Last week, I received an email from a reader regarding the online mathematics program at the University of Illinois in Springfield. I wasn’t familiar with the program and have started taking a closer look. One of the questions that was asked by that reader was what sort of things should he be looking for in an online mathematics degree. To my knowledge the are very few fully online bachelor’s degrees IN MATHEMATICS available at this point. However, with technology advancing at its current rate, the barriers to such a program will be virtually gone in the next few years.

So what exactly are the barriers to an online mathematics degree? I have a few ideas but I’m interested in what other folks are thinking, so I am scoping out the blogosphere and reading as many articles as I can get my hands on. If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

Even as an online mathematics instructor, I still believe that the majority (vast majority, in fact) are better off in a face-to-face setting than online. Now, the only course I teach is a College Algebra course that is required for all bachelor’s degrees at Wayland. None of my online students are math majors or will become math majors. I’m not discouraging them, but they are all attending our external campuses where we don’t offer the full program in mathematics, for lack of demand, primarily. So these students range from a few students straight out of high school to the majority of which are adult learners returning to school. About half of the students I have are truly motivated enough to do the self-teaching necessary to learn the material through the online medium, but the communication barrier still looms as the largest hurdle to success for almost all of the students.

To answer the reader’s question, “What should I be looking for in [an online mathematics program]?”, I replied the following:

While many Universities have moved to put several undergraduate courses online such as College Algebra, Pre-Calculus and Calculus. There is much less available in terms of the upper level courses that involve abstract mathematics and proof techniques.

Most of all, abstract mathematics needs a high level of communication and interaction during the learning process. Conveying ideas in those courses are very challenging using the online medium. I think the courses need to have both asynchronous elements and synchronous elements, meaning that there will be times you work on your own time schedule and others that you interact with your class or your professor with immediate feedback. That’s probably the biggest thing. You also need the benefit of interacting with fellow students in the program. A cohort of learners is extremely important during the process or mastering abstract-level mathematics.

What else would be important for mathematics degree to be completely online or is it even possible?

I think you hit the nail on the head there. Having the immediate student-student and student-professor communication is essential to learning mathematics. There’s only so much you can do with a block of text or even with video before you have to break out the pen and paper or go to the board and work out the problems and theorems together. It just sticks better when you have to struggle with the work together and/or under helpful supervision in the same physical space. Even with Skype and tablet PCs using a shared workspace, that communication isn’t as strong as what you’d have in a classroom or with a study group at the local IHOP.

Math can be a lousy self-study topic. Interaction with instructors would be essential.

I took many online courses during my schooling career, and in fact the only one I ever had trouble with was a Calculus class I took. I tried Calculus twice, and had to give up each time. I eventually took it in-class, and did fine, and have now gone on to much higher math courses without a problem – so it wasn’t the subject matter.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about communication in your reply. I don’t feel like I really need to interact face-to-face or real-time with my instructors and classmates, although those can both be helpful. I just need to be able to communicate.

Mathematics was invented as a language to communicate ideas and patterns better than words. I can’t use the online medium properly with math. I don’t have the right symbols for abstract things, or the right formatting for proofs, I can’t draw graphs and diagrams, and so I can’t explain myself. When I took English classes online, it was a breeze – the internet is made for writing. Even art classes were fine – .jpgs come across on any computer. In my humble opinion, the barrier to online mathematics is just that it’s a poor mathematical communication medium.

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Hi, I stumbled across this site. As a current student at UIS enrolled in the Math program I feel that I can add some insite. A little background about me. I was a Mechanical Engineering major and had completed a little more than half of the degree program before leaving school to pursue an aviation career.Back in the late 90′s you could get a job flying with basically a heart beat. I progressed through the ranks and I am now a captain flying for a great company. I decided to continue a B.A. degree basically for my own fulfillment. The B.A. Mathematics at UIS fits well with what I had completed so far. I have thus far completed three classes online. I would say if you are a self-study (like myself) the program would be a good fit. If you need everything spoon-fed I still think that the timely correspondence from the professors would serve you well. The classes are very challenging and you must devote time in order to succeed.

Interesting article.With so many degrees to choose and earn your degree online,people will much more motivated to take courses online and save time or take the course on their own pace.