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 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.