Monday, May 11, 2020

Virtual Teaching, Mixed Synchronous-Asynchronous (Version 0.9 Not Final Firmware)

Cal Poly SLO, where I work, is on quarter system. So we had the advantage and challenges of ending winter quarter in March, and starting spring quarter in April. It's been an adventure to put it mildly, and I am thankful that my family is healthy and safe.

This quarter I am teaching Calculus 2 to a group of 35 students. These students range from first year to third year, and span science, engineering, math, and architecture majors. I have not met these students before in person.  We started the term on April 6, and most all students left the area to go back home. Goal #1 is to build community.

Technology and internet are not issues in my class for students. I know these are issues that have to be dealt with, and this was not an issue this term for me.  My institution also did well to provide support for students and to get students, staff, and faculty the devices and connectivity needed. So I won't comment on tech issues.

The short version:  carefully craft "tutorial handouts" that guide students to the main learning goals. Work through some of it in class with regular student-centered activities. Students who can't make class at the scheduled time can work through the tutorial handout (where expanded solutions with insights are posted). Classes are also recorded so students who can't connect can view the class later.  Overall, class meetings are a mix of synchronous and asynchronous (75%-25% split).

Details in these slides below.

Earlier related posts:
  1. Draft Plans for Running a Virtual Class
  2. Thoughts on Human-Centered Teaching (Coronavirus)
Sample Handout (Clean Link, After Class Link)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Case for Virtual Fall Term 2020 (and Probably Spring 2021)

These are my thoughts. I'm a Math Educator, speaking as a college faculty person. I'm using my own logic. I'm not an infectious disease epidemiologist. Some of my opinions will change as we get new info. This is written on April 22, 2020.


Emotionally what I want is to go back to normal. I am sure we all do.  I have been in lockdown for 6 weeks. I spent my birthday in lockdown. I am zoomed out. Virtual teaching is not why I got into the teaching profession. My kids miss their friends and teachers.

Despite all that we have to be responsible and meet this historic challenge. We have a moral responsibility to ourselves and each other to make good choices.

Risks are asymmetrical, and this is a key point I want to make clear. The downside risk of a contagion on a campus is far greater than the downside of virtual teaching.  Sadly, the range of choices we have is between bad and horrific. But people don't like bad, so it is understandable that we want something better. I fully understand that teaching via zoom in our bedrooms with kids at home is not a good situation. But this is the coronavirus era.

We are in a global humanitarian crisis. It’s a giant problem that unfortunately comes with a large basket of problems. The item in the basket this post primarily focuses on is in-person vs. virtual fall 2020.  I make a case for virtual fall 2020 and likely spring 2021.

