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Paper prepared for the 10th International Conference
of the
Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education (SITE)
San Antonio, Texas, February 28 - March 4, 1999
Acceptance of a Maths Online Project
Franz Embacher
Institute for Theoretical Physics
University of Vienna
Austria
fe@ap.univie.ac.at
http://merlin.mpi.univie.ac.at/~fe
Abstract: Since March 1998, the University of Vienna hosts the project maths online. Its goal is the creation of a coherent online program suitable for maths teaching and self-learning, covering a range of six years mathematics education. Its web site
http://www.univie.ac.at/future.media/moe/
is freely accessible. Experiences concerning the acceptance of the program among teachers
and students are reported.
The maths online project
In March 1998 a project was launched at the university of Vienna whose goal is to create a coherent online program on mathematical topics, suitable for being used in the framework of school classes, adults education and undergratuate university courses. The envisaged contents covers most of the issues students are usually confronted with from the age of 14 or 15 years.
The - larger - german version of the material is hosted at
http://www.univie.ac.at/future.media/mo/
(a link leading to the - smaller - english version) and is updated regularly. Technically, it consists of
a gallery of multimedia learning units (dynamical diagrams designed as Java applets) on various topics, usually dealing with the introduction of crucial mathematical notions and testing the understanding of key concepts,
a collection of WWW links to mathematical topics and online tools,
a hypertext-based outline of the mathematical background, ordered by chapters (only in the german version), and
an alphabetically ordered glossary (only in the german version).
Future perspectives are the inclusion of interactive exercises and tests, as well as material on the historical background.
The material is developed by the author together with Petra Oberhuemer from the same Institute, in collaboration with school teachers, trainers in adults education, and maths didactics specialists from the University of Vienna. During its first year, the project is supported by the Austrian Ministry of Education and the Arts, the Austrian National Bank and the Vienna Association for People's Education. It is which freely accessible for everyone.
So far, we have received reactions to be reported below on an individual basis of interested teachers and students. During the next term (summer 1999), empirical tests in school and adults education will be performed.
General accessibility problems
When starting to bring the project to the attention of teachers and students several months after its start, we could observed some general problems (most of which were known previously)..
The most trivial problem was simply the lack of appropriate internet connections in schools. Thanks to an initiative of the Ministry of Education, the situation is just about to improve.
A more severe problem is the technical equipment of schools, regarding computers and network utilities. A number of schools are listed as connected to the internet, but offering only E-mail service for teachers and, in some cases, a single (!) computer running a web browser. We expect some degree of improvement regarding these matters as well, although at a slower rate, on account of budget issues in the Austrian school system.
An almost common problem is the small number of computers suitable to run multimedia applications and to provide web connections. The situation in most schools reflects the traditional use of computers in special computing courses, but essentially disjoint to all other subjects. Computer and new-media issues are quite often regarded as being completely separated from teaching mathematics or, say, biology.
The general knowledge among Austrian teachers about the use of computers, multimedia and the web is quite low. Cultural techniques for improving these qualifications have not jet developed at a large scale. In addition, the responsibility for the hard- and software in a school is usually held by one particular teacher. Lack of time available for new-media issues, and a fairly underdeveloped communication structure among the colleges is quite often a reason for a de-facto accessibility restriction. Amazingly, even mathematics teachers do not seem to provide exceptions to this rule.
In addition, students often show better computer skills (and faster learning abilities) than teachers. This in turn questions the teachers authority a situation which often induces an inner resistance against the use of new media.
A further de-facto restriction of online material used in mathematics education is provided by the fact that teachers in general do not really like to download software from the web. Apart from the variety of technical skills necessary to use the internet creatively, it is sometimes not even clear whether a non-computer-specialist teacher is entitled to download software. Thus it does not seem wise to make wide-spread learning software dependent on browser plug-ins. This situation was our main reason for avoiding the necessity of plug-ins and transporting the required multimedia functionality of maths online by Java applets.
