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Red Cups a Sign of the Future in Higher Ed?

Red plastic cups on college campuses may evoke images of wild frat parties. But at Virginia Tech they are being put to much better use: to help revolutionize the teaching of mathematics. Gone are professors and chalkboards. In their place is a giant computer lab—known as the Math Emporium—which is open 24 hours a day for students to learn at their own pace. When a student needs help they place a red cup on their desk and a roving instructor arrives to provide support.

The Washington Post (h/t Tyler Cowen) has the details:

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.

While some may decry the lack of personalized attention, the Post describes how the Emporium is delivering better results for lower prices while—crucially—maintaining support from the students themselves:

But 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.”

Other universities are catching on. Alabama and Idaho introduced the Emporium in 2000, and Louisiana State followed in 2004. Now there are more than 100 schools that have adopted it. The reliance on computers cannot be extended to every discipline (it is hard to conceive of a 24 hour computer lab for Introduction To Shakespeare), but the Emporium’s success at Virginia Tech points the way forward for similar initiatives throughout the country.

Much of the rest of the world is still trying to imitate the college system the U.S. had ten years ago; the U.S. is already in the middle of building something new and more effective. What form it takes remains to be seen but developments like the Emporium are just the tip of the iceberg. Change: coming to a university near you.

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  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    “(it is hard to conceive of a 24 hour computer lab for Introduction To Shakespeare) . .”

    I would disagree. In fact I bet you can do it on Wikipedia and Wikipedia-like websites. Hypertext makes research, cross-references, historical background notes, word definitions, past critical views, etc., instantaneously accessible. You can even access pronunciation and YouTube performance segments, costume images, lectures, scholarly monographs (if you have Jstor access), and almost anything else you can imagine.

    When you consider how absolutely scarce first-rate literary criticism is, the chances of getting an instructor who can top the web is small.

  • Jbird

    “While some may decry the lack of personalized attention”- are the big box universities considered personalized now? Large lecture halls with classes led by graduate students aren’t the most intimate of settings. Don’t see how Tech’s emporium is much “worse”, sounds even more personalized as the students can learn (or not learn) at their own pace. I went to a small liberal arts college (1,000 students) and loved having professors who knew my name and who would invite groups of their students over for dinner. I don’t know how anyone going to the big state universities learn anything other than how to do a keg stand.

  • Kenny

    These emporiums sound like a good idea. Just remember that Va. Tech is at essence an engineering school and has relatively high standards for admittance.

    What is really needed is that the K-12 public schools have to be turned upside down so that academic performance and thinking ability become a higher priority then the needs of the unionized staff.

    When that happens, kids will be going to college actually prepare to do college work.

  • M53

    Sounds like a formalized version of my engineering school (though couldn’t the come up with a better name than “learning emporium”? I’d suggest “The Dreamatorium” from ‘Community’). The professors presented the material in lecture and then afterward the students retired upstairs to the computer lab to teach it to one another (often until the wee hours). Really much more effective than working alone with a textbook, and it builds teamwork skills which is a major fringe benefit.

  • M53

    I would hasten to add, though, that the room depicted in the WaPo article is way too large for the sort of model we used to ever work, and the students are too separated. We used a department-exclusive lab for our version (this section seated maybe 35-45 kids) and the computers were arranged around the perimeter of the room, with a large table at the center. The confines basically demanded that students interact with one another, and oftentimes you would have students working on a “master copy” of an assignment at the center table and farming out tasks to different small groups working on code or whatever at the workstations(there was no prohibition on working together on homework; the professors all assumed, rightly, that the students would police one another to prevent freeloading – anyone who couldn’t hack it was gone halfway through sophomore year anyway). The cool part was that this arrangement developed organically without anyone having to be told how it worked. I don’t see how you would apply it to a liberal arts environment, though, since those people tend to see “collaboration” as “plaigarism”.

  • Walter Sobchak

    The WaPo article was not exactly news:

    “Transformation 101: Technology is driving down the cost of teaching undergraduates. So why are tuition bills going up?” By Kevin Carey in Washington Monthly for November/December 2008
    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2008/0811.carey.html

    * * *

    “To see just how much technology is changing undergraduate education, drive to Virginia Tech University, nestled in the mountains of southwest Virginia about four hours from Washington, D.C.—and then just a little farther, a few blocks from where the campus ends. To the mall.

    * * *

    “Walk down to the poorly lit atrium, take a left, and you’ll find the Virginia Tech Math Emporium in 60,000 square feet of gray, windowless space that used to house a five-and-dime. There are 700 late-model iMac computers arranged in pods of six, row upon row. Arrive at ten p.m. on a weekday and you’ll find hundreds of students, some solving math problems on the computers, others reading textbooks or chatting quietly in study groups while teaching assistants help undergrads with sticky problems in differential calculus and vector geometry. It’s everything you’d expect from a traditional four-year university—except for professors, and classes.”

    The other side of the story is that math is a subject that is more poorly taught than any other subject regularly taught on American campuses. There are two reasons for this one is pedagogy, and the other is personnel.

    The pedagogical problem is that math is taught as a series of unconnected abstract propositions which is how senior math professors understand it. Sadly, no one else can.

    The personnel problem is that senior math professors are mostly autism spectrum disorder sufferers, who have congenital personality issues that make communication with non-mathematicians almost impossible. The graduate students do not have the disorders, but come from Asia and cannot speak English.

    Given the situation, a roomful of computers is not an unattractive proposition.

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