A list of points and comments organized in a list.
  1. We don’t have a vaccine. ETA is March 2021, according to FDA (as of this writing). How we roll out 7+ billions vaccine is a manufacturing challenge, beyond the scientific challenges. Not sure we will get this before spring term. 
  2. Equity is a big concern in general in this crisis and specifically with respect to vaccines. When it comes to vaccines and treatments and access to healthcare, we will likely see income disparities. So if a college knows that vaccines are out, and plans to open in-person next spring, then will it also have in place vaccinations for low-income students and marginalized groups so that every students has access to treatment?  If not, then the college could force poor students to make the choice between missing school or their health. The children of NBA players and movie stars will get vaccines before the children of gardeners and housekeepers.  But schools might be wanting to open, when treatments are announced or starting to become ready, and leave behind or force into a tough decision students who are at the back of the line.
  3. Testing is still not up and running to a level where we can do surveillance testing as of this writing. In CA, we are testing people with symptoms, but will we be able to test all our students before they arrive, after they arrive, during the term,...?  If yes, then this is a good start. It is one of the things reported that we need in order to open up society.
  4. Treatments (other than vaccines) are being tested as of this writing. These may help, but they are not here yet and it's hard to plan on anything now for something that might help later. Widespread availability is another factor. Even if a treatment is shown effective in clinical trials, will your specific region have it in quantity and will it cover all students, faculty, staff, and the wider community?  
  5. Travel is a massive issue facing colleges that does not affect K-12 schools nearly as much. Merely getting college students physically to campuses in the fall is a significant risk due to long distance travel. Colleges and universities generally have students from different regions, some students are international. At the start of fall term, hundreds of thousands of students travel from their homes to different cities, often with parents or family.  The situation where millions of people traveling AND being able to do so without spreading the virus seems impossible. 
  6. Once on campus, hundreds of thousands of students across the US will live in dorms or apartments in close proximity to one another. Many eat in dining halls or other campus dining serving thousands of meals per day. The HVAC systems in buildings may be connecting the air between rooms.
  7. Even if somehow we get everyone to campus 100% coronavirus free, it gets messy from there. Do we let students go home on the weekends? What about Thanksgiving and winter break?  What if a family member of a student is in the hospital - do we let this student go home to see their family? And when the student returns is it to a 14-day quarantine?
  8. Students also do things like go into town and to the market. The university is not closed off from its region.  So the virus could be transported to the community or vice versa.
  9. Thought Experiment: How would a college town feel if 20,000 students from China and Italy are coming in August?  Ok, maybe not China and Italy, but maybe Los Angeles and New York.  We need to think about the communities around the colleges and their reactions (right or wrong). 
  10. Winter break is especially concerning without a vaccine. Are we going to send people home for 3 to 5 weeks in the middle of flu and possibly a coronavirus resurgence, and bring them all back again for winter quarter/spring semester in January? If yes, then we need to replay the fall scenario again in a tougher environment and less time to prepare due to the winter holidays and length of winter break.  
  11. Classrooms and labs force very close contact between students, with no option of proper distancing. Take a look at this image from one of our math classrooms. There's maybe two feet between desks. Plus we pack in 35 students into this space.  After you get a 6 or 7 people in there, you've used up "6 feet of distance" between people. Classroom buildings have HVAC systems that could be moving air from room to room.
  12. Classes are used multiple times a day. A single seat or desk may see as many as 10 or 12 different people using it each day. It seems unrealistic that we will sanitize each desk completely during each period. We'd need to hire hundreds of staff to do this massive cleaning job. This is unlikely given budgets are expected to go down. Given that we won't expand staff, then we won't do the cleaning needed. Therefore, we will have a petri dish in each classroom. 
  13. Thought Experiment: Student A sneezes on a desk. Gets up after class. Next class period, student B sits in that desk and gets infected. 
  14. Universities are not setup with staff and equipment for daily testing, tracing, isolating, etc.  One question is, "Who is going to do this work for thousands of people regularly?" And if a student has to go on quarantine, then what about their roommates, classmates, instructors?  
  15. If instructors get sick, then how does the class proceed, especially in areas that require specialized expertise, where there may not be a qualified expert able to step in? If staff get sick, then how does the university function if a large number are home sick?
  16. Each day, a university is like an all-day concert or sporting event. It seems more clear that we should not be having concerts or sports events until a vaccine arrives. The same logic applies to colleges and universities. Thousands of people engaging all day in close quarters, sitting in the same seats hour after hour, and then going to the library in close quarters. 
  17. College parties are another issue. Are we going to ban parties? Even if we can legally (not likely), then how will it be enforced especially if students live off campus? If it does happen, then what is the consequence? Quarantines?
  18. Thought Experiment: Suppose student A goes to a "corona party" and gets coronavirus. Student B sits next to student A in a class, and get coronavirus. Student B is in an at-risk group and is hospitalized or dies. Student B washed her hands, wore a mask, did everything right, but also depended on all other students on campus to follow through with the guidelines.  This then raises the issue of putting at-risk students into harm's way. And telling them to wash their hands isn't going to ensure they are safe, because safety in this crisis depends on everyone.  Even if student A was being responsible, student A could get the virus from the grocery store or a humanitarian mission.
  19. In Education we talk a lot about safe learning environments.  A psychological factor is also in play during the coronavirus era. When someone sneezes or coughs, it'll come with a tinge of fear. "I just sneezed - do I have coronavirus?" Or "My group mate just coughed! Am I going to get it next?”  The fear of illness and death is not a foundation to build a safe learning environment. It's literally a potentially physically dangerous learning environment.  It's hard to fully focus on a task or exam, when stressed about personal safety. 
  20. Will we enforce a no-attendance policy campus wide? What I mean is that faculty cannot have attendance as a requirement or part of the grade. Here's why this is important. If an instructor breaks ranks and requires students to show up for class as part of the grade, then the incentives for students to be in class are at odds with health concerns. Students in this case will be forced between choosing their grade and health. It's a horrible dilemma that students should not be forced into.
  21. Similar to above, but "attendance" replaced with "exams." What if a student is sick and it's midterm day? Then the student might have to decide between taking the exam and their health and the health of their class. And even if a college has a policy on make-up exams, how will it get monitored and enforced?                                                        
  22. Marketing Risk Thought Experiment: Assume a college rolls the dice and goes for in-person fall term. That campus then gets an outbreak in October, when thousands get sick and dozens die.  First and foremost, there is a huge human cost that could have been avoided. And second, there is the reputation of the institution, which will be trashed. Who is going to go to Coronvirus U next year?  Why trust what they do or say after that? What parent will want to send their kid to a place where dozens died unnecessarily.  It's very easy to destroy the reputation of an institution.
  23. If instead, the marketing is, "You will still have 3+ years of amazing, in-person, hands-on learning. But safety and health for you and everyone else matters most. So we will be working our hardest to do virtual right and then to open up when it's safe."  That would be more honest, and we'd get the kind of students we want anyways, who share our values. Those who are understanding and want to be at Cal Poly or wherever for what makes your institution special. That does not go away, if we hold true to our values. 
  24. Sports will likely be governed by conferences or NCAA. So I won't comment on this.
False Dichotomies
False dichotomies are bad. They also seem to have grown in number exponentially this year. Here are some examples.
  • The lockdown has created a rise in domestic violence. So we need to end the lockdown. (Choosing between lockdown and dealing with domestic violence).  
  • If we do not run in person, then enrollment will be down and budget will be a problem. (Trade lives for money.)
  • We need to save lives or save the economy.
All these are poor logic.  Pandemics are a basket or package of problems, not an "A vs. B" scenario. Pandemics attack your whole society from top to bottom, from left to right. It's a systemwide set of problems. This means every part of society gets affected and disrupted. So splitting up issues into coronavirus and non-coronavirus is poor logic, since it's all one giant set of problems, and more importantly these false dichotomies can lead to bad decisions.

