Ohio State Professor Jim Fowler Wants Everyone To Be A Mathematician

Rajit DasguptaRajit Dasgupta | 4 minute read | May 9, 2014

Jim Fowler from The Ohio State University’s Math Department has taught three different MOOCs on Coursera! To be sure, we’re not talking one course taught three times, these are three entirely different courses, all on Calculus. He’s recently finished teaching the cheekily named M2O2C2 (Massively Multivariable Open Online Calculus Course), and his extremely popular Calculus One course, and plans to offer the popular Calculus Two again later this year.

We chatted with Jim about his upcoming course, how MOOCs enable him to run pedagogical experiments, and why he thinks everyone should learn math!

Wow, this is going to be your third MOOC in 2014! What’s prompted this all-in plunge into teaching online courses?

I really love teaching MOOCs, and The Ohio State University math department has been super supportive.

I can run big “teaching experiments” in a MOOC that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do in person, and we get a ton of very interesting data on the learning of calculus. Hopefully I’ll be able to run even more of these in the future.

What kinds of experiments?

Pretty much every MOOC that I ran involves some sort of “teaching experiment.”  The Calculus One course involves mooculus.osu.edu, which is an adaptive learning platform we put together.  Does our hidden Markov model measure student understanding?  How predictive is past student performance on future questions? etc.

The multivariable calculus course is built around ximera.osu.edu, which replaces videos with hints and activities.  We’ve got a lot of feedback from students about what worked well there, and what needs to be improved.

How do your MOOCs differ from your on-campus teaching?

I do sometimes teach face-to-face calculus courses at OSU, but those courses are structured very differently. The MOOC versions are shorter, with bite-sized videos instead of hour-long lectures.

Tell us a little more about your upcoming course Calculus Two. Who is the target audience, and what should they  expect?

The audience that I have in mind is my younger self: I imagine someone who has seen some calculus, say AP Calculus AB, and wants to know what they are missing in AP Calculus BC.  This course is mostly BC minus AB.

There’s sometimes an expectation that a MOOC is going to provide a “modern” take on the subject, but I’m pretty old-school: it’s online, with videos and a textbook and randomly generated quiz problems and all, but the content is traditional.

What is something unexpected you learned while teaching these MOOCs, that has impacted how you will teach/structure Calculus Two?

I had expected that many “traditional undergraduates” would enroll, but those students are the minority. Many MOOC learners are older and are very busy with their family and jobs and other commitments; So I made the course six weeks (instead of 15 weeks!) to make it a bit easier to fit in with the rest of life. I hope that everybody can find some time to do a bit of math.

What have you enjoyed most about teaching MOOCs?

I love how diverse the community of learners is. MOOCs draw in people from all over the world and at every point in life. It’s inspiring to see how many people want to do more math.

What needs to change?

As for what needs to change, I do worry a bit about relying too heavily on video. I like to say that face-to-face teaching amounts to doing community theater, and that running a MOOCs is akin to producing television or film. But that misses the deeper point. We don’t want more watchers of theater and film; we want more actors! I really want to see more people doing math. More mathematicians!

The good thing is that the online community is a great place to do math, and I think MOOCs are fantastic at bringing people who want to do more math into contact with new math friends.

How do you see MOOCs and their role in education evolve from here? Should universities offer credit for MOOCs?

My hope is that MOOCs don’t merely solve an access problem, or a problem of “supply of education”. My deeper desires is that MOOCs address the demand for more math. By providing innovative, interesting, engaging student experiences, I intend to draw a ton more people into doing more math, whether recreationally or professionally.

And I’d personally like to see people earn credit by completing MOOCs, but I know there are plenty of questions that will have to be addressed before that will happen broadly.

You’re obviously very keen on making more people learn Math – why is this important?

My desire for more people to do more math is like any other fandom; you really, really want more people to participate. Good stories, good art—these are things whose very reason for being is about retelling and about sharing.

There’s this idea that math is about “truth”, but the truth is out there regardless of our activity. So what’s Math? It is about finding patterns, organizing ideas, discovering analogies and analogies between analogies—these are ways that human beings communicate understanding.

What’s an interesting fact about you that not many people know?

In the lecture videos, you may notice that my standing desk is supported by bottles of sparkling mineral water, and that I keep a fork in a bowl of coffee beans.

Hope you enjoyed this interview. If you’ve taken any of Jim Fowler’s MOOCs on Coursera, please write a review on Springboard for Calculus One, Calculus Two or M2O2C2.

Rajit Dasgupta

About Rajit Dasgupta

Rajit started early on Springboard's marketing team, and now oversees Growth Product and Analytics. He spends his free time rock climbing, cooking, and blogging @ thegrowthpm.com