Educational technology in a Mathematics Department – a tale of a non-change agent

By Dr Tanya Evans (University of Auckland, New Zealand)

I live in a world of mathematics – I work in the Department of Mathematics; I teach mathematics; I talk about mathematics with colleagues; and I used to be one of them – a pure mathematician, specialising in low-dimensional topology, to be precise. And then I turned to the dark side – I decided to devote all my mental capacity to research in higher education. They are still talking to me, just…

As you can imagine, the uptake of educational technology in my department has been slow. In fact, that’s a blatant exaggeration – it has not happened yet. One of the mighty battles that has almost been lost by the mathematicians started happening about 20 years ago – they began to have their blackboards taken away… almost by brute force (Figure 1). There were some serious resistance groups organised worldwide, and some of them were successful in their relentless fight against evil – the educational technologists who caused all of that. Some of my maths friends from the USA regularly brag on social media about the best places to source chalk and post pictures of themselves proudly lecturing on a blackboard, still!

Figure 1: Mathematician engaged in teaching and learning practice

Needless to say, every time I’ve tried to share my out-of-this-world excitement about my research on affordances of educational technology in mathematics education, I lose my audience pretty quickly… and a few friends at the same time.

I’ve thought about it for some time. I think I know a way how to get to mathematicians’ hearts and souls – by speaking their language. Using terms such as Community of Inquiry (CoI) or Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) is out of the question – these are trigger words and lead to loss of friends.

How about a 3d model with xyz dimensions, and a vector identifying the impact of an intervention? It is a mathematical object that belongs to a 2d plane, as depicted in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. Course Transaction space (CT-space): Three dimensions of educational exchange.

The idea is simple: to use the Course Transaction space model (CT-space) to explain why an intervention involving frequent online quizzes can improve learning. In choosing the term, I drew on well-known research in distance education (Moore, 2013), where transaction distance captures students’ involvement in courses offered at a distance by focusing on transactions between a student and an instructor (online/mail interactions and dialogues). The researchers argue that increased frequency of interactions leads to decreased transaction distance, indicating students’ improved involvement. I expanded the context to blended learning environments that include face-to-face instruction, with one aim being to capture transactions that occur between a teacher and a student for the duration of a course at a tertiary institution. The intervention itself is based on one of the main findings from experimental educational psychology in the last 100 years and pertains to the effect of distributed (spaced) practice. It should have been utilised in my department about 100 years ago, even without the ease afforded by educational technology. Never mind, better late than never – I rolled it out in our largest stage II mathematics course in 2016 with 400 students. The results of an evaluation study suggest that it went really well. Together with two of my (higher ed) colleagues, we wrote a paper about all of this – it has just come out in AJET, in the first issue of the year, Evans, Kensington-Miller, and Novak (2021). However, I am not brave enough to forward the link to the mathematicians yet. But I will, I promise – I hope this way of talking 3d-heart-to-heart is the spark they need to start embracing educational technology.

References:

Moore, M. (2013). The handbook of distance education (3rd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203803738

Evans, T., Kensington-Miller, B., & Novak, J. (2021). Effectiveness, efficiency, engagement: Mapping the impact of pre-lecture quizzes on educational exchange. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 37(1), 163-177. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.6258

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Elaine Huber
Elaine Huber
7 months ago

I love this post Tanya – thanks so much for bringing our attention to your article. I have worked with mathematicians for many years so some of your comments made me laugh out loud. I will certainly be sharing with my maths friends (who also try to write in HE journals) though this may be preaching to the converted 🙂

Chris Campbell
Editor
Chris Campbell (@asc-author)
7 months ago

I guess if we all forward this blog post to our mathematical friends then this might work. Love the blog post and yes am inspired to read the AJET article.