Here's an example. Let's focus in on domestic violence issues. Domestic violence is a real problem and we need to fix this like right now. But the solution isn't to lift lockdowns early as a "solution" to address the rise in domestic violence. If we do that, then the disease might spread and you have more suffering in other areas of society. We should think of the rise in domestic violence as *part* of the crisis, and act accordingly. We should do both (a) reduce domestic violence and (b) keep people safe from coronavirus. For example, communities can start to do deal with domestic violence issues, by providing housing for victims in hotels, and offer moving services and security. A major conclusion is that false dichotomies lead people to make bad decisions, by improperly framing the problem into a choice between two (bad/incomplete) solutions.

Money Issues at Colleges
One major false choice facing universities are budget vs. lives.  It's not presented like this. We talk about it in terms of enrollment.  Lower enrollment should be expected for fall. Some students might prefer to take a gap year. Maybe their parents lost their jobs or have reduced income, and they can't go to college for financial reasons, whether virtual or in-person. Economic downturns of this speed and magnitude will create lower enrollments.  When 10%+ of workers have filed for unemployment in just a few weeks, that is going to affect college enrollments. I don't think virtual vs. in-person is the kicker here. It's more likely money and a tanking economy. We are in something like the great depression, and fewer people can afford college. That's just a fact. We should expect lower enrollment.

Colleges are not immune to broad, deep shifts in the economy like the one we are experiencing now. But some administrators may think virtual means lower enrollment and in-person means higher. I don't think that's a clearcut case or even true.  I understand budget concerns are real.  A real, systemic solution is for state and federal governments to bail out colleges and universities. We did this for airlines and other industries.  We did this for banks during the last financial crisis.  Why not protect the future of our younger generations?  Of course I am not naive. That's not happening. But this line of reasoning illustrates the folly of chasing dollars to address a wider societal failing, by trading the health of our communities, faculty, staff and the students we serve to run in-person classes during a pandemic (all the while assuming this is palatable to students and their families).

Some have argued on my campus that we need to keep businesses and the economy going. So bringing students here is worth it. The gist of their thinking is that some are going to die anyways, so you might as well save the local economy.  I think this is wrong and immoral.

