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Math 101/102 reimagined: New online classes a "virtual" success

NOTE: This story is one of several that appear in the most recent issue of the College of Natural Science Department of Mathematics newsletter. To read about other research, activities and events happening in the department, visit https://www.bluetoad.com/publication/?i=708155&p=&pn=

Last fall marked the beginning of an unexpected and challenging year of online learning at Michigan State University.

For incoming students, navigating classes online could be just as intimidating as navigating between buildings on campus. For instructors, translating in-person learning objectives to online platforms was just as intimidating.

MSU mathematics instructor Michael Brown
MSU mathematics instructor Michael Brown’s MTH 102 course uses current events, financial planning and voter registration to draw students into mathematics. Credit: Harley J. Seeley

Enter a champion team of three math instructors—Michael Brown, Math 102 supervisor; Rachael Lund, Math 101 supervisor; and Shiv Karunakaran, assistant professor of mathematics education—who assembled the summer before students virtually arrived with plans to design a new online platform for Math 101/102.

COVID forced their plans into action sooner than anticipated. The quantitative literacy courses rolled out to more than 1,600 students in Fall 2020—just in the nick of time.

“A primary goal for our math group was to create an online experience where students would have meaningful interaction with peers and feel empowered to complete math assignments,” Brown said. “We wanted to leverage robust technology to create a fun, engaging online course that met the learning objectives of the in-person version and increased our front-facing value.”

Their monumental efforts were part of a pioneering collaboration between the College of Natural Science, the College of Arts and Letters and the School of Business, in tandem with MSU’s Enhanced Digital Learning Initiative program (EDLI), to design three flagship large section online courses.

Working within MSU’s online portal, D2L, Brown and co-creators set out to design a space that would become familiar to students throughout their MSU career—a virtual classroom fully integrated across departments with common visual themes, a single sign-on and accessible technology that fostered online student community.  

“We tried to avoid a segmented experience, where students navigate to different windows and platforms as they work through their course,” said Brown, whose Math 102 uses current events, financial planning and voting systems to draw students into mathematics. “Steven Thomas, our liaison at EDLI, helped us design this simple and consistent student experience.”

EDLI also played a major role in removing technological and financial barriers by embedding new technologies, free of charge, within D2L. Among them were Packback, an extremely successful discussion forum, and Flipgrid, an accessible video sharing tool.

In the end, the success of the math instructors’ superhero-like efforts was evident in the students’ overwhelmingly positive reviews.***

“[These] are the only instructors that have put everything in one place and made it extremely clear what to do,” said one incoming freshman, and “I appreciate that this class included more than just ‘traditional mathematical’ forms of learning…this is the best math course I have ever taken,” said another.  

Math 101/102 now stands as a beacon for how instructors can collaborate with EDLI to give their online courses a technological boost, launching a new era of inclusive online tools that will inspire and engage all students at MSU—whether in person or online.

***In addition to Brown, Lund and Karunakaran, the success of the curriculum was augmented by an exceptional MTH 101 teaching team, which included graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs). Chloe Lewis and Christopher Potvin—both math Ph.D. candidates who have been GTAs for four semesters—were integral to the development and execution of the new curriculum. Gwenneth Clise, was the first of the past MTH 101 students to become a ULA (Fall 2019) and has been an invaluable resource and mentor to new ULAs. Jaylin Coleman, Matthew Emery, Clara Pater, Diamond Russell, and Leah Welch are also former MTH 101 students who became ULAs and have offered insight and guidance to the changes in the course. Marissa Boynton, Samar Sheikh, Dorukan Yildirim, and William Book are ULAs who have been members of the teaching team for three semesters. Although never having taken MTH 101 as students, they have approached the course with enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. Anthony Sulak and Nichole Hayes are GTAs who taught the first completely online version of MTH 101 in Summer 2020. Their hard work in implementing some of the original curriculum changes was crucial in successful delivery of the course. Thanks to all of them for their insight and contributions!

Banner image: Michael Brown (pictured above) and colleagues Rachael Lund and Shiv Karunakaran designed a new online platform for MATH 101/102 that includes common visual themes, a single sign-on and accessible technology that fosters online student community.