CORVALLIS - Educators at Oregon State University are finding that electronic, World Wide Web-based education - if it's properly done - may not only be an alternative way to teach, but sometimes even a better one.
And a new experiment proves it can work with even the one course that traditionally gave college students cold shivers and night sweats - calculus.
This "CalculusQuest" course is fine-tuning some of the concepts in electronic education and providing new options for both on-campus students and distance learning, say OSU officials. The university already has received a national award for leadership in the use of technology in education.
"We would never suggest that Web-based courses are the right, only or best way for all students," said Robby Robson, an OSU associate professor of mathematics. "Clearly they are a plus for distance learning, with students whose other demands make it difficult for them to get to campus.
"But beyond that, we're finding that our approach provides new options for resident students, who could take a conventional course if they wished."
Common fears about on-line education are that it will be dry, passive and impersonal, Robson said, with individuals becoming anonymous and isolated. Student reactions to CalculusQuest appear to counter that stereotype.
CalculusQuest is not passive. Students are active at every stage and classroom "discussions" no longer are dominated by a few vocal students. On their computers, students read instructional material, work on exercises, get feedback, carry on detailed discussions with each other and their teachers, write papers and take quizzes.
The course is not dry, impersonal and isolated. It's built around the metaphor of a "mountain climbing adventure," and some lessons are takeoffs on Greek mythology. The interactions among students, and between students and their teacher, include comics and puns. Enthusiasm is evident.
"This is one of the most personal classes I have," one student wrote to Robson after he helped her clear up some misconceptions.
And CalculusQuest opens up new options for all students, on campus and away. They can study and "attend class" at their convenience, move ahead and work at various speeds. Differing needs can be accommodated.
"In my regular class last year, I had one student who was a single mother commuting 45 minutes to campus, three times a week, and taking 15 credit hours," said William Bogley, an associate professor of math and co-creator of the new course. "She was a good student but the schedule wasn't humanly possible. She eventually bailed out."
The course, which was developed with funding from the Oregon State System of Higher Education, uses a software tool called "QuestWriter" that was developed by OSU researchers and students.
This fairly sophisticated software package, applicable to mathematics or other courses, is highly interactive. The computer program stops students to ask questions and fits its approach to the individual's educational level.
Detailed records are kept of each student's activities and teachers can monitor who isn't keeping up.
And there's more than one way to use such technology. Web-based learning can be combined with traditional lectures once a week, or in some other format.
Such courses can be labor intensive for the instructors, Robson said, but the work becomes more manageable over time and the options opened by the course appear to be worth the extra effort. And there are the inevitable computer glitches - one hardware crash three weeks into the term destroyed a lot of work.
"We don't paint a Pollyanna picture that this is the absolute wonderful way to teach from now on," Bogley said. "But I'm here to teach people calculus. If this gives an additional group of people access, or helps us work with the needs of different students, then it's a win. I think there's a future in it."