Let's start with the fundamentals. Education is a social responsibility to our youth. It's not a business. We aren't maximing profits. Educational institutions do not have in their mission statements the goal of supporting and upholding the regional economy.  People try and spin education in materialistic terms, but education fundamentally is a social responsibility. Thinking of students as consumers or bags of money is wrong or at least significantly incomplete.

We also can't just ignore the bodies in the corner and get on with taking tests and doing labs. If people are sick and dying, even if it's "just a few dozen," it's not going to feel like a learning institution. At least it won't for me. Maybe others are harder and tougher that I am. But if I am losing colleagues and students to coronavirus, I'm not going to be all excited and happy to go to my next committee meeting and act like all is normal. The fear of death or illness has a way of souring the mood, amping of stress levels, and killing morale.  I can't think of many ways other to make a community feel more like a disposable cog in a machine than pushing them into the middle of a global pandemic.

If faculty and staff feel like they are disposable cogs, the ones with outside opportunities (i.e. the ones who get more grants and publish more) will leave or get poached by savvy institutions. It'll be harder to recruit good faculty and staff, and the quality if the institution would take a hit.  Students who don't feel safe will not attend or go elsewhere.  So going down the route of in-person fall term has serious long-term risks, beyond easily quantifiable things such as positive test cases and number of fatalities. 

Here's a hard pill to swallow. The key societal mistakes were made before we arrived at the present day. We did not invest in pandemic preparedness, we responded slowly and with disorganization as a society, and we have gaps in our society that are being laid bare. It's like we are on a raft and the river is leading us to a dangerous section. The college is in the raft and decision makers in the past put the raft in the river. We like to think colleges are independent from society. In some ways colleges are highly autonomous. But we are in the "river of the society" we have, and what happens to the world happens to us. The tough part is we can't do anything about upstream decisions. We are now left with a set of hard choices and tough realities, ranging from bad to horrible.

I don't like virtual college. We are not supposed to like it. It's going to be the hardest period of our careers.  I hate thinking of the long slog back up the hill, and this is if I make it. But this reality is the definition of living during natural disaster. In the grand scheme, we are the lucky ones, given that we live in a modern, advanced nation and still have jobs and paychecks. We have opportunities to revamp and update some things that need to be fixed. We can be creative and human for our students during this time, and teach them about morality, community, solidarity, and steadfastness during difficult times. There exist things we can teach virtually in this environment that are both sorely needed and would have been scoffed otherwise. So while I see virtual (and the pandemic) as an unwelcome reality, I also see upside in the opportunity it presents and most importantly a clear, moral case for why going virtual in fall 2020 is the right choice.

Stay safe and stay healthy!

Edit: An different version of this blog post is published in the Chronicle of Higher Ed

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Putting Humanity First

When you unfortunately need to go to a friend’s funeral, you also have to figure out how to get there.  You need to make arrangements for hotel stay, travel, find out exactly when and where the services will be.  Maybe travel won’t go to plan, and there are things you can rightly complain about. But the main reason why you go to the funeral is for your friend you lost. It’s about the celebration of life, not the travel details.

At present, we have a lot on our plates. Converting an in-person class to online/virtual format is a huge task, and all the more challenging under the weight and stress of a crisis. But in the big picture how we deliver our content online is like the travel details to attend a friend's funeral. We have a lot of huge issues now that we never had to deal with before.

Lots of things don’t compute right now, since coronavirus arrived. I don't have a lot of answers. I do have some thoughts. Our whole world, our daily lives, even potentially our very own health and the health of loved ones are threatened. We are witnessing leaders call for trading lives to save the Dow Jones average. We are hearing reports of healthcare workers on the front lines, without proper equipment and support. Family businesses are going out of business. We are also seeing racism against Asians and Asian Americans.

In light of this, going on with business as usual with our teaching is for me something I am struggling with. I know this is a personal viewpoint. Some may need to dive into the details of a class to cope and distract. I get that, and I’m not arguing against what others are doing in this same situation.  What I am saying is that I personally can’t just sit back and say nothing or just teach my spring quarter class just like I did the last time. The world has changed, and so have I. In April, May and possibly beyond, we’ll be in the midst of toughest part of the first wave of the coronavirus. You can’t just ignore all the bodies in the corner, while going on about integration by parts without acknowledging what’s happening.

