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Greed or Good Mathematics Education? Online Courses

by Nancy Murphy
May / June 2001


Ask a sampling of teachers to describe their gut reactions to in-service courses, and the responses may be acrid but humorous. We know that teachers are underpaid saints and are the shoulders and the acrobats of the phrase "on the shoulders of giants." Each of us may have witnessed the sainthood turn devilish in an in-service classroom. I have.

Adult students enter classrooms with a degree of suspicion and resentment that is simultaneously healthy and cruel. As a teacher of adults, I am sensitive about the needs of adult learners and am committed to earning their trust, but it never arrives without aerobic and anaerobic applications of sincerity and effort. Admit it, teachers are a demanding audience.

Online courses have changed my life. Is this good mathematics education, I ask, or have I given in to greed?

Greed abounds in online education. Hundreds of low-overhead online degree programs have popped into existence in the last five years. Students are delighted to have easy access to cheaper courses and no commute. Many are pleased that they will not have to fret over interpersonal conflicts with faculty. Instructors are delighted by the opportunities for extra income.

When I entered the field of online education, I gained a flexible workweek, a minuscule commute, and flexibility to respond to the immediate needs of my family. I gained time to increase my technology skills. I gained freedom from the limitations of large class sizes and cumbersome university class scheduling and textbook-ordering requirements. I also gained an appreciative audience of students who work when they can best work and whose gains are like mine. I gained the time to call students at home and thoroughly discuss their needs, their problems, and their goals. I gained the time to customize each student's course in response to those conversations.

After twelve years of teaching in-service and preservice courses for students, I knew that robust learning in mathematics is supported by several factors. The students and teachers must believe that they are learning vital information that will help their practice. They must trust that I share that belief. They must do more than know the new content; they must be able to apply it in a classroom and to experience the positive effects. They must recognize that I can give them resources and ideas from which they can choose personally compatible teaching and learning styles. Perhaps most important, they must sense that I trust their judgment about their personal and professional needs and that I understand that they are living complex lives beyond the requirements of my course. As a result, online courses demand flexible time lines for the adult learners.

Antioch's negotiated work plan helps students make wise choices about whether they fit the following conditions that can help make online courses work:


  • They should be confident of themselves as learners.
  • They should be willing to take the initiative to generate a work contract.
  • They should be committed to learning new mathematics content because of perceived future needs or personal interest.
  • They should be willing and eager to participate in required "professional collaboration" components, that is, be required to translate content into instructional planning, to obtain feedback and suggestions on those instructional plans from master teachers, and to respond to these suggestions.

Online courses must be based on resource materials with clear conceptual sequencing of the mathematical ideas. Such courses require that students use computer technology to communicate their reasoning. For example, student-published Web pages are exceptionally versatile for student work.

The system discourages cheating by offering students very few temptations. I encourage students to use teachers' editions as textbooks, but they must prove that they have analyzed problems, not just answered them. They must demonstrate the ability to apply knowledge in other contexts, and they often are required to revise and enhance their work before it is acceptable.

In a normal classroom, all voices are heard and considered through intense group interaction. With online courses, I encourage students to register as a team of two or three teachers. Posted examples show alternative ways to solve problems and share students' work to illuminate subtle but important errors. Some positive aspects of group work may be compromised online, but online courses are not arid wastelands devoid of social knowledge. Indeed, online students hone their communications skills.

Diversity and equity issues haunt me, but I take solace in the number of evaluations and e-mails that include such phrases as the ones that follow:


  • "I was reassigned by the army for duty in the Middle East and gone from my family for six months. I used those long evenings to start working toward my dream career: helping other African Americans pursue engineering and high-tech careers. . . ."
  • "The nearest university would require a four-hour round-trip commute. I'm a single dad. . . ."
  • "I was just transferred to a middle school position that requires six preps. I need to obtain a legal mathematics endorsement by August, but I teach summer school and have newborn twins with special needs. . . ."
  • "Here's your second annual Rolando family photo-album Web link. Maria was born three days after I finished the non-Euclidean geometry course. . . . I can't believe that it's been two years. . . . By the way, I got that half-time job in the high school across the street."

An online teacher may never know whether a student with severe disabilities passes a course using assisted technologies and may never know the socioeconomic status of individual students or the richness of their accents, but I know that my courses are appreciated by those who use them wisely. I try to be wise about those who use them.


Nancy Murphy was core faculty teaching science and mathematics education courses at Antioch University Seattle and the University of Alaska Fairbanks for twelve years before entering the field of online education through Antioch's Center for Community and Professional Learning and Brooks-Cole/Thomson Learning Publishers.




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