It needs however to be said that a number of teachers is willing to face and overcome all these problems actively. In total, the Austrian school system hosts several pioneering mathematics projects, the largest ones centered around the use of the calculator TI-92 and the computer algebra system Mathematica. These initiatives will help to spread the general knowledge about and acceptance of new techniques in maths education among the majority of teachers.
Acceptance of maths online
In what follows we shall focus on teachers and students reactions on the maths online project. In order to be able to receive systematic feedback, the developers announced E-mail addresses and provided an online questionnaire at the website of maths online. Personal contacts to school teachers completed the communication process.
The reactions were fairly positive in general. Some suggestions concerned the detailed design, functionality and usability, which we have taken into account as far as possible. Let us list some observations of more general relevance.
The core of the visualization material is its multimedia functionality the way how scroll bars, mouse drag actions and the like are integrated into mathematical scenarios. Practically all responses we obtained were fairly enthusiastic about the way this functionality was designed. This is a strong signature of acceptance of some of our key concepts of multimedia didactics. Also, it was conceded quite generally that maths online is capable of improving ones understanding of mathematical notions and facts, and that it may - in principle - be integrated into maths education in a helpful way. In these respects, the rates given to us were encouraging. However, possible acceptance problems arise at different levels, and we will now list some of the most interesting issues.
Some of the applets are designed to illustrate the introduction of new key concepts. An example is the applet On the definition of the derivative
(http://www.univie.ac.at/future.media/moe/galerie/diff1/diff1.html#ableitung).
By moving a scroll bar, the geometrical construction for measuring the derivative of a function moves along with the x-coordinate. The function graph displayed is prescribed once and for all, since the purpose of the applet was not to be applied to various functions but to help understanding what is meant by the concept of the derivative. In principle, this notion could be introduced without reference to finite difference quotients. The only new element necessary to approach it is the tangent to a curve which is immediately appealing in an intuitive way.
However, several teachers asked for the possibility to vary the graph displayed. They did not primarily look at the applet as a visualization of a concept but as a tool, to be used in various situations. They did not seem to accept intuitive understanding as a primary goal of a learning unit, but were more focused on tools suitable to do something, and to learn by doing.
This is a very interesting point, since it affects the discussion about constructivist learning: To what extent is fast and intuitive understanding without much labor possible? Does the teachers' reaction reflect the students best ways of approaching concepts or does it emerge from the traditional point of view that understanding is postponed until enough has been done. Or does it just express the need to adopt appropriate tools for just the situation encountered here-and-now in an individual class?
Topics like this will be one of the crucial points to examine in future empirical tests.
There was a further series of reactions indicating that teachers wish to have tools at their disposal, even if the adoption thereof for their lessons will cost a considerable amount of time. Some of the applets were designed as jig-saw puzzles. By mouse dragging, the user shall associate corresponding terms to each other, or answers to questions, or the like. Surprisingly, these puzzles were the most successful part of maths online so far! Maybe this is so because they in fact appear in the form of games. We have several times listened to students of all ages denoting them as cool.
However, they are not at all simple we have tried to show that quite sophisticated matters may be designed in this form, e.g. the reconstruction of the proof of the formula for the solution of a quadratic equation, Quadratic equations 2
(http://www.univie.ac.at/furture.media/moe/galerie/gleich/gleich.html#quadr2).
A frequent reaction of teachers was the need for customizing their own puzzle applets. We have provided a comfortable possibility to do so (input of the entries by web page) see the link Puzzle creation page on the Welcome Page of maths online.
The overall approach of teachers towards the applets was seemingly to integrate them as individual units into their courses, separated from the rest of maths online. Maybe this is a reaction for individuals responsible for their educational activities. So far, we could not verify the well-known phrase that teachers just want material whose use is strictly ruled. (On the other hand, there are already materials in use which do not leave much room for customization the maths textbooks. Maybe the situation bears some slight competition between book and web). This reaction may be appreciated nevertheless, it shows that suggesting a different pedagogical approach of, say, a complete chapter as a whole is a rather difficult enterprise.
It remains to be seen in future empirical tests whether this situation also persists in the framework of adults education.