At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the goals of our classes. We still need to educate. Students still need to learn and build up for their lives and careers.  I’m not advocating for not teaching content either.

The world has far too many damaging, false dichotomies. Choosing between lives and the economy is the latest, terribly inhuman example. Others suggest we must choose between skills and conceptual understanding. Some suggest, falsely, that the choice is between helping underrepresented students or white students, as if kindness and inclusion is like pie. False dichotomies are red flags. It signals an agenda, bias, lazy thinking, or unwillingness to dig into the details of a complex issue.

The question for me at least is whether we will choose to be responsible to each other and ourselves and behave like grown ups.  Responsible adults study the data and evidence, and get on with solving problems in this new normal.

Specific to education, teachers can inspire and attend to basic skills, as well as ask students in earnest, “How are you doing?” Teachers can be flexible with lessons because the news we all just received is truly bad. Teachers can keep the door open, create space in class and in office hours (even virtually), check in on students, and show their own humanity, reasoning, and maturity in the face of a global crisis.  We are all scared. We all feel a range of emotions, and none of us have it all figured out or know what the future holds.

I’m teaching integral calculus online starting in about a week, and I plan to create spaces to build some community and have time set aside for us to discuss the global pandemic and how students are dealing with it. We (students and instructors) all have smart things we can share that will help others, and we can teach and learn to be better to one another. I'll also spend a lot of time developing an assessment plan that is standards based/mastery based, so that the stress of testing is taken off. The focus should be on learning (as always and even more important now).  That in a nutshell is how I'll try to be a responsible adult in my role as a math instructor. I teach students first and foremost, with Math as the context.

Yes, we can teach the usual things, all the while putting humanity first.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Thoughts On Human-Centered Virtual Teaching (Coronavirus)

My head is still spinning. We're living through the start of a global pandemic. I've had to do so much at home and work to prepare, that's it's been tough to even get enough sleep and take care of myself. Or fold that giant pile of laundry that's been sitting in the corner for days.

On to teaching... I've read many posts on twitter, in email, and articles about what to do to go virtual with our teaching. These discussions are great, and I've already learned a lot. People are stepping up and sharing really useful, real-world advice.  In this post I'm going to focus on one aspect of all this. I call it human-centered teaching.

When we teach in person, it's easier to get to know your students, mentor during office hours, run into students on campus and have a conversation. All these things are part of the package of student-centered instruction and being on campus, and many of these things are harder or nonexistent or must be recreated in different way in online settings. I have not figured this all out by any stretch. I don't think it's something we should feel bad about, and I know over time we will develop and figure some of this out.

I'm on quarter system, so we actually start spring term in early April. But even if we were on semesters I'd do the same thing I'm going to mention.  On the first virtual meeting day, I have two main goals. One is to meet and set virtual class norms (e.g. everyone turns on video, raising hands, muting), and practice using the technology. All of this is new, so we're going to need to get comfortable with our new normal routines.

The second goal is to open up a space for students to share some of their thoughts and feelings and make human connections with their classmates and me. This is the most important thing, in my opinion, to accomplish on day 1 (and keep going). The context surrounding us is a global pandemic. Millions will get sick, and globally many will die or lose someone close. This is hard stuff, and it's desperately real. Students who are young and just at the beginning of their adult lives are dealing with the uncertainty and turmoil of an enormous natural disaster, all the while going through the disruption of having to move home and be separated from their friends. In light of this, it's even more important to try and create a team spirit in our classes.

How will I try to do this? I plan to set aside class time for students to share their thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic. One specific strategy I used to get people to participate online (zoom conference calls) is to use a google doc with a 3xN table (N= number of students +1).  Here's a hypothetical example:

Students pick a row and are paired with another student with the same number.  I give them a pronpt, and they type at the same time, while I observe and make comments. (Using this strategy also needs to be normed.)

Further, I plan to create a chat space on Canvas for discussion strategies for how to study, self care, random questions or comments. I'll send out regular emails to keep the door open for students, and invite students to virtual office hours (or 1-1 meetings) to discuss math, learning, be a mentor, just be there to listen. I'm sure I'll have to adapt and add more things, but these are my initial plans to setup a framework for human interaction.

