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At UT-Arlington, a New Way to Tackle Algebra

In an effort to address lagging student success in required algebra courses, the University of Texas at Arlington is taking an approach that is becoming more common throughout the country: letting computers do the teaching.

University of Texas at Arlington students work on college algebra in the university's new "math emporium" on Aug. 29, 2012.

Alexzandria Siprian, a senior at the University of Texas at Arlington who is double majoring in Spanish and theater, is not a math person. Early in her college career, she squeaked through her required algebra course with a D.

Siprian said that her professor was very difficult to understand, but she also blames herself “because I never tried to get help,” she said. “They have tutoring services, but I never took advantage of it.”

Her experience is not unique. Of the 1,041 UT-Arlington students who took college algebra in the spring 2011 semester, only about 47 percent earned a C or higher.

“Nationally, the single greatest academic barrier to student success is mathematics,” said Michael Moore, senior vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at UT-Arlington.

Seeking to improve the situation, UT-Arlington officials decided to take an approach that is becoming increasingly common throughout the country: letting computers do the teaching.

In August, the university opened its “math emporium,” a 5,800-square-foot space where algebra students will spend two-thirds of their class time working on desktop computers at their own pace rather than sitting through traditional lectures. The pilot program is currently being used only for algebra, though officials indicated that it could expand to other courses as well.

The concept was first developed in 1997, when Robert Olin, then the chairman of the math department at Virginia Tech, faced a perfect storm of budget cuts and growing enrollment. His idea also appeared to improve the students’ success.

Olin, who is now dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alabama, says a chief benefit of the emporium model is that students are forced to work out problems themselves and can receive instant, individualized feedback from teachers who are available in the lab.

“Teaching math is like golf or football,” Olin said. “You can look at Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer all you want, but you’re not going to learn how to golf unless you go out on a course and start swinging.”

Some professors have concerns about the emporium, which is expected, said Jianzhong Su, chairman of UT-Arlington’s math department.

“When you break away from tradition, it’s natural for the academic to have some questions, have some doubts about whether this will work out or not,” Su said.

José Antonio Bowen, dean of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts and author of the new book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, questioned whether massive computer labs were really a step forward in an increasingly mobile age. Currently, UT-Arlington students can only do their algebra coursework on the desktops in the emporium.

"I think the days of building big computer labs are nearing the end,” he said. “When students come into class, let’s have them interact with each other. I’m not anti-technology; it’s just a question of where the technology needs to be."

Carolyn Jarmon, the vice president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, helps universities around the country institute the emporium model. After working with more than 200 schools, she said her group has found that it is the best way to improve results and also to reduce costs in math education.

“Some people don’t like change, but nobody’s arguing that you can’t do this,” she said, adding that it could apply to other subjects beyond math. Olin agreed, noting that it has been used successfully for foreign-language education.

Other Texas schools are also considering this approach. Austin Community College plans to open a math emporium in 2014.

Siprian said she wasn't sure about the emporium model for other subjects, but believes it could have helped her algebra grade. “Usually, I would say it’s better to do things in a lecture when you’re face to face with your professor,” she said, “but in this case because I wasn’t able to keep up with the professor, I think it would have been better to go at my own pace, for sure.”

Moore said he hopes UT-Arlington’s pass rate for algebra can eventually get up to 75 percent, and he said he believes savings will come from students not having to repeat the course.

“In my gut, I know this has to work,” he said.

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