Mathematics teaching has always been one of the challenging tasks in our education system. Researchers in the U.S. have examined learning and teaching math through various theoretical approaches for almost three decades; however, most students still have difficulties in learning math and their test scores are lower than those of their peers in many developed countries. Thus, the question with no satisfactory answers still remains. What needs to be done for improving mathematics instruction? This question also makes most teachers worried about online math teaching. Math teachers often report that their students already are not doing well in face-to-face settings and wonder about whether the students will be successful in online settings within which they should be more responsible for their learning than they do in traditional courses.
As teachers’ conceptions of mathematics teaching are mostly linked to face-to-face course settings, their approaches to math learning need to be examined and improved. Teachers naturally tend to teach the way they have been taught. The way teachers learned math concepts consciously or unconsciously influence their decisions about instructional strategies and activities. Once teachers talk about learning mathematics, they just automatically visualize a face-to-face learning environment where a teacher passing certain mathematical knowledge and skills to a group of students. Most teachers’ views about math instruction have been deeply attached to traditional course settings where they were introduced and taught the math they learned. Although changing teachers’ conception of mathematics learning is a complicated issue, professional development and teacher education programs can help teachers widen their visions of mathematics learning through supporting teachers’ engagement with various tools of computer and Internet technology in their courses. Having incorporated different technology into their courses will enable teachers to considerably advance their insights about students’ math learning with technology. For example, teachers will directly experience how using different technologies advance or impede students’ math learning and how technologies change the way they teach and their students learn.
After using various applications of technology in their courses, teachers can have a considerable potential to design effective online learning environments. It is widely assumed that teachers need certain technology skills and knowledge to be able to transform their teaching strategies and activities into online settings. Recent advances in computer and Internet technology made various types of user-friendly computer software accessible for both learners and instructors. Thus, teachers are no longer need to spend a huge amount of time and energy to learn programming languages to use software or any other technological tools in their courses. On the web, there are numerous software and online resources (some of them are free!) that teachers can integrate into their courses to make mathematical concepts interesting and understandable for their students. Therefore, having no advanced technical knowledge is no more an acceptable excuse for teachers in designing online learning environments. However, most teachers at K-12 or college level often point out three major issues in designing effective online math courses. These are communication of mathematical ideas, presentation of math concepts, and assessment of students’ math learning in online settings.
Communication of mathematics in online courses is crucial for improving students’ learning. Mathematics has its own unique language and it always entails using certain symbols and expressions. In online settings, it is vital that students need to share their ideas with their peers and teachers to conceptualize mathematical ideas. However, entering math symbols in online settings might require extra time and efforts on students’ side. Many teachers also report the challenge of writing math characters while students explaining their solutions in online courses. Although there are programs (e.g., Microsoft Equation Editor) allowing students to integrate math symbols and equations into their texts, students still need additional time and efforts. These programs might even distract students’ attention and cause students focus on physical appearances of their texts, rather than key mathematical concepts they need to learn. However, with the help of current technology several technological tools have become available and they enabled students to easily place any math symbols and expressions into their online texts. MathType is a nice example of such technology and it has been widely used in college level online math courses.
Designing online math courses involves presenting math concepts in dynamic ways that draw students’ attention to core math concepts and enhance students’ learning. In other words, teaching math online is not simply putting course materials used in face-to-face settings into web. Online and face-to-face learning environments are just two different worlds. Thus, teachers need to develop a different vision of mathematics instruction while preparing online courses. In online settings, the course content can be made attractive and interactive through using various Internet resources (e.g., videos, math applets, online math games). There are several online course management systems (e.g., Blackboard, Wimba, Moodle, Ning) that allow teachers to easily use various web resources and tools in their courses without requiring any additional work. However, only putting many resources into the course website does not ensure effective learning environments. While choosing technology for online math courses, teachers need to have a good balance between the following interwoven factors: students’ learning needs, the characteristics of the math concept being taught such as levels of cognitive demand, pedagogical affordances of the technology.
Assessment of students’ learning has always been one of the most criticized aspects of online math teaching over the years. However, with the advent of Internet technology, students’ learning can be effectively measured in various ways. A number of online homework and grading systems have become available for teachers. WebAssign is one of these software that endeavor to maximize objective assessment of students’ learning. It uses a LockDown Browser that disables students to anything (e.g., instant messaging, emailing, searching on the web) other than the work on the WebAssign exam that is time-limited and password-protected. Once students started to the exam, they are locked into the full-screen setting until they submitted their answers.
In sum, current computer and Internet technology have already made various technical tools available and easily usable for designing online math courses. The crucial point is having the ability to use the most appropriate technology effectively for improving students’ math learning. However, this ability involves not only certain knowledge and skills but also a huge amount of experiences integrating different types of information technology into mathematics teaching.