Another important mindset I'll focus on is keeping a healthy perspective for myself. We are not trying to recreate our in-person classes. Almost all of us are going online for the first time. Trying to cover everything just like before and in the same way is not going to happen. My focus will be on being present in each moment, trying my best, and working to improve each and everyday (Shokunin Spirit).

Lastly, I'd like to mention that we should be gentle on ourselves. We all going through a lot, and we should allow ourselves to be human, to make mistakes or not have the "best" class session. What truly matters is that we care and our students know we care about them. If it doesn't go like we planned, it's ok.

That's my initial plan for implementing human-centered virtual teaching. Sending positive thoughts. Stay safe and healthy!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Draft Plans for Running a Virtual Class

Let me frame this post first with some initial thoughts... Sometimes life throws us all a curveball. Coronavirus is here, and CDC and others have warned us that major disruptions are coming. This is a very serious situation with a lot of levels, nuances, emotions, and sadly tragedy. People have and will suffer, and first and foremost I am wishing you all the best and hope you can stay strong and safe.

Some basic things I'm doing now to help keep my students and myself safe:
  1. Inform my students about what they can do.
  2. I bring cleaning supplies to class daily to clean desks.
  3. I also bring tissues and will bring hand sanitizer when it's in stock again.
  4. I've adjusted my attendance policy, and am asking students to stay home if they feel sick.
School closure is a strategy used in country for social distancing. This is used to flatten the epidemic curve to slow spread, provide necessary time and capacity for medical care, and a necessary part of battling a disease to keep people safe.  I'm for whatever keeps us the safest.

What this means is many of us may have to teach virtual classes. I'm on quarter system, and we are wrapping up winter term. Spring term starts at the end of March, and that could be when things change significantly. People on semester system might need to switch in the middle of the term, so that brings its own set of issues.   

A bit about some of my relevant background. Many of us have not taught online. I haven't, at least not a fully online class. I have taught hybrid online here and there, and have run faculty development workshops using zoom and a couple other tools.  Tools like zoom are going to make this easier, and I think the tech is there to make this work well enough. 

I'm sharing my own draft plans via google slides (linked HERE and embedded below). These are my draft thoughts on how to organize class via a simple framework, which others might find useful as a starting point.  I'll update this regularly as things develop. I know there are much more experienced people on this issue, so find and share resources you have.

At the bare minimum, an instructor can give lectures via zoom at the scheduled class time, and setup office hours via zoom. I personally will do much more, since I use IBL methods, but I think it's worth sharing that switching to virtual is not that scary, and certainly worth it given the situation.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Summer 4-Day IBL Workshops 2020

AIBL is offering a range of IBL Workshops in 2020. This post is about one of the types. Other types of workshops will be posted here soon. 

Our "classic" IBL Workshop is a 4-day summer intensive workshop. We've been running these since 2006, and have developed these over time to make them as good as we can. A summer intensive workshop is one of the best ways to get started with IBL or sharpen up your IBL skills. Our main target audiences are math instructors at 2-year, 4-year, other graduate degree granting institutions. We especially encourage faculty in the early stages of their career to attend one of our workshops. Community college math instructors are also welcome, and I want to point this out specifically. 

Why attend a workshop? The main benefit is that it supercharges your teaching. You get to work with experienced facilitators and join a community of math instructors going through the same type of transition to active, student-centered teaching. It's fun, you make new friends and colleagues, and you could teach in ways that transforms the learning experience for your students. 

Our motto is People First Professional Development. We don't have specific curricula or a set model of IBL. We work with individuals and put at the center of our work you, the participant, and your students. We work from that starting point to help instructors find a good solution within the IBL framework.

Workshops are funded generously by the National Science Foundation (NSF DUE 1525058). Most of the cost of attending is paid for by the grant. Participants are responsible for paying the registration fee, some meals, and travel costs. Early-career faculty (e.g. postdocs, new instructors, assistant professors) are eligible for travel scholarships of up to $500. We work with you and your department to figure out how to get you there.

The LA Workshop is June 16-19, 2020 at the Staybridges Suites in Torrance, CA.
The DC Workshop is at the MAA Carriage House, Washington DC, June 23-26, 2020.

