Saturday, July 17, 2010

My online math class review: Convenience gets an 'A,' but at what cost?

So I'm going to business school. It's an intense, full-time, on-campus program at MIT Sloan. However, before school started, a handful of us who don't have science, finance, or engineering backgrounds were asked to take an online precalculus course at another institution. This post serves as an online math class review. The online math class was taken at the University of California Extension School.

Why take an online math class before going to business school to get an MBA? It's an understandable requirement. Our business school curriculum has a very strong quantitative component. Using a scientific calculator and Microsoft Excel is required. Microeconomics, accounting, and data analysis are math-heavy subjects, and even the instructor for the core marketing class has illustrated theory with mathematical equations.  To give you an idea of the types of questions I'm dealing with, here's an example from the practice microeconomics exam:
You have a patent on a drug that has been approved for sale in the U.S. The U.S. demand for this product, for which you are the monopoly producer, is

ln Q = 3.4 - 1.5ln P + 0.5 ln A

where Q is millions of tablets sold, P is the price per tablet, A is expenditure on advertising, and ln denotes a natural logarithm.

If you are maximizing profits, and if the marginal cost of a tablet is $0.90, what price should you charge?
That was actually one of the easier questions using a standard economics equation with price, marginal cost, and elasticity variables. The more difficult ones involved transfer pricing and monopoly pricing, which use calculus. Moreover, I'm in the room with bankers, scientists, engineers, and others who have used math in their day-to-day careers. Even if you don't have this type of professional background, everyone has to be able to keep up to get the most out of the curriculum, and maintain an intelligent and productive level of discussion with classmates and faculty.

My online math class review - notes from trigonometry section
So why not stick with the concepts covered in the GMAT, which is intended for people heading to business school? While GMAT test preparation concentrates on algebra and geometry basics, it's basically 7th-grade math. Precalculus goes beyond typical GMAT review topics, and in my opinion, the  advanced math review is more appropriate for business school. For instance, in my microeconomics class, we had to deal with logarithms and graphing supply/demand curves -- two areas which were *not* part of the Barron's or Kaplan GMAT review, but were covered extensively in precalculus.

Online math class review - what the curriculum was like

The online precalc class I took was not through MIT, but rather through a well-regarded public university's continuing education division -- specifically, the University of California at Berkeley Extension School. The class has been in existence since at least early 2006, and during that time has apparently been taught by the same instructor.

On the class bulletin board, I noticed that there were other students from UPenn/Wharton, the University of Chicago, and NYU who were taking the same class before starting their respective MBA or masters programs. The precalc class was a for-credit course, but the credit will not be transferred to MIT. The main purpose of taking the class was to ensure that we come prepared for some of the concepts and exercises that are now being thrown at us, as opposed to checking off a math credit.

So, how was the class?

The curriculum was standard. It started with a basic algebra review, went on to quadratic equations and graphing, spent a few chapters on functions, and ended with three or four chapters on trigonometry. There was one chapter on logarithms, too.

The convenience was great. We could go at our own pace, and start at any time during the year. Beginning in April, after putting the kids to bed, I would go downstairs to the living room to spend about 2-3 hours on readings and homework, and about every week, the chapter tests. I never had to deal with driving. Homework and tests were completed online. I was able to make very steady progress, with the aim of completing the course by the time my full-time MBA program started in Cambridge in early June. I was able to finish the required chapters in about two months and take the proctored final exam in downtown Boston the day after Memorial Day, just a few days before heading to MIT.

I worked very hard at the online precalculus class, and did very well in the homework, tests, and final. Most importantly, I feel that I learned a great deal and came to business school well-prepared. The value of taking precalculus was very apparent in the on-campus microeconomics class, which had a substantial math component. The online math preparation allowed me to focus my attention on economics theory, instead of getting hung up on the calculations in the problem sets.

