Mathochism: The joys of MOOCulus

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

AK_Math_small When my second community college calculus experience ended on a bad note at the end of 2012, I was really depressed. And furious; mostly furious, really, since I felt like the whole semester was one big game of bait-and-switch, with the second professor as bad as the first, except in a far subtler way.

But unlike previous bad experiences, this didn’t sour me on math. Nor did it take away from my interest in learning more calculus, which was actually one of the most satisfying chapters in my short math career.

Yep, I really love calculus. I adore limits, derivatives, and integration. I tolerate related rates and optimization – but then again, no romance is perfect. As long as they leave the toilet seat down, we’re cool.

This development feels like a miracle, or maturity, or something. Let’s go with something.

Anyway, this something is what made me reluctant to give up on my math studies, even though I knew trying again at my college was not an option. I couldn’t go through that Lucy with the football thing again, no way, no how. My sanity was more important.

So what to do? Extension class at a university? Too expensive and time-consuming, commute wise. Going over the material on my own, using all the supplemental texts I purchased? As we’ve established, I need more.

Enter my savior, coursera.com. Their massive online open courses (or MOOCs) seemed quite challenging, but best of all, they were free! I wouldn’t get college credit, of course, but that didn’t matter. It had never mattered.

I saw they were offering single variable calculus through the University of Pennsylvania, and signed up immediately. UPenn is a member of the Quaker Consortium, which also includes my alma mater, Bryn Mawr. Unfortunately, I never took a class at UPenn as an undergrad. But here was my chance!

It started well. I took the diagnostic quiz, and got 8 out of 10 right. The professor had the same score. The two questions I got wrong covered inverse trig and log limits, both topics we hadn’t covered in the last calc class.

Unfortunately, this soon became a problem. I had hoped this course would be a rehash/slightly more advanced than the course I had just taken. As it turns out, it was way more advanced, and while I could grasp the concepts, there were too many holes to fill. I dropped it, hoping for a better fit.

That better fit didn’t come along until fall 2013, but it was worth the wait. MOOCulus, hosted by the Ohio State University at Columbus, was an absolute joy.

Taught by faculty members Jim Fowler and Bart Snapp, MOOCulus was exactly what I needed. Their video lectures were clear and interesting. Both professors were personable and enthusiastic, and made connections for me that I hadn’t even considered before. For example, Prof. Fowler’s lecture comparing linear approximation to similar musical tones was an aha! moment.

For homework, we had interactive problems that included worked out solutions, or pdf textbook problems that just had answers. The textbook problems were inevitably more challenging, and I appreciated being able to pick and choose.

The quizzes and exams were untimed, and could be taken as many times as needed. I made it a point of pride to not take them more than three times, settling for whatever score I got that third time. This meant that, while I got some perfect scores, most of them weren’t. The quizzes and exams were mostly multiple choice, with some fill-in-the-blank. You only got the answer if you got the right answer, so either you grasped the concept or you didn’t. There was guessing, of course, but with five answers, that wasn’t a good tactic, at least for me.

I was impressed by the rigor of the course. It was two weeks shorter than my other course, and had far less lecture time, but we covered way more material. There was no skimping on logs or inverse trig, nor did we skip L’Hopital’s rule. That last made me very happy.

We were encouraged to interact with classmates and faculty via forums, and those were fine but not my favorite part. I wish we’d had tutoring available, as in being able to interact with TAs on instant messaging. I realize that would be unwieldy, though, considering the huge enrollment and the time differences. California is only three hours earlier than Ohio, but India (there were a lot of Indian students) would be a challenge.

All told, it was exactly the calculus experience I hoped for. It was quite challenging, yet not punitive, the safe space I thought I had lost after pre-calc. Snapp and Fowler’s approaches to even the most complicated stuff were inspiring.

At the end, I was tired but very happy. The course confirmed that I really did learn calculus, and that I wasn’t wrong to love it.

And my grade? It doesn’t matter, but I wound up with an 89.3 percent. My B streak continues, and illustrates what I have learned about my math ability: It will never come easily, but I can understand it. I can appreciate it. I can learn it.

I don’t suck at math.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

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