Mathematics professor Jeffrey Ehme, Ph.D., begins his pre-calculus course by pulling up to his computer, strapping on a headset and logging on to webex.com, a Web and video-conferencing site, where he meets with a class of five students.
In this virtual classroom, Dr. Ehme quickly pulls up a list of class participants, along with a chat box that allows students to ask and answer questions. Using special software that displays homework assignments, quizzes and mathematical equations, he types answers to questions during class while showing diagrams, pictures and illustrations.
This classroom is none other than Math 115 Pre-Calculus, Spelman College’s first fully online pilot course. Introduced this fall, Math 115 is designed as an experiment in online learning to determine resource demands, such as time, infrastructure and training, for online courses. Five students are currently enrolled in the course, which meets three times each week.
Dr. Ehme said it’s important for Spelman to explore online options and learn what role the College can play in this booming trend.
“As an institution, we need to find our niche when it comes to teaching modalities,” said Dr. Ehme, who also serves as chair of the mathematics department. “The only way we’ll find it is to try new things.”
If Dr. Ehme’s class is any indication, the College may be on the right track.
Whether he’s teaching the applications of the Pythagorean theorem, reviewing circles and parallel and perpendicular lines, or evaluating functions, Dr. Ehme interacts and communicates with students through the use of a microphone and chat box. Using the chat function, he asks questions while calling on each individual to participate. In turn, students respond by typing their answers or asking questions either by text or aloud.
“It’s not a self-paced, do-it-yourself course,” Dr. Ehme said. “I lobbied for a lot of teacher interaction. I want students to know that I’m a human being not a robot. They’re able to see the math and diagrams and ask questions. They can respond and have interaction back and forth, and the teacher plays a strong role.”
During class, Dr. Ehme illustrates mathematical problems and clarifies class and homework assignments through diagrams using Microsoft Paint software. For their part, students use WebAssign and Moodle, a course management system, to view assignments, access the class syllabus, quizzes, supplementary videos, discussion board, class notes and more.
Using Technology to Enhance Learning
According to Myra Burnett, Ph.D., vice provost for Academic Affairs, the College is currently investigating the possibilities of making online courses a permanent option for students.
“One important concern is whether students in the online course learn as well as students in face-to-face classes,” she said. “This will factor into our decision-making.”
According to Dr. Burnett, the idea for an online course was derived from the desire to provide contemporary instructional technology that supports Spelman’s mission for student learning. She said the College hopes to discover the appropriate blend of online and face-to-face instruction that meets students’ educational needs within the context of a liberal arts experience. Last semester, a faculty committee worked to identify digital teaching methods that could be incorporated in the classroom and how they best fit with the College’s goals.
“For now that seems to be hybrid learning or blended instruction,” said Dr. Burnett. “In those modalities, some aspects of the course are online, but there is still significant interaction with faculty in class sessions each week.”
Johnnella Butler, Ed.D., provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, said this semester’s course will give the College the answers needed before taking next steps. She said the course is specifically designed to determine what courses students may want or need to take before coming to Spelman. In addition, offering online instruction during the summer may be a possibility to help students supplement their education.
“This is an experiment that will give us great insight to have a limited number of online courses in the summer,” Dr. Butler said. “But for now, our focus is understanding the dynamics of online teaching and transferring what we’ve learned to faculty teaching hybrid courses and using technology to enhance learning.”
Students Embrace Change
“I’m learning to really apply myself and understand the material,” said chemistry major Andreana Jones, C’2018. “I like that it’s not self-paced and that I can still interact with Dr. Ehme during class time. I can also be comfortable sitting on my bed in my dorm room, but I still have to be attentive in class.”
Shavon Wolfe, C’2018, said she loves the course.
“It’s not what I expected, because I thought with online courses you learn on your own,” said Wolfe, a biochemistry major. “Dr. Ehme requires us to come to class and participate. He teaches, but allows us to ask questions. We’re also required to engage with him while he is teaching.”
Thanks to her experience, junior philosophy major Chanice Lee plans to take another online course in the future.
“So far, I like the course because it reminds me of a regular class, and it’s accessible everywhere,” Lee said. “I also appreciate Dr. Ehme’s style. He is open and easy to understand.”
Alicia Lurry is senior communications specialist and editor of the Spelman Connection for the Office of Communications.