For those who cannot travel, we are planning a virtual IBL Workshop in July. More details are forthcoming. We realize that not everyone can travel and that work travel increases significantly our carbon footprint. We are working hard to develop and provide "next gen," sustainable professional development.

More details about traveling workshops and workshops for courses for future elementary teachers are coming soon.  Hope to see you at a workshop this year!


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Interview: Professor Matthew Boelkins, Grand Valley State University and Active Calculus

Hi everyone! A massive thanks to Professor Matthew Boelkins, Grand Valley State University, for taking the time to share some info about his project, Active Calculus.  -SY

1. Please tell us about yourself.
I've had the good fortune to serve on the math faculty at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI, for more than 20 years.  I'm also one of the two editors-in-chief of PRIMUS (Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies), and have held that position for 5 years, following 5 years as associate editor.  My interests span a wide range of undergraduate teaching and learning of mathematics, but much of my recent creative energy has been focused on developing textbooks that encourage active learning.

2. Briefly describe “Active Calculus”? How much does it cost to the student?
Active Calculus (there are both single and multivariable texts; I'm the lead author of the single variable one, and will focus on that in my responses) is a free, open-source textbook designed for a standard calculus sequence taught from an active learning perspective.  Rather than lots of worked examples, most of the text is structured around activities for students that are designed to be completed before or during class, the latter with encouragement and feedback from peers and instructor.  Interested people can learn more at

3. What are some of the reasons why you decided to write “Active Calculus?”
There were two main reasons.  First, I read an article in MAA FOCUS about the \$21M home built by the author of a popular calculus textbook.  I figured that if the author had earned that much in royalties, the publisher had likely made \$210M.  It was no longer tenable for me to ask my students to pay \$150 for a textbook that had ideas in it that had been well understood by humankind for decades, even centuries.  I wanted to write something that would be free for them.

In addition, while at the time I began writing (around 2010) I didn't fully know the scholarship that tells us why active learning is better,  I used a lot of active learning in my own teaching and had found my students to be more successful than when I used to lecture.  Having developed a collection of activities for calculus to use in my own teaching, I had the idea to use those as the foundation for the textbook, and that's what led to Active Calculus.  When the Freeman report came out in 2014 (, that provided added motivation for making the text a good one.

4. What is a typical day like in a course using “Active Calculus” when you teach using it? Can you use it with flipped learning or with IBL methods?
For each class meeting, I prepare a written script with estimated times.  In advance of most classes, students complete a "daily prep assignment" that normally consists of a short reading, a preview activity from the text, and 1-2 additional questions; students spend 30-45 minutes completing these, and their work is graded on effort and completeness for 5\% of their semester mark.  Most classes then begin with a "daily prep debrief & discuss" (6-8 minutes) where students check in with one another and see what questions they might want to discuss as a class.

From there, we usually engage in some brief (5-7 minutes) lecture & discussion to build on daily prep and set stage for an activity.  Students then work in groups of 3-4 on an activity from the text for 15-20 minutes, followed by or including some discussion for closure, transition, and new ideas (adding another 5-10 minutes), and then we are on to the next activity for 15-20 minutes.  Often I teach our 4-credit calculus class on a schedule with two 2-hour meetings a week, so we basically rinse and repeat this schedule for a second hour, but without a daily prep assignment to start the 2nd hour.

I've written a blog post that has some more information and detail, including references to key preface sections of the text for students and instructors, as well as a video for students on how to use the text:

I think the text is particularly well-suited to a flipped learning setup:  when I have students complete daily prep assignments, they are doing some key basic learning on their own outside of class.  The in-class activity-driven style also fits with engaging students during class in the some of the most important and demanding work of the course.  Some of my GVSU colleagues have created screencasts that accompany the text, and these would work especially well for a flipped experience:

For IBL practitioners who have worked with that approach using more traditional texts like Stewart or Hughes-Hallett, I think you'd find Active Calculus to be a suitable companion for such a course.

