Texas-Size Math Lab

Austin Community College builds the world's largest learning lab in a former mall, using it for a personalized form of remedial math that is getting good results.

March 20, 2015
Austin Community College
The ACCelerator laboratory

AUSTIN, Texas -- Administrators and instructors at Austin Community College decided to go big when they tried a new approach to remedial math -- like 600 computer stations in the nation's largest learning lab big.

“We wanted to do something very bold,” said Richard Rhodes, Austin's president. “After all, we're in Texas.”

Most students arrive at community colleges with remedial needs in math and English. And relatively few ever complete their developmental course work, often dropping out of college completely.

Dismal remedial success rates have been a problem at Austin, which enrolls 60,000 students. So faculty members from the college looked around for alternative approaches to teaching math.

“Really, there's nothing to lose,” said Rhodes.

The group visited several institutions, including Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which pioneered a modular form of math course.

Virginia Tech's Math Emporium features a large learning center with pods of computer workstations. There are no faculty lectures. Students in the emporium work at their own pace on the computerized course work, which is broken into modules. They can summon help from faculty members when they need it.

A growing number of community colleges have followed Virginia Tech's lead, including Maryland's Montgomery College.

Modularized learning is not new, said Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education. Colleges began offering remedial courses with modular structures and sequencing 50 years ago, he said, using workbooks instead of computers.

“It's based on pretty sound theory,” Boylan said.

Austin officials decided to try the emporium method. They paired it with adaptive courseware, which adjusts to individual learners based on their progress and ability to master concepts. The college went with ALEKS, an adaptive software platform from McGraw-Hill Education.

The new course was first offered last fall. It's an alternative to the traditional remedial math sequence, which features three course levels. Students can still enroll in that pathway, or they can try the more flexible approach.

It's too early to judge the results with authority. But they look good so far. The semester-to-semester attrition rate for students dropping out of the new remedial math course is less than half that of the traditional version -- between 7.5 and 10 percent compared to 25 to 35 percent. The withdrawal rate was also less than half the typical one for black and Hispanic students.

“This is so much better than what I expected,” Rhodes said of the redesigned course.

Former Mall Space

Austin offers the self-paced, personalized math course at its new facility on the Highland Campus, on the north side of town.

Many students live within striking distance of the new campus, which opened last fall, enrolling 4,000 students. The college recently finished its acquisition of the space, which formerly was one of the first malls in Texas. Officials at Austin say the location is a central hub for that part of the state.

A former J. C. Penney is where the college built its new computer lab. They gutted the dark, cavernous space, which Rhodes described as a “concrete bunker” -- opening it up to natural light and installing noise-absorbing panels in the ceiling.

The result is the 32,000-square-foot ACCelerator laboratory. The space is open seven days a week. More than 90 faculty members and staff work there. It features 15 separate study rooms and 3 classrooms.

But the central computer lab is the main draw. The college recently flew a drone through the room to produce a video that gives some sense of its scale (available below). A walk around the space is a quarter-mile long.

The new remedial math course is offered at the ACCelerator. The computer stations are arranged in loose clusters of 25 or so. Faculty members are easy to spot in blue vests. Student coaches and staff wear red ones.

This creates a more personalized form of learning, said Stacey Güney, the ACCelerator's director. That might seem paradoxical in computer lab that has a bit of a Matrix feel. But Güney said that instead of a class size of 25 students per instructor, the course features 25 classes of one student.

“In here there is no back of the classroom,” she said.

If nothing else, it is hard to see the back of the classroom.

Plastic Cup Innovation

Students summon for help in the new remedial course with a low-tech touch. They place an orange “bomber cup" -- a type of drinking vessel designed for two-part shots of alcohol -- on top of a specially lit tray above each computer station. This idea was also partially borrowed from the emporium at Virginia Tech, which uses red Solo cups, a fixture at college keg parties. Montgomery College uses the cups, too.

“You can see them at quite a distance,” Güney said of the illuminated bomber cups.

Self-pacing is also a distinctive feature of the course.

Each student takes an initial assessment and gets a personalized learning plan when they first enroll in the course. They can skip learning about skills they have already mastered

Students also can move quickly through course material. About 2 percent who took the course last semester completed all 12 modules, which is the equivalent of 3 course levels. The college said 40 percent of students completed half of the material. When they finish it all, they are deemed college ready and can enroll in credit-bearing courses.

The course has proved popular. More than 90 percent of surveyed students said they would recommend it to other students. Enrollment is up by 43 percent this year, the college said. About 1,000 students are taking the class at the ACCelerator this semester.

“It feels like that room is getting smaller and smaller,” said Ann P. Vance, an associate professor of mathematics who runs the college's developmental math lab. “Our math courses are bursting at the seams.”

Austin plans to move remedial reading and writing courses into the lab at some point. Other possibilities for the space include competency-based programs and courses that are a hybrid of online and in person, said Rhodes.

Asked what has made the course a success, Rhodes points to the personalized instructing of students. “They get the right type of help they need at the right time.”

Boylan agreed that “on-demand assistance” is a smart and proven way of teaching remedial courses.

Students “don't have to wait around to get their problems answered,” he said.

But promising methods alone aren't enough to make a dent in the serious problem of remedial course completion rates, said Boylan. The emporium approach requires resources, he said, particularly the money to hire an adequate number of instructors and coaches. Austin appears to have done that, which may be as important as the college's innovative lab design.

“Normally people don't do it right,” he said.


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