Course: College Algebra and Problem Solving

School/platform: Arizona State University/ALEKS/edX

Instructors: Adrian Sannier, Sue McClure

Quote:[Y]ou will learn to apply algebraic reasoning to solve problems effectively. You’ll develop skills in linear and quadratic functions, general polynomial functions, rational functions, and exponential and logarithmic functions. You will also study systems of linear equations. This course will emphasize problem-solving techniques, specifically by means of discussing concepts in each of these topics.

A lot of students were effusive with their praise of this course, raving about how much they learned. The staff, from the top echelons down, are highly enthusiastic about its efficacy. It comes with the option to receive ASU credit, so if that’s the goal, or if you’re reviewing algebra and want to know what you don’t know, it might work out great.

My experience was a bit different (but then, I’m kinda weird, especially around math). Remember, I have no background or training in education, I’m a mathematical idiot, and I’ve been focusing on algebra in many different venues for over a year now, so it’s possible this was just the wrong class for me (rule 1: every mooc works for someone, and doesn’t work for someone else). But I was disappointed. I keep hoping for an algebra mooc that helps me understand algebra, and all I keep finding are mastery-based skill drills. Fifty shades of Khan Academy.

On the plus side: the forums were crawling with staff. Most of the questions early on were logistical (“I can’t get into ALEKS… I can’t get this to work… where is the course?”) and they were answered very promptly, usually with pictures showing exactly which button to click. Staff support is a huge issue, particularly when the course is technologically complicated (involving an off-site element, a coaching system separate from the discussion boards, and electronic procedures for proctoring credit-bearing exams), and they really had it covered. I also loved their Twitter icon.

As for the algebra instruction, that was outsourced to ALEKS, a Khan-like proprietary learning system now owned by McGraw-Hill (Bias alert: Just typing that makes me nervous). The first step was an evaluation test of 80 questions (I could be misremembering the number; it took me several sessions over a couple of days). Then the Pie shows up, and from there, it’s a matter of “learning” and “mastering” the 419 topics. For each topic, a problem would pop up; in most cases, a link to some off-site video demonstrating how the problem should be done (often a Khan Academy video, in fact) and/or a page of explanation, would be available if needed.

My evaluation results gave me credit for 75% of the skills, though I still had to do some reviews or knowledge checks or something; I didn’t bother to master the system’s lingo, I just logged in and did whatever it handed me. Took about 50 hours all together, but that’s log-in time, so that includes time spent looking for more information on, say, the graph of a quadratic-over-linear rational function, a few minutes to check Twitter here, a round of Weboggle there… Oh, yeah, like you work 100% of the time when you’re at your computer.

The system was loaded with something they probably think of as encouraging messages: Great Job, Student! Exceptional work, Student! Presumably, one’s name is supposed to be substituted in for “student” but the interface wasn’t ready for that. I thought it was a brilliantly ironic metaphor for the entire “personalized” experience. Call me a curmudgeon, but it seemed like overkill to be so praised for so little. I also received frequent assurance that I only had 7 skills to go – or maybe it was 12. Turns out, one of the counters updates immediately, and the other doesn’t. More irony.

Given the title of the course, and the description emphasizing problem-solving, I’d hoped that would be part of the deal. But in this case, problem-solving seemed to mean: “Here’s a problem in solving a multi-step equation involving natural logarithms. Solve it.” After I’d “mastered” all 419 topics, the adorable @math_goat tweeted out an actual problem-solving problem (fresh from the pages of mathisfun.com) – and I had no idea what to do with it. Three years of math moocs, over a year focusing on algebra, I zipped through this course in a week without breaking a sweat, so why am I still so fucking stupid?!? (Turns out, lots of students posted the answer on the discussion forum, but no one – NO ONE, including staff – could give any rationale for solving it. I guess everyone googled it, and in this course, the right answer is all there is). At any rate, I wish I’d taken the course that teaches how to do that problem, rather than the one that teaches 419 ways of looking at a polynomial. I’d still be stupid, but I’d have more fun in the meantime.

