A giant math lab staffed by tutors has replaced entry-level math classes taught by professors at Virginia Tech, reports the Washington Post. The model is spreading to other universities and to community colleges.
Students can take self-paced lessons online in their dorm rooms or come to the Math Emporium, where placing a red cup on a monitor summons human assistance. (Tests and quizzes must be taken in the Emporium.)
The Emporium is the Wal-Mart of higher education, a triumph in economy of scale and a glimpse at a possible future of computer-led learning. Eight thousand students a year take introductory math in a space that once housed a discount department store. Four math instructors, none of them professors, lead seven courses with enrollments of 200 to 2,000.
. . . Virginia Tech students pass introductory math courses at a higher rate now than 15 years ago, when the Emporium was built. And research has found the teaching model trims per-student expense by more than one-third, vital savings for public institutions with dwindling state support.
“When I first came here, I was like, ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ ” said Mike Bilynsky, a freshman from Epping, N.H., who is taking calculus. “But it works.”
The lab format “seems to work best in subjects that stress skill development — such as solving problems over and over,” the Post reports.
Each lesson typically starts with an online lecture or reading passage, then leads to a series of problems. Students receive instant feedback; hints are dispensed and wrong answers explained. The module ends in a quiz. Faculty design every course and have added modest improvements over the years, such as interactive animation and embedded links that hark back to previous lessons.
The lab gives students lots of practice in problem solving and lets students move at their own pace. That’s especially useful for students who are weak in basic skills.