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ACM Will Again Offer Summer Online Course in Applied Calculus

ACM Will Again Offer Summer Online Course in Applied Calculus February 10, 2014
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Last summer, 16 students from ACM colleges completed an online course that was designed to be like the small, participatory classes they take on their home campuses. The course, Calculus: A Modeling Approach, was a pilot project sponsored by the ACM.

In evaluations, the students rated the course highly – one described it as being “as close as it could be to a satisfying on-campus course, while being online and still very flexible” – and said they would recommend it to other students.

Online this summer!

Calculus: A Modeling Approach

June 9-August 1, 2014

Application deadline (extended):

March 31

This summer, more students will get a chance to follow that recommendation, when ACM again offers the eight-week online course in applied calculus on June 9-August 1, 2014. Details and application information are on the online course webpage. The application deadline has been extended to March 31.

A pair of mathematics professors, Kristina Garrett from St. Olaf College and Chad Topaz from Macalester College, developed and taught the pilot course for ACM’s Online Learning Project. This summer’s course, with a maximum enrollment of 20 students, will be taught by Topaz. If there is enough demand, a second section of the course may be taught concurrently by Garrett.

“What we were really going after was to make [this course] a personalized learning experience, and that’s because learner-centeredness is a critical component of a learning environment,” said Topaz. “Another aspect is community-centeredness. We tried to drive home the point that we were all there to help each other, and [we worked] to provide the online tools to help facilitate that.”

ACM online courseACM’s online course, Calculus: A Modeling Approach, will be offered June 9-August 1, 2014. The application deadline is March 15.

Although “calculus” is in its title, the course is not designed for math majors. Rather, it’s aimed at students majoring in the social sciences and natural sciences who want to apply quantitative methods to solving problems in their subject areas.

Topaz and Garrett shaped the curriculum to emphasize “real world” examples from a variety of disciplines. “We were getting them to think about what the concept of a derivative actually means as a rate of change or as a sensitivity,” said Garrett. “We did that in medicine, chemistry, biology, economics – they got to see a wide range of applications for the material. That’s the perfect kind of course, I think, to get [students who are not math majors] thinking about things graphically and numerically, and the interpretations.”

Read more about the evaluation of the pilot online course in summer 2013 and about ACM’s Online Learning Project!

The course is structured in weekly units that include online lectures, check-in quizzes so students can see whether they are grasping the concepts, homework problems, and a regularly-scheduled video chat tutorial with the professor and groups of three or four students each. Students also participate in an online forum with their classmates, take a test for each unit, and can get extra individual help from the instructor during online office hours.

“Having the group tutorial sessions was important for us all to maintain some community,” Garrett said. “Also having online office hours allowed individual students to find some time just with a faculty member to talk about material they were having a hard time with and to go over the homework and the exams.”

The software enabled the instructors to talk face-to-face with students, pull up a whiteboard to use in explanations, and then save the whiteboard notes for the students to refer to later. “It was very interactive,” Garrett noted. “Not every student took advantage of it, but for the students who did, it was valuable.”

“What we were really going after was to make [this course] a personalized learning experience.”

– Chad Topaz

As much as possible, technology and software for the course was selected with accessibility and familiarity in mind, and to foster student-faculty and student-student communication. For example, the course uses Piazza for the online forum – the equivalent of class discussion in a course on campus – and participation is expected.

“We really wanted students to answer each other’s questions [in the online forum], but if a student either did that incompletely or we thought there could be another approach, we could edit those answers or include an instructor’s answer,” said Garrett. “More often than not, a student would ask a question about a concept and somebody [would answer with] a terrific explanation of the solution. We could just click a ‘thumbs up’ and they would get an instructor endorsement.”

Assessment and interaction – such as the tutorials and assignments that are due from all students on a set schedule each week – are built into the course, so students continually get feedback on their work and are less likely to fall behind. That distinguishes Calculus: A Modeling Approach from online courses that are set up for students to cover the material entirely at their own pace and schedule.

“There’s a tricky trade-off in this class between flexibility and community,” Topaz noted. “One of the advantages [of our course structure] is that students are all doing the same thing at the same time, and that’s what lets you have the community. If one student’s working on something that everyone else did five weeks ago and they post a question on it, no one is going to be very excited to answer their question or talk about it, since they all did it five weeks ago.”

“This is a different kind of online class,” he concluded. “Having that ability for students who are learning concepts at the same time [and] facing the same challenges to communicate to each other is, I think, really effective and really important. It’s part of what I mean when I say that learning is a community effort.”


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