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Online calculus class attracts big numbers

Math professor Jim Fowler uses high energy online videos to teach calculus concepts to students around the world. Credit: Courtesy of Coursera

Math professor Jim Fowler uses high energy online videos to teach calculus concepts to students around the world. Credit: Courtesy of Coursera

How many people can take a calculus class? The limit does not exist.

Calculus is a class that people take as a prerequisite for dozens of majors around campus and at colleges across the country. One course, titled Calculus One or Mooculus, functions as an introduction to calculus both for those who are new to the subject and those who just want to review concepts. So far, hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in the course on Coursera, an online-education website that partners with universities around the country, and more than 250,000 have participated through the OSU website, said Jim Fowler, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics. The YouTube channel also just recently surpassed 1 million views.

Mooculus is a collaborative effort between several math professors at OSU and is led by Fowler. The course is a mooc, or massively open online course, which means that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can learn topics, such as limits and derivatives. Mooculus is made up of three components: lecture videos, an online textbook and interactive homework problems, Fowler said.

Fowler said he started Mooculus because he finds teaching math fun and rewarding. He added that he thought the course could fill a new niche. There are a lot of videos that show the process of solving calculus problems, but fewer that celebrate the concepts behind calculus. He said the Mooculus videos try to explain a lot of these concepts and that the homework component is also more interactive. Fowler said the group of professors who organized the project chose to do calculus because it is often the gateway STEM course that is needed to get into many majors.

“I think a lot of people see a calculus textbook, and maybe they don’t find the words and problems very exciting,” he said. “But I think the web lets us do interesting things where we can weave together more interesting problems and an entertaining text narrative.”

Fowler said most of the people who watch Mooculus videos on YouTube or are enrolled in the online class on Coursera are not traditional 18- to 24-year-old college students, but instead a lot of other young people, as well as much older learners. Some of the students who are taking the course online are those who otherwise would not have access to a calculus class, Fowler said.

“One of our students was a 14-year-old girl in Pakistan. She had a brother who had a lot of experience in science courses, and she really didn’t at her school,” he said. “So she was using online courses to get an experience comparable to those her brother had. It was really interesting.”

The course is available on several platforms, Fowler said, including the OSU website, iTunes U and Coursera. Fowler said the team designed the course to include things that they would have liked in courses when they were students.

The videos are designed to motivate concepts over calculations and are very high-energy, Fowler said. Bart Snapp, an auxiliary assistant professor in the math department who is also involved in the project, said the biggest difference between Mooculus and other online calculus classes is the quality of the videos, simply because they are more engaging. He added that the resources available, such as homework feedback, are comparable to that of a course students would have to pay for, but said that Mooculus is free.

“There are people in the videos and a lot of hand motions in the videos,” Fowler said. “We really wanted to convey the message that math is a human thing that people do together sometimes and that it’s something anyone can do using a paper and pen.”

Snapp said one of the other differences is that the instructors strive to “get to the point” faster in the videos.

“I’ve watched videos made by other people, and I’ve watched them for a minute, which doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but it is,” he said. “And I will be like, ‘Wow, this video has been going on for 60 seconds, and we still haven’t gotten to anything.’”

Fowler said the reaction has been very positive from both students and faculty from different departments and schools. He said he has been able to engage in conversations about how calculus is best taught and what the goal should be when teaching it.

As with many moocs, the passing rates for Mooculus are low, but that is something that does not worry Fowler very much, especially since the course is not for credit.

“What I think is important is that people do a lot of things,” Fowler said. “The fact that they are doing any amount of math is more math than they were doing before, so I’m excited about that.”

Fowler said he is less concerned about people taking the final test at the end of the course, and is more concerned about whether students are learning things. He said there is a long way to go to make online courses better, but getting people involved in the math community is a big win.

Fowler said he hopes to expand the course outside of just calculus. Currently he is working on expanding the program to include other areas of mathematics, including linear algebra.

The Mooculus team is currently creating the second generation of the course, which will combine the videos, textbooks and practice problems to create an interactive textbook so students can do everything at once. The book is currently being tested with students in several sections of calculus classes on campus. It is open-source, meaning other faculty can edit it, and once it is completed it will be free to students. The team is also currently working on making more interactive worksheets,” Snapp said.

“Calculus really suffers from an enthusiasm gap, where it’s not people’s favorite subject,” Fowler said. “But math is really neat and is worth being advertised as being interesting. With the Mooculus project, we’re able to reach a lot of people and make it more alive for them.”

The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between the Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.

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  1. Students' friend

    Why does this report not consider number and percentage of enrolled students who completed the course, and the number and percentage who completed the course for college credit? These are the critical issues for MOOCs especially for a subject like calculus.

  2. Is this online courses available to students who are blind?

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