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Learning to Love Math: How One Teacher is Using MOOCs to Transform Instruction, Inspire Passion in Students

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Let's take a moment to imagine a world in which people not only "get" math... but love math. Where would we be as educators? As individuals? As a workforce? As an economy? As a country?

My seventh grade math teacher, Louanne Dorne, was a wonderful woman. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she still came to work every day with a passion for her students and a commitment to teaching. She did everything to make sure we stayed engaged even if that meant taking off her wig and telling jokes to make us laugh. She made me look at numbers and equations in a different way, and through it all, instilled a love for math that has never waned.

It all started with a simple assignment. Mrs. Dorne asked our class to interview people about how they "used math in their job or daily life." Around that same time, I had picked up a book called E-mail Addresses of the Rich and Famous by Seth Godin. I showed it to my mom and dad, and they dared me to email celebrities for my project. Keep in mind, this was 1995, so the Internet and email was still a novelty in many homes, including my own.

So, I began sending emails to people in the book with the subject line "Please Help"--the type of message most of us would immediately delete today. Surprisingly, I got responses from more than 15 "famous" people, who all shared how they use math in their job. This included film critic Roger Ebert; Alan Kay, co-developer of the Apple Macintosh computer; the science fiction writer, Anne McCaffrey; motion picture director Phil Alden Robinson; Susan Shepherd, the then-systems operator for Compuserve; and Will Wright, developer of games like SimCity and SimAnt. I even heard back from Bill Gates. I also interviewed my parents and grandparents. Through these face-to-face conversations with family and stories from "the rich and famous," math became real. It was no longer just a subject I learned in school, but something that had a direct impact on my life and future goals.

Mrs. Dorne was so proud of my work. She even called the local newspaper to share what I had done. Sadly, only a few months later, she lost her battle with cancer. She was only 32 years old. Still to this day I think about her and all she taught me.

Mrs. Dorne worked every day to not only help her students "get" math, but foster a love for math and appreciation for how important it is in our lives. After being a part of her class, I have always been fascinated by how other great math teachers are able to make that connection and transform learning for their students. Last week, as I was researching MOOCs for my previous post, I was introduced to another one of these transformative teachers. Jim Fowler created MOOculus, an adaptive learning platform for introducing calculus to students. Jim received his undergraduate degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. from University of Chicago. He is currently a mathematics professor at my Alma mater, The Ohio State University.

Early Work
Jim's work with MOOCs and the development of MOOculus began in 2012 when he decided to "flip" the classroom of his accelerated calculus section at Ohio State. He recorded videos of blackboard lessons for students to review outside of class and used his "lecture" time to help students work on problems. This is where Jim got interested in the "science of learning" and studying what really made a difference in his lessons. "I hope, in the long run, that MOOCs will make it easier for more people to learn more math," he explained.

The Response
More than 47,200 people registered for MOOculus the first time it was available. The second offering of the course attracted more than 34,300 students, while 32,421 people have accessed the courses through iTunes. "Considering I'm teaching 60 students this semester, it'd take me a thousand years to reach that many students in a traditional format," Jim explained. "Last week, students watched 21,271 minutes of calculus content on my YouTube channel. There are only 10,080 minutes in a week, so we're always teaching calculus in the sense that somebody, somewhere, is probably watching one of our videos."

And, like Mrs. Dorne's class did for me, Jim's MOOculus lessons are reaching people in a way that not only helps them understand math, but develop a passion for it. He recalled, "Just last week, I received an email that started 'I just wanted to send you a quick note to let you know how much my five-year old son and I enjoy your Calculus One course. He is obsessed with math at the moment.'"

Using Feedback to Improve
In K-12 education, many states and districts are moving towards comprehensive summative evaluation systems as well as the development of formative processes for teachers to receive feedback--and in some cases, instantaneous feedback. Jim said the feedback he has received through MOOculus has helped him grow tremendously as a teacher. He's always collecting data and using the information to improve. The formative nature of the course itself has made him reevaluate not only what he teaches, but how. "MOOCulus has provided a space to discuss pedagogy. Other faculty have seen some of my lecture videos on YouTube, and they've provided useful feedback. I've learned a lot more about math education through these informal discussions than I would've expected."

This is something I hear a great deal about from K-12 educators who are deeply involved in formative evaluations, professional learning communities, using student survey feedback formatively, and/or recording their lessons on camera and reviewing the content and students reactions. More and more, great teachers are looking at how they teach. Are classes interactive? Is learning fun? How are we incorporating technology appropriately? The MOOCulus team is having similar conversations. Jim notes, "The online student experience can be much more interactive than the often passive, often non-interactive lecture. I'm teaching an in-person course right now, and I'm certainly thinking about ways to make the student experience more social, more mobile, more like a video game. Teaching online has inspired me to think about ways of making my traditional 'lecture' more active, more engaging."

The Future
The MOOCulus team has grown since the courses inception in 2012. The materials are constantly revisited. Once a course is built, it will always be improved upon, using data and more importantly, student feedback. "Students noted that they did not like how something was shown in the text book we created online, so I told them to go in and make revisions," Jim explained. The MOOCulus team wants students to own their learning and be actively involved. Now, people from all over the world are sending in ideas, suggestions, problems, and text book edits. Jim added, "Community is a great thing."

More courses are in the works, including some that tackle higher level math content as well as others that could even be used by high school math teachers.

Perceptions
In a previous blog post, I examined the perception of MOOC's, which have received a less than enthusiastic reception from many college professors and university presidents alike. However, the reaction to MOOculus has been different. "The administration has certainly been extremely supportive of my doing this, going out of their way to make it possible for me to continue working on projects like these," Jim said. In fact, furthering MOOCulus has become one of his official roles with Ohio State.

Some believe the growth of MOOCs, online courses, or "flipping the classroom" will impact the number of teachers available for students. As someone who has taken online courses, I believe that learning happens when students have the opportunity to interact with a teacher, whether in a traditional classroom, a blended learning model, or virtually through a chart room or message board. I don't believe we can remove the human element from teaching and expect learning to be engaging, meaningful, and long lasting for students. Jim is adamant that, "MOOCulus has simply provided an excuse for trying to teach math differently. I had originally thought of online content as being a useful "substitute" for students who might miss a lecture in my traditional, in-person course. I now believe that what we're building with MOOCulus could be better than an in-person experience."

"Many people watch videos on YouTube, but those people are still buying televisions. We don't see YouTube replacing TV, so why would online learning replace teachers?" Jim added.

For more information on Jim and his team's work, visit MOOCulus on the Web or watch the YouTube video below, "Innovate 2013 at Ohio State: Jim Fowler MOOCulus Steal My Idea." It's extremely interesting, educational, and yes, funny.

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