Math, Multitasking, and Modern Education: A Commentary on E-Learning

(Craig Campbell)– I may have been a little overambitious with Interterm plans. Before I decided to come back for the month of January, I had to assure my parents that I wouldn’t get bored during the long month on the cold campus. I guess that after being home in December, surrounded by high school friends and the high school environment, I was thrown back into that super-achieving mindset that had defined my sophomore through senior years. Anything could be mine if I just said yes to everything, always! Sure, I can handle a leadership position in another club! I can handle another college app, scholarship app, independent study project, conditioning workout; just say yes, yes, yes… I don’t know how I used to do it, but I’m grateful that that chapter in my life has ended.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the things I planned to do over Interterm: Write sample for a creative writing class. (Done, rejected.) Write a few advance SheBomb posts for the busy semester ahead. (I’m writing this at 3:30 am the day after I’m supposed to post. I don’t think so.) Take a class on Oscar Wilde. (Lasted four days out of nine days.) Go to the gym daily, work off the post-Christmas pudge. (Ha.) Work at Val.
Study Linear Algebra and try to pass out of the course. (I now owe about $50 in overdue charges for the reserve textbook, despite the fact NO ONE else was using it.)

I attempted (and just barely succeeded) to pass out of Linear Algebra here because I had taken the course online my senior year, during which I became severely disenchanted with the notion of e-learning. What follows is some research I did on online learning, excerpted from a sociology paper I wrote on the subject at the time. Forgive the lack of citations.

E-learning is broadly defined as “learning conducted via electronic media, especially via the Internet.” The concept emerged in the 1960s in a Stanford experiment attempting to teach young children in Arizona math by means of a computer. Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-08, according to the Sloan Consortium, up 47% from two years prior. (#outdated statistics). According to Ambient Insight chief research officer Sam Adkins, currently about 450,000 K-12 students attend virtual schools charter schools full-time, while another 1.75 million take some of their classes online. He expects that by 2014, 10.5 million children, roughly 20% of all K-12 students, will be taking either some or all of their classes online. Most teachers (and their unions) defend traditional classrooms, while education reformers argue that online classes save time, money, and sidestep incapable teachers protected by union seniority.

Using the web as an educational medium has certainly had its successes over time. Sal Khan, a former hedge fund manager, posted several videos on YouTube so that he could help his cousins with their schoolwork. The videos were immediately successful, and Khan shortly thereafter quit his job and launched the Khan Academy. Students watch various 10-minute video lessons that are narrated by Khan, available for free on Youtube. If a school adopts his program, students complete lessons in the classroom while teachers circulate among them, helping one-on-one when necessary. Videos range from elementary math to explanations of the financial intricacies of The Giethner Plan. According to his staff, over 12 million people have accessed his 2,200 instructional videos, making them watched 100,000 times a day in over 225 countries. Khan has attracted major corporate sponsorships, including a $1.5 million donation from Bill Gates, and education reformers hail Khan’s efforts as a major triumph in modern education.

In a recent article in Phi Delta Kappan, a bimonthly education magazine, Beverly Koopman praises the peer support and criticism found in the online discussion boards called “wikis.” She writes that the medium for collaboration “provides a nonjudgmental method of discourse that makes it safe to walk away, reflect, consider how a comment is being viewed by others, and then focus one’s thinking or ask for clarification.” Her experiment involved middle school students who were reading a book for an English class. She noted increased participation due to the faceless nature of an online forum: those who would be too shy to volunteer an answer in a classroom setting feel comfortable online.

At the same time, though, relying too heavily on the Internet as a research tool could hurt students. Technology writer Nicholas Carr, in his article “Juggler’s Brain,” discusses the dangers of the deluge of online information. He makes the following comparison: “Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.” Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience unit at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, concedes that the constant shifting of attention when online may aid multitasking skills. However, improving the ability to multitask could hamper the ability to think deeply and creatively: “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” As Seneca put it, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist who teaches at UCLA, explains that our growing dependency on screen-based technologies increase strength in visual-spatial intelligence at the expense of the kind of “deep processing of mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.” Researchers from Stanford concluded that the multi-taskers developed by the Internet were more easily distracted by “irrelevant environmental stimuli” both on and off-line.

I have learned to appreciate the web as a tool to assist learning. I’ve used GoogleDocs for large group collaboration projects with great success, similar to the success Koopman found in her wikis. But after such a disappointing online course in Linear Algebra, I haven’t been able to subscribe to the optimistic forecasts of a future increasingly dependent on online education.

My course was divided into six units, each with about ten sections of homework and a unit test, in addition to a final exam. I scanned my completed work and emailed it to a professor at the Center for Talented Youth program at Johns Hopkins, who would return an email with comments.

This “professor” and I never spoke. He could have been a computer, or a highly trained monkey, for all I know. We exclusively exchanged emails. The one time I tried to call him to ask questions, I was routed through a complicated maze of transfers in the Johns Hopkins telephone system that eventually led to a dead-end and a dead line. I felt like I was dealing with an error in a cell phone bill – I shouldn’t have had to deal with that to ask a quick question about matrices!

I spent the year sitting in a library computer lab with a math textbook, teaching myself the material. I am loath to call the professor an “instructor” because the only instructing he actually did was commenting on my homework in language I didn’t understand. There were a few online resources that I was provided with, but for most of my issues, I was directed to Wolfram.

I completed the course and got an A. I learned the material, sure, but only by recognition, not recall. I knew I signed some honor code at some point… but that didn’t stop me from using my notes on the tests. I guess I remembered enough from the course to get me through the placement exam after three weeks of studying at Amherst. But I just remember being immensely frustrated then that I was wasting my time, and that it was solely because this highly praised, “enormously interactive” program assigned me to a clearly brilliant math teacher who was afraid of actual interaction with students.

With no physical teacher, I had to rely completely on self-motivation to get me through the material each day. The other three students that did the program the same year as me didn’t come close to finishing. Even in the austere discipline of math, not having a human face attached to the numbers made learning the subject incredibly tedious and difficult, and I can’t imagine that other online courses, especially humanities courses would be much better. Now that I’m at Amherst, I guess I don’t really have to worry about the “dangerous” world of online instruction, but I do fear for subsequent generations.

This is not the future I like to imagine.