The (Hidden) Cost of Higher Education

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Anyone who pays attention to politics or the news will have undoubtedly heard plenty about the rising costs of higher education.  Tuition keeps going up, up, up and yet our students still struggle to land jobs upon graduation.  Surely, that's a problem - why keep paying more for something that won't even ensure you have a job at the end to show for you hard spent cash?  I suppose that is, in part, what has led to the rise of online classes (and more recently, free online classes).

Now, the merits of tuition raises and college preparation for the job market can be (and have been) debated by plenty of others.  Since I work at a small liberal arts college (and I have no say in terms of things like the college's budget), I like to focus on things that I can have some input on - namely, the hidden costs of higher education.

What are the hidden costs?

  • Books
  • Graphing calculators
  • Printing costs
  • Software costs

And those are just to name a few - certainly the four biggest costs for a potential mathematics, physics, biology, or chemistry student.

How do I help my students minimize their hidden costs?  This coming fall I'll be teaching two sections of Calculus I and one section of The Mathematics of Games and Gambling.  For the gambling class, I do require a textbook but it sells at the campus bookstore for about $40.  Sure, that is still probably $20 too much but at least it's less than fifty bucks.

For my Calculus class, I have decided to forgo a textbook entirely.  On the first day of classes, I'm going to tell my students that they can get virtually any calculus book (late transcendentals) and it should (more or less) follow along with my lectures and homework.  The downside for me is that I have to write all my own homework assignments (complete with answer keys and hints).  Still, I consider that part of my job - and I have a feeling my students (and their parents) will appreciate all my work.

As for the other hidden costs, well, they are a bit trickier.  Actually, the second one isn't hard at all - not only do I not require a graphing calculator, I don't allow them to be used.  I'd much rather have my students know how to graph y = (x + 2)^2 than use a graphing calculator to get the exact graph of y = (2.3x - 3.8)^2.  Sure, in theory the students should be able to graph the second equation, but why?  Keep it simple I say - it's more important to work on intuition, observation, and determination!

My other beef with graphing calculators?  Their costs haven't dropped.

Why can get a Samsung Galaxy S3 (or even an S4) smart phone for under $100 but I can't get a TI-84 graphing calculator for that price?  Why can I buy a brand new WiiU video game system for $299 but a calculator that's essentially over a decade old still costs me over a third of a new HD gaming system?

One reason:  College.

It's a hidden cost.  Each professor that requires a graphing calculator forces students to buy said devices.  Since there are tons of classes that require TI-somethings, Texas Instruments gets to keep the costs of their device artificially high.  For all the grief that textbook companies get, it hardly seems fair that Texas Instruments gets a free pass.  They are clearly just as guilty.

In the end, the only way for the cost of education to go down will be for more professors to take proactive steps to reduce hidden costs for their students.  As more professors move to cheaper (or even free) options for their students, more and more schools will begin to follow suit.  After all, if all a student's professors provide printed handouts (saving the students printing costs), the schools will eventually have to stop charging so much for printing fees (or else start charging professors I suppose).  Unfortunately, I'm guessing I'll get charged for my printing way before my students ever see a discount.

Getting Back on Track: A Blog Re-Launch!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I've been reading quite a few different educational blogs (and Twitter accounts) lately which have all served to motivate me into re-launching my own educational blog.  So, here goes:


Since I'm starting from scratch (though I won't be deleting any of the previous drivel that I published), I should first introduce myself.

I'm a 30 something (ok, 30 exactly) math professor at a liberal arts college who doesn't have a Ph.D. (and after taking graduate math classes at two different schools, I no longer want a Ph.D.).  The only downside to the extra letters that aren't on the end of my name is that college teaching positions are tenuous at best.

Over the last seven years, I have taught a variety of courses at three different institutions including:

  • Pre-Algebra
  • Algebra I
  • Algebra II
  • PreCalculus
  • Calculus I
  • Calculus II (scheduled to teach in spring 2014)
  • Combinatorics
  • Intro. to Statistics
  • Mathematics of Games & Gambling

It's an eclectic group of courses, but most of them were a lot of fun to teach.  I'd also like to think they were fun for the students, though I in some cases I have my doubts.

It's those doubts that are impetus for this particular blog.  My Fall 2013 schedule looks something like this:

  • Calculus I (two sections plus two labs)
  • Mathematics of Games & Gambling

It is my goal to make my three courses as fun for the students AND as rigorous as possible.  Can those two ideas coexist?  Well, sure, I believe they can or else I wouldn't be attempting it!

As the summer progresses, I hope to start posting some of my course ideas.  Eventually, I hope to have a vibrant blog following where ideas get bounced back and forth (and by all means, feel free to disagree with me).  Until then, I'll blog like no one's reading.*

*not hard to do when no one is actually reading

Redesigning Calculus I - Ideas Appreciated!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The college where I work had finals last weekend and has graduation this coming weekend.  After the festivities, I'll be officially done with work for a few months.

Although I love getting some time off, it's not all fun and games this summer for me.  In fact, I might end up doing as much (or more) work this summer as a I did last summer when I was prepping a brand new course offering.

Why you ask?  Well, I'm hoping to redo the entire Calculus I curriculum.  For the past five years, I've been teaching Calculus I using a variety of textbooks.  Unfortunately, none of them made me super happy - and based on polls I've given my students, the students didn't like them either.

Change #1:  No required textbook

I'm sure many of you have done this already, but for me (and my college), it's a big step.  This means that I'll have to write all my own exercises for the students AND update my notes to make sure all necessary information is contained within the course materials.  Luckily, my notes are fairly thorough so the second half of the problem shouldn't prove to be too difficult.