But there were drawbacks, too. For years, I've heard criticisms from other students, faculty, and even supporters of Web-based distance education, relating to a lack of interaction between students and faculty. I can verify that this was indeed the case in the online class that I took. Here's what observed:
  • There was no shared sense of community, or any efforts by the school (the state university that offered the online course) to create one, beyond setting up an online message board. Many of the students used this to introduce themselves at the start of class, but by chapter 1 or 2 in the book practically all shared dialogues had stopped using the official message board.
  • What few questions that were placed on the message board -- either relating to the course content, tests or the online software -- were never answered by the instructor. One sad example: "Can you please provide more information on the final? Will it be similar to the Practice Final? How many questions will there be? Please let me know when you have a chance." I am sure others had the same question, too, but it was never answered on the board -- although the teacher did answer this particular question in a private email, when I asked her.
  • Because old comments from previous students were never removed from the board, it gave the appearance of an abandoned ghost town -- the MySpace of math.
  • The only comments that I saw from the teacher were the first comment at the top of each thread ("please feel free to email me, etc.") which dated from March 2006. Three times, she responded to students who introduced themselves, but by mid-2007 even these responses had stopped. There was no shared response by the instructor to any question about tests, math problems, or software issues. It is uncertain if the students who asked them gave up, or attempted to contact her by email afterward.
  • The lack of an easy mechanism to ask complex questions was very frustrating. For instance, the trigonometry chapter covered difficult concepts and methods relating to trigonometric functions and equations. In a classroom setting, the instructor would be using the board to work out equations and would be referring to the unit circle while students asked questions. In an online setting, I could use the textbook, online exercises, and pen and paper, but I still had a ton of "why" questions that could not be easily described or diagrammed via email.
  • On the other hand, the teacher was very responsive to those questions that were asked by email. I sent more than 10 specific queries over the course of the semester, most relating to grading errors with the MyMathLab software we used to complete assignments and take tests, or questions relating to the final. She responded to every one within 12 hours. This was impressive, considering many university professors I've had contact with in classroom settings sometimes takes days or even more than a week to respond to email from students.
  • Even though she was responsive with email, I did not observe any spontaneous communication from the instructor in the way of asking about problems, or even "keep up the good work" encouragement.
  • The $170 precalc textbook contained two extra books which were never needed for the class, as well as a login key for the MyMathLab section. Interestingly, the book was reproduced entirely online, reducing the need for even buying a physical text.
  • The instructor prepared "lectures", which were actually explanatory essays with diagrams. The quality of these documents was generally quite good -- I'd say they were much clearer than the Sullivan precalc textbook I used.
  • However, the text "lectures" did not encourage a shared dialogue, and seldom/never change from year to year. I found this out when a link in one of them directed me to an external website, which generated the following error: "Web Hosting from closed on 30th June 2008." In other words, the link had been added at least two years before and was never revised.
  • MyMathLab contained video clips of various concepts and exercises produced by Pearson employees, but there was no classroom video of the instructor. I watched one of the MyMathLab videos, but found they were much less engaging than the free videos produced by Khan Academy.
  • Grading was easy. As long as you studied, understood the concepts and questions likely to appear on the homework and exams (which were driven entirely by textbook content), it was nearly impossible to do poorly. For the online homework on MyMathLab, the system allowed unlimited attempts on each question and even gave step-by-step instructions on how to solve tricky problems. This does not mirror the homework or testing scenarios typically found in physical classrooms, in which you get one chance to get it right, and in the case of tests, cannot have open browser windows or the ability to communicate with other people at the same time.
  • The tests followed the textbook lessons very closely, and you were allowed to take practice tests as many times as you liked. The questions that appeared on the practice and real tests were practically identical. Rarely was there a "trick" question.
  • Only the final was proctored (I did it at the New England College of Finance in downtown Boston). There was no monitoring on any other graded content. This, combined with an almost complete lack of student/teacher interaction, makes it very easy to cheat on homework and chapter tests.
  • Because the homework and tests corresponded to the textbook lessons, it was more efficient for me time-wise to take notes and practice problems from the textbook and do the homework and tests without even reviewing the redundant (but better-written) "lectures".
  • The textbook had a fair number of word problems, but these almost never appeared on the homework or tests. I wish they had -- the practical applications of mathematics is where a lot of people struggle, but is the best way of illustrating abstract concepts.
  • Although I know how to use Excel (I actually wrote a book on the subject, which is a kind of  Excel for Dummies alternative) I did not need to use it for class. Most of the time, I used a piece of paper to work out problems and a scientific calculator to check them.  
In summary, my online math class review found that taking the class basically boiled down to being taught by a textbook, and getting university credit for it, from one of the top-ranked public universities in the United States. I use textbooks in my real-world classes too, but the big difference is the classroom sessions include a huge amount of discussion and focused questions on difficult topics, examples, and other areas worth exploring as part of a shared dialogue. In the online math class, there was almost no meaningful student/teacher or student/student interaction. To equate this type of online learning with a real-world classroom experience is a major stretch.

