Against the odds, Fowler’s geeky, high-energy style has become a global crowd-pleaser. The man in the untucked plaid shirt doesn’t just write equations on a chalkboard, he also greets online students with a deep-voiced imitation of a Lord of the Rings character, declaring: “One does not simply walk into calculus!” Soon afterward glowing images of curves and solids appear. Thanks to nifty video editing, these creations devour his desk and jump in front of his face. To help students sense the “wow” factor of some techniques, he slips in a kicky musical soundtrack as lecture ideas reach their culmination.
All that showmanship is just a prelude to what Fowler regards as the heart of his course: highly nuanced problem sets that make the most of online learning’s feedback loops. Much like the Khan Academy’s Salman Khan, the champion of online math for grade schoolers and high school students, Fowler believes that practice makes perfect. To guide students Fowler built MOOCulus, a quiz program full of customized hints and automatically generated extra problems in areas where individual students need help. “The lectures are important for motivating students,” Fowler explains. “But you don’t learn by watching math. You learn by doing math.”
Fowler’s first six-week course, Calculus One, attracted 35,000 active enrollees. Since then more than 110,000 additional students have started the 23-hour course, putting it in the top 3% of Coursera’s offerings. Demand is so brisk that Coursera has moved his class to “continuous enrollment,” so that students don’t need to wait a semester–or even a fortnight–for a new cycle of the course. No matter when students want to begin, the King of Calculus is holding court.
College-age students make up only 25% of Fowler’s enrollment. They are greatly outnumbered by older adults like Ria Frazier, a flooring specialist and lift-truck trainer in New Jersey, who finished her formal education in the 1980s. She was a star math student in high school decades ago, and now that her children are in college she is eager to reconnect with the world of ideas, mostly through MOOCs.
“I take online classes to keep my brain from melting,” Frazier says. She praises Fowler’s clarity and his ability to make each new lecture build on the previous one, so that “what seemed impossibly difficult last week now made perfect sense. I had a lot of ‘oooh’ and ‘aha’ moments when he explained why formulas work,” she adds. “I was actually sad when the class ended.”
If Fowler comes across as the sort of guy who took calculus in eighth grade–and didn’t learn to drive until graduate school–that’s because his bio is packed with such out-of-synch moments. He grew up in Mantako, Minn., the son of an accountant father and a homemaker mom. By sixth grade he was so annoyed at the slow pace of everyday math that his parents began driving him to nearby college campuses for special programs aimed at gifted children.
Fowler excelled in math as a Harvard undergraduate and headed to the University of Chicago for graduate studies. There he tried his hand at teaching inner-city enrichment classes and helping to update middle school curricula. “It was an eye-opener for me,” Fowler recalls. “I met students who didn’t know how to divide by two. In some of the classes people would throw things at me.”
Fowler persevered, and eventually the paper balls stopped flying at his head and the students started listening more. Fowler had found his calling. Even though his research interests kept pulling him into intricate areas of advanced topology, he couldn’t shake the desire to have an impact as a teacher. He took a postdoctorate teaching position at Ohio State in 2009.
Ever the number cruncher, Fowler calculates that about 3% of his online students drop out every day. High attrition is common in MOOCs, which attract casual Internet surfers who sign up just to see what a class is like without any serious intention of finishing. Still, Fowler agonizes over what he could do to help retention. Maybe the first quiz was too hard. Perhaps some students got frustrated by software bugs that have since been fixed. All told, Fowler has put 1,350 hours into his online class, including lots of evenings visiting discussion boards and providing one-on-one tutoring for students who are stuck.
Most young professors at research universities would destroy their chances of winning tenure if they spent so much time on a class. But Fowler is in a luckier situation. Ohio State originally parked him in a nontenure track, but once his online calculus class became a hit, university officials took a second look–and decided that Fowler ought to be on the tenure track after all. It looks as if an online breakthrough has put his career on an upward slope.
source: forbes.com by George Anders