grades he gave were similar to those in his real-world classes, that doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges. “I learned a huge amount,” says Topaz. “This is some of the hardest teaching I’ve ever done.” The eight-week class was fast-paced, and Topaz felt like he was constantly online checking to see if students had questions. “You have to be very deliberate about connecting,” he says.

Will the ACM offer further online courses? That’s still under discussion, says Provost Kathleen Murray.

PUBLISHED: 01/31/2014