Free, online math course gains worldwide appeal

Students in FastTrack program write math problems on the sidewalk.

A pilot program, FastTrack, in summer 2012 proved successful when 37 of the 38 student participants tested into higher level math.

This January hundreds of people all over the world will confront their deepest, darkest math fears as they light up their computer screens. They will begin UW-La Crosse’s first Massive Open Online Course — or MOOC — with content focusing on basic math needed for college readiness, typically found on college placement exams such as the ACT, SAT and parts of the GRE. The course is entirely online, free and open to anyone.

So far more than 450 people have enrolled, ages 13 to 83, from eight countries and 30 states.

UW-L received a $50,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in fall 2012 to develop the course. The grant comes at a time when MOOCs are growing in popularity. UW-L was awarded a Gates Foundation grant alongside 10 other universities across the country such as University of California, Berkeley; Duke University; Michigan State and The Ohio State University. All are developing MOOCs in different subject areas.

Map of the world

A total of more than 430 people have already registered from eight countries.

“2012 was called ‘The year of the MOOC’ — this hot, new educational idea,” says Maggie McHugh, director of UW-L’s Murphy Learning Center, who will deliver content for the MOOC . “The fact that we are developing one speaks highly of the university, and the UW System which is backing us. I’m personally very excited about it.”

Many of UW-L’s registrants thus far are high school and college students planning to brush up on math content for the gateway exams to college and graduate school. Initial placement into higher level math classes in college, allows them to save money and time on the path to their degree. It also saves UW-L resources as administrators see a rise in the number of students needing remedial math, says Mathematics Professor Robert Hoar, who leads the technology aspect of the project.

“We are trying to maintain healthy, four-year graduation rates and make sure the STEM disciplines are accessible,” says Hoar. “If a student comes in needing remedial math, a lot of times they are on the five-year plan and that may drive them out of STEM fields or out of the university.”

Map of the United States showing states with MOOC registrants.

Students enrolled come from 30 states.

But a good portion of registrants are signing up for reasons UW-L course developers hadn’t envisioned. A grandfather wants to “rev up the mind” and help his granddaughters with math problems, a high school math teacher will use it as a resource for her class, an unemployed person will gain confidence to return to school, an electrician will use it on the job, an academic counselor will potentially recommend it to struggling students, a mother will use it as a tool for home schooling, and a high school student will catch up after feeling behind since the third grade. Many just want a second shot at understanding some basic skills they feel they’ve neglected for too long. They think the knowledge will broaden their educational or career options.

Anyone can enroll online now through the course start date of January 28. The course will be active over a seven-week period; however, students can move faster or slower than the suggested pace. The course materials will be available for several years. Students do not receive academic credit.

The course is a benefit to the UW System and the state as it will help students and citizens obtain the skills they need to get back to school, back into the workforce, or finish school faster with less debt, says Hoar. About 360 of those enrolled are from Wisconsin. About 21 percent of all new freshmen in the UW System need some remedial math education when they enter college. Among under-represented minority students, the percentage is 40 percent.

“It really is preparing students to be successful and that is what we want,” says Hoar. “We want students to do well. The more prepared they are, the better we can serve them.”

Critics ask why couldn’t these students have learned this math in high school, but Hoar says often students are learning a broad array of curriculum in high school and may have learned basic math skills early on and simply need a refresher before college.

Organizers of the MOOC have a good track record of helping these students refresh for placement tests in math. They led a pilot program for the MOOC called “Fast Track” in summer 2012. The program included 38 students who needed one or more remedial math courses prior to starting college level math or science. Students took an online math course for six weeks prior to the start of the fall semester and all but one of the students tested into college-level math and science after taking the course. Also, UW-L’s primary course content developer, Jennifer Kosiak, UW-L professor of math education, was awarded the UW System Teacher of the Year award.

Development of the MOOC has been a multi-year process involving a growing collection of materials, expertise from across the campus and eventually securing grants for the pilot and the MOOC. The final product will have about two dozen different UW-L voices on math podcasts coming from faculty, staff and students studying math education.

For more information or to pre-register visit

Online materials that make up UW-L’s math MOOC

  • Video lectures: Featuring Maggie McHugh, ’06 and ’11, director of UW-L’s Murphy Learning Center.
  • Learning objects: a collection of content, practice and assessment tools based on a single learning outcome.
  • Online homework
  • Quizzes
  • Discussion forums
  • Tutors: UW-L math education majors will offer online tutoring and host office hours online through an interactive whiteboard and chat feature with audio.