Over the weekend, I read a post by GasStationsWithoutPumps on speeding through college. The Washington Post has a great article about Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium that provides a mechanism to do that: Self-paced mathematics instruction, with human instructors available for one-on-one help. It’s efficient, and it provides student learning at their pace. I would love to see a computer science version of this. In particular, it would be great if students could explore problems in a variety of contexts (from media to games to robotics to interactive fiction), and get the time in that they need to develop some skill and proficiency. Like the distance education efforts, this is about improving the efficiency of higher education. Unlike distance education, the Emporium includes 1:1 human interaction and the potential for individualized approaches and curriculum. And there’s potential synergy: the content needed to make a CS Emporium work could also be used in a distance education. Here’s my prediction: Without the 1:1 help, I’d expect the distance folks to still have a higher WFD rate.
No academic initiative has delivered more handsomely on the oft-stated promise of efficiency-via-technology in higher education, said Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit that studies technological innovations to improve learning and reduce cost. She calls the Emporium “a solution to the math problem” in colleges. It may be an idea whose time has come. Since its creation in 1997, the Emporium model has spread to the universities of Alabama and Idaho (in 2000) and to Louisiana State University (in 2004). Interest has swelled as of late; Twigg says the Emporium has been adopted by about 100 schools. This academic year, Emporium-style math arrived at Montgomery College in Maryland and Northern Virginia Community College.
“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.” Emporium courses include pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry and geometry, subjects taken mostly by freshmen to satisfy math requirements. The format seems to work best in subjects that stress skill development — such as solving problems over and over. Computer-led lessons show promise for remedial English instruction and perhaps foreign language, Twigg said. Machines will never replace humans in poetry seminars.