5. What are some of the responses by faculty and students after using “Active Calculus”?
For views of some faculty who have reviewed or used the text, see  I get a lot of email traffic about the text, and many of those responses express gratitude for the text.  Recently, an instructor who is a first-time user this fall sent me a very kind thank-you note: "I wanted to write to say how much I've appreciated Active Calculus.  I was a bit suspect (I've been using Stewart), but I am so impressed with it.  I like the problems, the students working in class, the organization ... it's really quite good.  I'm excited to be teaching this class again.  And thanks for saving our students some money as well."

This fall, I also surveyed Active Calculus users via my email list and Twitter, and in an open comment part of the survey, I got additional feedback such as:

"I appreciate you and your work on this so much. It's really let me teach calculus in the way I want to without having to create the material from scratch. A million thanks."

"The book is well thought out with great examples. When I teach the class, I really feel like I am actively working through the book with the students. One comment our Quantitative & Symbolic Reasoning Center director told me was that students in Active Calculus sections are asking why a concept is true and being stuck on the theory, while students not using AC are asking questions on the algebra and not thinking about the concepts of the course. "

"I really appreciate the structure and the way that the text works. It has been a game changer for my teaching of Single Variable Calculus! Our pre-calc teacher is now using Active Prelude as one of her core texts and we are excited to see how that influences students being prepared for my class."

"I've been using Active Calculus since my first year of teaching AP Calculus AB and I can't imagine using any other curriculum.  I cannot thank you enough for the time and energy that you have put into your work and my hundreds of students over the years thank you as well."

As to what students say, I think that many students find the book different at first, and thus at times frustrating.  They have been trained to expect a book that has lots of fully-worked examples, followed by exercises that are similar to the examples.  Active Calculus is not that way.

Some of the instructors who responded to my survey commented on what students say:

"It's an excellent book. Students and I both really appreciate its clarity and accessibility. Just yesterday I was recommending to a student the very nice "Summary" bits at the end of each section, and they said, "oh, that's exactly what I was looking for.""

"I really like the text and got mostly positive comments from the students on the course evaluations last year.  In the past, the comments were almost all negative or neutral."

"I asked my students and they expressed appreciation for how easy it is to read. Some students also said they wished there were more examples, which gave me an opportunity to remind them why there aren't more examples. :)"

6. How widespread is “Active Calculus”?
One of the challenges of having a text that's free and available online is knowing exactly where it is being used.

I'm aware of at least 17 4-year universities, 2 2-year colleges, and 5 high schools that have formally adopted Active Calculus as their required textbook.  People from at least another 30 institutions have responded to my recent survey to say they are using it fully in their own course, even though the text hasn't been adopted by all of their peers.

Here's the list of adopters I have at present:
California State University, Monterey Bay
Carroll College
Doane University
Dordt University
Lane Community College
Laurentian University (@ St. Lawrence College)
Lebanon Valley College
Lenoir-Rhyne University
Nevada State College
Scottsdale Community College
Sonoma State University
St. Mary's College of Maryland
Texas Lutheran University
The College of Idaho
University of Northern Colorado
Vermont Commons School
Vernon Hills High School
Westfield State University
Westminster College (SLC)
Westmont College
Wyoming Seminary

7. Could this book be used in high school?
Absolutely, and several of them have publicly shared their experiences.  For instance, Dave Sabol of St. Ignatius High School has used AC for several years and writes about corresponding activities he has developed on his blog,  Jim Pardun and Steve Korney of Vernon Hills High School recently presented on their work teaching AP Calulus using AC at the regional NCTM conference in Nashville.

8. What are your future plans for your texts?
The overall goal is to keep making both Active Calculus and Active Prelude to Calculus better.

For Active Calculus, the original text was written in LaTeX and later converted to PreTeXt, which allows the HTML output.  I'm realizing that I haven't yet taken advantage of many of the features PreTeXt offers, such as having better cross-referencing, a better index, and more interactive features.  A first goal is to make revisions to take advantage of those features.  I am also considering adding Sage cells to the text to offer some embedded computation and experimentation for students; having some interactive computational opportunities is a second thing I hope to incorporate in the not distant future.  And a third significant goal is to have some additional exercises, ideally with many of them focused on modeling and applications.

For Active Prelude, this is the first year the text has been public, so I'm waiting on some user feedback to see where to focus energies next.

9. Anything else?
People can learn more at and, and I always appreciate hearing directly from users or people interested in the text by email at boelkinm at gvsu dot edu.