Change for the Better?

From the front page of today’s Washington Post, is this is what parents think of as an undergraduate college education when they write the big checks to send their kids to Tech?

In the Math Emporium, the computer is king, and instructors are reduced to roving guides. Lessons are self-paced, and help is delivered “on demand” in a vast, windowless lab that is open 24 hours a day because computers never tire. A student in need of human aid plants a red cup atop a monitor.

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.

As to those red cups, I remember seeing them sitting next to Apple IIGS machines in more than a few elementary school labs over the years. In those days, students would be asking for help with Math Blaster or Kid Pix.

Anyway, the lab (you need to see the picture) is both cheaper to run than “regular” classes and the students have a higher pass rate for the same introductory math courses than when they opened The Emporium fifteen years ago. Of course, as you might expect, the assessments are multiple choice to make grading faster and easier.

It’s an interesting approach but I have to wonder about this from the math department chair. 

“How could computers not change mathematics?” said Peter Haskell, math department chairman at Virginia Tech. “How could they not change higher education? They’ve changed everything else.”

It’s certainly a change from what I remember of my college math classes (none of which had 200 students), but is it a positive change for the students?

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