Further, struggling students tend to suffer in an environment when teachers aren't there to help, or even notice there's a problem. I wonder how many dropped out of my class, after attempting to make contact on the online message board, or getting hung up on the software? In the absence of any monitoring system for the exams and homework, how many have turned to cheating?

On the other hand, the convenience of taking a class at home was addictive. It was very easy to incorporate these classes into my home life, without dealing with wasting time or money on commuting to class. And, most importantly, I learned what I set out to learn.

Would I take an online class again? Maybe, if the topic lends itself to rote memorization and hands-on problem solving that does not require interaction with other students or faculty.

But for most college- or university-level subjects, online education is a poor substitute. In my opinion, the most effective learning takes place in the classroom, where you can easily raise your hand, engage in spontaneous discussions with classmates and faculty, turn to the person next to you to ask for clarification, or approach the professor after class or during office hours to ask questions or exchange viewpoints in a way that practically guarantees an instant response and is not constrained by typing, software interfaces, or waiting for a response.

To give you an example, in my on-campus microeconomics class, I suspect that about 3/4 of us were partially or fully baffled during our professor's first explanation of concepts like two-part tariffs and double-marginalization in certain transfer pricing scenarios. The only way we were able to "get it" were by some students raising their hands and asking the professor to explain a particular element, other students sharing their own experiences from their careers (with responses from other students or the professor), and the problem sets being explained in person by the TA, with more questions from us. Not everyone raised their hands or participated in the debates, but everyone in that classroom heard them, and learned something from them.

I doubt 10% of this interaction would have been possible online, even using technologies that allow instant feedback from remote students -- it's too easy for people to multitask, read email, or browse the Web while attending class, and unless sophisticated two-way video systems are involved (such as telepresence), it will be difficult for faculty to get important visual feedback cues from the students they are teaching.

A decade from now, there may be better technologies that truly bring the shared classroom experience to people's homes, but the asynchronous, Web-based technologies that seem to dominate the online education sector don't come close to the real thing.


  1. What the author fails to realize is that for-profits offer admission to everyone, which is why the curriculum has to be easy enough for everyone to pass. If the business or MBA programs are too quantitative, i.e., requiring strong math backgrounds, people will quit or drop-out. The for-profit colleges can offer MBA programs that minimize the quantitative skills that are typically found in non-profit schools; a dirty little secret that is slowly coming to light. If the for-profits make the programs too difficult to pass, their revenue stream takes a hit, since the key is the get people to sign-up, regardless of ability or skills. Maybe that's why employers are finally starting to question the value of for-profit education. One may get a degree but not necessarily an education.

  2. While it may be true that for-profits admit everyone, that does not mean that requirements are easier or that everyone passes. It only means that everybody gets the opportunity. There is no question that the average quality of students who attend for-profit universities is lower, but I do not think it is true that the average quality of students who GRADUATE from for-profit universities is lower.

  3. I just finished an online College Algebra class through a public community college in central Missouri. This was a for credit course as a part of the core requirements for my AA in Liberal Arts degree. I elected to take the class online, as I have quite a bit of experience in online distance learning from being a CIT major for the first yr & a half of my college experience and having owned & operated my own construction company for about 15 yrs I felt I was very proficient in math & would do well. In retrospect I should have taken the traditional in the seat class. I was pretty lost after the first month of the semester & ended up going to campus & sitting in on the class part of the time in an effort to grasp some of the work. I did end up with a B- in the class, but this was mostly because we had a final project for the course which entailed a considerable amount of writing and analysis of three problems for which we were provided tables with data to be graphed and then had to formulate an equation to correspond to them. I do well with this type of assignment and scored a 97% and since it was worth 10% of the overall grade it pulled my final grade up from a C- to a B-. I would not say that the curriculum is easy for online courses and I would definitely say that it takes more effort and certainly more attention to detail and schedules in order to be successful in them.

