NetMath, online education program, turns 25

by Reema Abi-Akar

staff writer

For 25 years, the NetMath program has been breaking down distance barriers in education and making University-based math courses more widely available for students around the world.

NetMath is a web-based distance learning interface that is accessible to high school students, college students and anyone else wishing to expand their mathematical knowledge. It provides University credit through a variety of 16-week math courses, from 100-level and below to 400-level courses.

Headed by Randy McCarthy, program director of the department of mathematics, the program teaches about 1,000 students per year and comprises over 50 lecturers, TAs, undergraduate mentors and personnel.

“The pedagogy is a little different than traditional online classes in that the students are actively engaged with the software,” McCarthy said. “So instead of sitting back and passively watching a video of someone else doing (the exercises and problems), the machine helps you experiment and do it so you can learn by doing.”

In contrast to typical online courses that rely on long video lectures, NetMath courses teach the student through math web programs like Making Math, ALEKS and My Math Lab. This way, the course is more structured toward individual learning.

In addition to allowing a student to receive transferable credit, the program also provides help along the way for those who need it.

“When a student signs up, they are assigned a mentor who is a resource person for them,” said Bruce Carpenter, lecturer for NetMath. “The student can email (their mentor) with questions; the mentors grade their homework and provide feedback. We also have an online chatroom staffed by our mentors (where) students can go and get help.”

Carpenter has been a part of NetMath at the University since before the program’s inception. As a University graduate student in math in 1988, he worked with professors Jerry Uhl and Horacio Porta to develop what would later become the internationally used distance learning program.

“(Uhl and Porta) were developing courseware based on the computer algebra system, ‘Mathematica,’” Carpenter said. “So I got very interested in that program, and I started teaching a calculus and mathmatica program on campus in 1989.”

This calculus and mathmatica program, which was used to create NetMath, still exists at the University today as an intersection of math and technology.

Before the Internet was a mainstream entity, NetMath began as the Distance Education Project, or an outreach program tailored to rural Illinois students.

“We actually used to send disks back and forth through the mail,” Carpenter said. “The students would turn in their homework on those disks.”

Over the course of 25 years, NetMath has come a long way and made significant changes in scope, technology and accessibility of online distance learning.

“The program has been essentially expanding almost every year since 2002,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s going to be the beginning of an online chapter for our program.”

In honor of the 25th anniversary of NetMath, the program held a logo contest in March, which invited students to create a logo that they believe represents the program as a whole. The first place winner will receive $200, and the second place winner will receive $100.

As a Ph.D. student in mathematics, Juan Villeta-Garcia, a TA for NetMath since August, has taught traditional lectures, active learning courses and now, distance learning courses via NetMath.

TAs are in charge of the undergraduate mentors, and they make sure the logistics of the course run smoothly and grade the students’ exams.

“One of the other things that the TAs do is that they meet regularly to discuss ongoing bigger-scale projects,” Villeta-Garcia said. “We rework NetMath policy, we restructure things … and another big project that’s going in is figuring out all the language implications, so whether we can incorporate functionality or support for other languages.”

Students come from many different backgrounds: high school students, home-schooled students, undergraduate students, continuing education students and even active duty military personnel. NetMath also has a partner high school program in Illinois, which serves about 300 high school students, Carpenter said.

Villeta-Garcia said the program is especially rewarding for him as a TA because he has met students from different walks of life around the world.

“NetMath has a very unique online distance experience,” he said. “You’re taking a math course, but that math course has the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign stamp on it … and that holds water.”

Reema can be reached at [email protected]