The second group of material is a series of hypertext-based documents on particular mathematical subjects. (They are only available in the german version). There purpose is to introduce the user who wishes a concise exposition of mathematical facts or who just wants to find some information on a particular topic embedded in a larger context. Moreover, these pages will in the final version carry all the necessary tutorial and navigational information (now call this applet and now try that test). Moreover, we have tried to keep the text and formal exposition in a form that should be understandable for the user, even if she just jumps right into a page, as would occur with a book.
Nevertheless, here a possible limitation of the web as valuable media might arise: Users do in general not expect to find pages involving text and mathematical formulas, nor are they ready to read long pieces of text on the screen. This provides problems, in particular for designing an online help system concerned with difficult and formal mathematical contents. An online help system has to include descriptions of essentially the same form (and language) as will arise in real world examinations. On the other hand, users tend to expect fun and easy learning on the web. The fact that - at some level of sophistication - written (or spoken) arguments and formulas using various symbols are an essential part of mathematics, seems to be hard to accept, even when using a maths-on-the-web system. This provides a further source of acceptance problems.
A possible way out of this situation is to offer (and explicitly suggest) the user to work interactively at the screen and/or to use printed hard-copy versions of the relevant documents in a suitable combination. In class, this could mean to encourage students to give a seminar on a topic, based on these documents.
Teachers reactions indeed showed very little readiness to include the hyper-text documents as teaching material into their courses. (This may in part arise from the way maths text books are used in Austrian schools: mainly as a source for exercises. Even desperate students usually do not consult their text book when preparing for an examination).
However, few colleges announced to advice their students to work with the text as text in addition to the applets. The experiences arising from these attempts will be of high value for the future design of maths online. Also, it will be an interesting issue in future empirical tests how this situation changes in the framework of adults education, where self-learning aspects become more important as compared to school teaching.
There is another possible source of acceptance issues. Almost all applets have a button named Exercises, which provide concrete instructions for testing ones understanding (or constructing a concept). We have noticed a very little readiness to click these buttons! In particular persons who just liked to have a brief look at maths online seemed to simply overlook them. Also students, when merely asked to go through an applet, took rather long time before activating the Exercise buttons. Surprisingly, the buttons named Didactical background - designed as a brief information for teachers - were far more attractive for them to click.
A good interface immediately tells the user what to do. On the other hand, a well-designed mathematical diagram or visualization interface shall not carry too much text external to its topic. These two principles seem to interfere here. It remains to be tested whether students easily get along with a design in which relevant texts are hidden behind buttons.
One of the general design principles of maths online is the extensive use of browser and applet windows which do not stretch over the whole screen but are easily recognizable as windows. This shall minimize the loss of orientation (where am I?) which may easily occur when a new web page is loaded into the browser. In contrast, the appearance of a (smaller) window evokes the question whats in there? rather than where am I?. We seem to have done this point well, because most feedback states that the material is well-structured and easy to overview.
In general, the acceptance of maths online was better by persons who already bring along a considerable amount of experience with computers, internet and learning software, rather than from newcomers. In particular, teachers who have been engaged in the past into related issues and have done pioneering work by themselves, gave it the best rates.
In general, the acceptance of maths online was better by teachers and students who looked at it in more detail and spent more time on it rather than just briefly skipping through it. It seems by no means easy to judge on a program like ours at a glimpse. (Unfortunately, the speedy atmosphere of the web seems to leave some imprint even on media and pedagogical experts, at least as long as it is not clear what an expert in this field is). This situation may indicate that accidental and impatient users are difficult to win. The best situation to get acquainted with our program seems to be a lesson or course atmosphere in which the material is declared part of the learning method by the teacher.
It is not easy to draw viable conclusions from the response obtained so far, before having carried out systematic testing. The main lesson we have learned is that although the general usability of maths online and the way how multimedia techniques were integrated into mathematical situations is easily accepted some intrinsic requirements how to present online maths material are on the verge of being non-compatible with spontaneous user expectations. We conclude that
developers of learning software should deal with such potential acceptance problems in a careful way,
and that
users should not expect online learning to be pure fun, but might have to get used to a novel way of discipline.
The results of empirical tests to be performed during 1999 will be posted on the maths online website.
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