I suppose I ought to back up and state why I got rid of the textbook.  There were two main reasons.  The first, as I mentioned above, was that I couldn't find a book that pleased both the students and myself.  Some had only super easy problems, others had only hard problems.  The books that fell in the middle seemed to have muddled descriptions within the pages.  Semester after semester, no matter which book I used I would consistently get 60% or more of the students saying they never use the book (except to copy homework problems).  I already provide about half the assignments in worksheet form (homework that I've written myself) so doing the second half hopefully won't be too difficult.

The second reason I got rid of the textbook was because of the cost.  $100+ for a used calculus book is terrible.  It's even worse considering you can find most of the information online with a quick search on your smart phone (and not pay a penny - well, besides that smart phone data fee of course).

Although I've gotten rid of the textbook, I would still like to offer the students a chance for a free open source Calculus book.  Do any of you know of a good book (or multiple books) that are available for free?

This is the first post in what will probably be quite a few posts detailing the changes I'm making to the Calculus I curriculum.  As usual, I'd love to hear what you have to say!

The Calculus Funk.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

I'm teaching Calculus I again this semester (two sections) and therein lies the problem.


And again.  And again.

I've been teaching Calculus I for way too long.  If I'm being honest, it's gotten stale.  My lessons are all on PowerPoints that have been scrubbed clean of errors and ambiguities.  My stash of worksheets cover almost any area where a given class needs more practice.  My review games are carefully tied to the material on the exams.  Heck, even my labs are now a solid representation of how the course material is used "in the real world."

And yet.

I can't shake the funk.

It's a case of "been there, done that."

Even worse is the split of students this semester.  One of my Calculus classes is scoring much, much higher than any previous class (in terms of class average).  The other class?  One of the lowest averages ever.

Sometimes it's luck of the draw I guess.  Sometimes it's the students within the class.  And sometimes, just sometimes, it might be the instructor.

I need to come up with new ideas and methods to engage my lower achieving class - clearly they aren't responding to the same things that my other class is.

I have my theories on why, but there's little time for "why" right now.  Right now, it's time for "how".

How, that is, can I improve the class?

Student Responses on First Day Survey in Games & Gambling

Thursday, January 24, 2013

I've been teaching in front of a college classroom every semester since I graduated from my undergrad institution back in 2005.  In that time, I believe I've given a first day survey every semester (except maybe my first).  The classes that I've taught have changed over the years (as has the institutions where I teach) - and the survey has changed as well, but the goal of the survey remains the same.  I want to get to know my students as people AND I want to know what they know (and what they think they know) coming into the course.

I asked the students a variety of questions on the survey - but I've only highlighted the "interesting" questions.

Why did you sign up for this course?

  • Looked like a fun and informative course to fill a distribution requirement  (9 people)
  • Heard it was a fun class (1 person)
  • Love games (1 person)
  • For distribution (without any mention of fun/interesting)  (3 people)
  • Variety in math classes (3 people)
Note:  The first question was a short answer so I categorized the answers as best I could.

If you had to, which ONE of the following games would you play (with the goal to make money at a casino):  

  • Craps:   1
  • Roulette:  3
  • Blackjack:  11
  • Slot Machines:  2
  • Keno: 0

The first question was designed to figure out my audience.  The second was designed to figure out what preconceived notions the students had in regards to gambling.  I also had a series of true/false and a few ranking questions on the survey (interesting to me but probably not great blogging fodder).

What information can I glean from the two selected questions?  Looking at question #1, it seems clear that the majority of the students signed up because the class sounded like a fun way to earn their mathematics distribution credit.  While some mathematicians may cringe at that idea, I think it's awesome.  It's not easy to have a non-majors mathematics class that the students are excited about before they even step foot in the classroom.

The second question was interesting to me because the majority of the class decided that Blackjack was the way to go if the goal was making money.  It's clear to me that movies like 21 (plus the glamorized depictions of casinos in movies like Ocean's 11 have an effect on people).  It was also interesting that no one chose Keno (a wise move by the way) despite the fact that Keno is also available at a lot of non-casino locations (including the Maryland state lottery).

I should mention (for those that are curious) that there isn't exactly a "correct" answer to the second question.  Keno is clearly wrong in terms of things like expected value - but if you only have $1 to bet, you have a slim chance at winning say $10,000 in Keno - unlike any other game in the list!  I didn't ask for any sort of written explanation from the students so I don't have any idea why each student chose the game they did.  The real value (for me) will be the follow-up survey at the end of the semester where I'll put the same question with a spot for a written explanation.  We'll see what they glean from the semester's worth of material!

Another Semester is About to Begin

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Another semester is about to begin, only this time my teaching load feels a lot lighter!  Once again, I'm teaching two sections of Calculus I (with labs) and a section of the course I developed last semester (Mathematics of Games and Gambling).  The Games and Gambling course went quite well last semester though I don't have the results of the anonymous survey that all our students take at the end of the semester.  I expect there will be a few complaints but for the most part I'm expecting good things.

So where does that leave me for Spring 2013*?
*It's weird writing 2013 isn't it?

Well, I have two big goals for the semester.
1.  In Games & Gambling:  Tailor the course to the individuals in the class.  In other words, don't fall into the trap of doing exactly what I did last semester simply because the lessons are complete.  Last semester I tried to hit the interests of the students, let's do it again.
2.  In Calculus I:  Come up with some way to make labs enjoyable learning experiences rather than current Mathematica syntax heavy monstrosities that they are now.  I did manage to rewrite one lab last semester and had fairly good results - so I know it's possible.

  What are your teaching goals for the upcoming semester?

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