ASU added on a coaching system, separate from the edX discussion forums. At first, I thought this was a fantastic idea, and eventually it might be (this is the first run of the course, and they do seem interested in making improvements, as you’ll see…). I received prompt and helpful responses to questions, but when I tried to request further info, I discovered there was no way to reply to a coaching message. I asked about this on the forums, and was told the coaching system “is not meant to be for conversational purposes…. is set to simply be for a question and a response.” Conversational purposes? It isn’t like I was chit chatting about Beyonce. I was assured I could copy material into a new question and add an inquiry, but why complicate communication when this is supposed to be the star of this personalized system?

In one case, I’d asked my coach (the coaches don’t have names; could these be more bots?) a very specific question: “Here are the steps I took; I have the correct procedure now, and the right answer, but why was my first procedure incorrect?” I got a lovely reply showing me how to do the problem, complete with a video working it out for me, but no clue as to what was wrong with the incorrect method. And since conversation was discouraged… well, my buddy Purgy was generous enough to answer questions via email, so I found out what I was doing wrong, which involved a fairly important misinterpretation on my part about what it means to “do this to both sides of the equation” so it’s a good thing I’m motivated to go beyond getting the correct answer, even if that’s all the course requires.

And what of the discussion forums? Early on, I asked a question about one of the problems and was told to use the coaching system. That’s fair; you don’t want to be revealing answers to everyone. It meant that the discussion forums were almost entirely about logistical questions. No one wanted to talk math… except for one amazing student who asked some very detailed, in-depth questions about various topics, going way beyond the course material. That was a lot of fun for a while, but eventually he went over my head (or under my feet, really, since he was going deeper and deeper into “but how do you know a^{1/2} = a^{3/6}?” Aside from this one student, there was almost no discussion about math. I started a thread titled “I’m lonely” and tried to get some interest going by posting Numberphile videos, math blog posts, and the like, but no one was interested.

On a more positive note, I (and about 30 others) received an email from the course instructor Dr. Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer of ASU (and it’s worth noting the chief instructor is not a mathematician, but a computer scientist who specializes in learning systems). We were among the first to pass some milestone of completion, so he asked our opinion of the course. So I… gave him my opinion. Opinions. Lots of them, flanked by disclaimers (I don’t know anything about teaching, and I’m not their target demographic). I’m not sure he was ready for all my opinions, but he was quite gracious and responded with detailed comments. Neither of us convinced the other of anything, but it was nice that someone cared enough to ask. They seem to be genuinely making an effort. I’m not sure I’m crazy about what it is they’re making an effort to do, but I can still appreciate effort.

Once I realized this wasn’t the course I’d hoped it would be, I finished up as quickly as possible and went back to emailing Purgy my questions. I keep hoping to find an algebra mooc that’s as engaging as the calculus and mathematical thinking courses I’ve taken (the details of which can be found elsewhere on this blog under the “MOOC” category or “math” tag), or at least as productive and interesting as AOPS or as enlightening and adorable as Mike Lawler’s work with his preteens.

The more I think about it, the more this course strikes me as the other side of the coin from the UT-Austin Discovery Precalc I took last year. That was all concept, no nuts-and-bolts, with hands-off staff. This was all nuts-and-bolts, no concept, and loaded with staff. Maybe someday someone will put the two together; it’d be awesome.

Maybe I’m shopping for a lawnmower in a shoe store: maybe algebra is exactly what these moocs make it to be: a group of skills, like melting butter and separating eggs, and while I can beat an egg for all it’s worth, I just don’t have the chops for cake-baking class. Or, to stop switching metaphors, the shoe store only carries Manolos in 6AAA and I can’t wear anything but Easy Spirit in 8WW. I’m not sure what else to try other than whatever’s out there. And what’s out there are mastery-based skill sets. And Purgy, bless his heart, closest thing I’ve got to a lawnmower.

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