  4. I started my Bachelors the traditional way and completed my BA in Computer Science online. The vast majority of the online classes were or a programming nature, so that wasn't too big a stretch. I did have a few non-technical courses mixed in there, and the issue I had with those was that "attendance" meant adding the $0.02 to the weekly discussion thread. Some posted meaningful ideas while others opted for the, "Nice post, so-and-so, have you thought about this [insert tangent here]?" and received just as much credit from what amounted to an off-hand comment and not real insight. One class, Discrete Math, involved weekly live discussions which proved more beneficial than the post and wait method.

    I took a few grad level courses (before stopping to reassess whether that degree would be beneficial to my career goals) and in one of the classes, a student would respond to literally everyone with "Great post! Keep up the good work!" - until the instructor told her that her comments did not amount to any sort of contribution.

    My real issue with the forced interaction (via the threads) is that there are some times when I don't have anything new to add. An online math class would serve to make this worse, for me at least, as applying an equation doesn't seem to merit an intense discussion, whereas a discussion of the application of a topic might.

    1. In 2009, I had completed a BS in Business Information Systems at University of Phoenix Online. The reason I had decided to get an online degree was, because (a) I was working F/T, (b) was busy with family, (c) was very busy taking care of our newborn baby, (d) my employer offered 100% tuition reimbursement, and (e) U of P Online is fully accredited. It would be very difficult for me to complete a BS Degree on campus.

      From my own, real, personal experience, I had discovered that one can learn just as much and just as effectively online, as on campus. Some say that learnig in a physical classroom greatly improves learning effectiveness, because you hear instructor explaining the topic and you get a chance to ask questions. The reality is that during their lectures, college professors/instructors just repeat the course material written in the course textbook that students are required to read prior to class anyway. So the online benefit is just hearing the material one more time, which helps memorize it better. Moreover, most students don't get a chance to ask enough questions in a physical classroom anyway, because of time limitations. And, most, which probably includes you too, are too shy to ask questions in the physical classroom, because of fear of being perceived as smart as most others in class. In online classrooms, you can ask more questions with the benefit of privacy. And, the instructor is not in a hurry to start the next lesson -- he/she can answer our question by e-mail anytime. In addition, having to sit and listen to other students' question can be distracting and wastefull of time, if you already know the material well.

      The only real benefit of attending a physical class that I see, is the POTENTIAL to experience of QUALITY physical interaction with students and staff. Note that I emphesize QUALITY -- the reason is that just sitting there staring at others is not quality interaction. Moreover, merely asking a question and getting some sort of quick answer with insufficient examples from a professor who is in a hurry to start the next class is not quality interaction. And, waiting after class, in a line of student to get a chance to ask some silly question is not quality interaction.

      As far as quality of curriculum, I think U of P Online management, finance, and statistics courses were just as good as in a physical classroom. The material was very challenging even for a math buff like me. It was very fast paced -- each class was only 5 weeks, so I had to learn daily to stay on track. I think online programs are more difficult than campus programs, because they require you to work more independently -- if you are weak in math, science, you will not get as much help from students as in a physical classroom. The amount of help from instructors is probably about the same, or even better in online program.

      I thinK much of negative criticism of online programs that we saw in the past 5 years was just propaganda (misleading information) pushed by brick-and-mortar schools trying to keep more of the student market share. More recently, many prestigeous private schools are adding online classes to their programs. More and more employers recognize that online classes are a way of the future and are just as credible as brick-and-mortar classes.

      I hope the personal experience I have shared here will help many working people, trying to advance their education, understand the truth behind different claims made by colleges, employers and students themselves.


      former University of Phoeix, working IT professional, family man
      BS/Business Information Systems (U of P Online)
      AS/Computer Information Systems(campus community college)

    2. Dear 1/22/12....I agree whole heartily.

      I am wrapping up a BS/SEM degree at UOP (On-Campus) and I am e currently valuating MBA programs from several schools.

      I am torn because I believe that I am getting a better education than I would at ASU but I am concerned about future employers perception of UOP. I am tempted to continue with UOP however, many people see UOP as "the online school" and ignorantly believe it to be sub-par. This is their perception regardless of whether a student attends on or off campus.

      The bottom line is that I work with several dozen post-graduate students from name brand state schools and lets say I am seldom impressed. Each student ultimately has a finite capacity for learning (lets be honest, an individual with an average IQ is a dolt). Additionally, what a student gets out of an education is directly relative to the effort put in to attaining it. It is the schools job to provide all of the necessary tools for a solid education and the resulting professional success. I honestly believe that anyone who says UOP (on-line or on-campus)does not do this is obviously ignorant to the schools curriculum, resources, and teaching methods.

      Full time employee, student, husband, and father....and exceeding at all four. (In part thanks to UOP)

  5. The problem with for-profit colleges such as Pheonix and DyVrey is that the quality of education is very low. You may "believe" you are getting a quality education and that classes are very challenging. I dont see how five week classes can be a quality education compared to a standard 15+ weeks semester at traditional colleges and universities. Haste makes waste, and you are rushing through for the purpose of expediency with limited to no interaction with professors. Employers know this and therefore look down upon these schools. The fact is, any college that lets everyone and anyone in is not competetive, and neither is the degree.


  6. 3. Your grades in the blackboard will take weeks to update if you can prove something was wrong. Over and over and Over again.
    Dr. Gomez's syllabus said the homework was due on Saturday and quizzes were due on Monday after the following week. We had to write Dr. Gomez no less than 3 times and call him before he would address it. He told us, "It's coming up as late in my grade book on Wiley". "We sent you an image of screen showing all the work was turned in on time with time stamps." "Oh, well tell me what you want me to look at again." Seriously, after writing him twice, this was his response to us. Are you kidding me! It was not until I included several other people on the email- admission and the math dean- that suddenly the grades were updated and corrected.
    BUT then again, proving you did every thing that was asked may not improve your grade at all- point in case the Discussion board. The syllabus said 150-300 words. My daughter wrote on average 170 posts. He writes that they are to short. She sends him a clip from his syllabus explaining why she made them that length. He now says it's not the length of the posts but the content that made her grade that way. So no change at all.
    4. Your grades will most likely be input wrong.
    My dd, after self teaching & working incredibly hard, pulled out a 92% on the final exam, but her grade was recorded in the blackboard as an 86% with a final grade as a 86%. When she let the professor know it had been recorded wrongly. He said he would adjust it. Somehow going from mid B to an A- , even being worth 30% of her grade, did not affect it at all? She has a B. Game over.

    I actually left out a few other annoying things that happened- like the week she was mistakenly kicked out of the class and could not access her materials for 3 days. But that's really water under the bridge. The point is we paid $720 (after fees and books) to Regent to teach a class. We were mistaken greatly in our expectations of what that would mean vs. what they ultimately offered. * Do not take online Regent Math classes.* The only thing I have left is to warn all of you not to do this too.
    I understand some of you may have had better experiences with other subjects. This was our experience this past April to May. Any of my friends who took their classes have taken history classes, not the math. Avoid their online math classes like the plague.

  7. I am besides myself how bad Regent University's college Algebra online class was . It makes me speechless at the fact we had not a smooth week in this online program. My 16 yr was taking college algebra online. We did not expect what we got.
    Do not EVER take online math courses from this university. Here's our experience in a nutshell:
    1. There is no teaching. EVER.
    You will be assigned a professor. We had Dr. Ascension Gomez. We get the syllabus and print it out. Telling you when things are due is the end of your teaching contact with this person. When my daughter wrote him to tell him she did not understand the material in chapter 3 (there's a book and an online program with videos) he said, "Watch the videos" (on the online program). He did not question what she was having problems with. He did not seem to care.
    2. WIleyPLUS ranks as the worst online math program we would have ever used. (This by the way will be your only link to anything resembling teaching.)
    Even when you get the right answer, there's a chance Wiley will mark you wrong.- Because a math program for college students couldn't POSSIBLY be set to understand that 9 squared and 81 are the same answer. Which bring me to point 2 about WILEYplus- it will not tell you how it wants the answer. If you work a problem and get it wrong (or input it differently than it expected) it will not tell you until the 3rd time you answer. Then it tells you how it wanted the answer and how you should have worked the problem, if you didn't understand how to do it. But now you don't get a chance to try that out because you're moving on to the next problem. Good luck. It might the square root of 7 or it might want that simplified, it changes from week to week. You won't know. And writing the professor to ask that he check your answer will not get you a reply or adjust your grade. (continued..)


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