Teaching mathematics at the secondary level is tough. Is it tougher teaching it online?
Teaching mathematics in a face-to-face classroom can be challenging. Consider the sheer volume of material to be taught, the pressure to have all students pass high-stakes tests, and the classroom management and discipline. While a passionate teacher can make any subject interesting and can keep most students engaged, it is certainly not an easy task.
So, is it easier or harder to teach math in the online environment? The answer is a resounding, "Yes!" The online environment affords the instructor relief form the disciplinary and classroom management concerns. The integration of multimedia can allow online instructors some added engagement, and since students are already online, accessing a piece of media or a tutorial or game seems natural. However, that is the end of the list of items that make the online teaching of mathematics easier.
In the online environment, some things remain the same as in the face-to-face setting. For example, the volume of material that must be addressed does not change. Notably, the volume of new material still increases exponentially as students enter Algebra I whether online or in a face-to-face classroom, and that volume remains through the next few courses. In the public school setting, online students must still pass the same high-stakes tests as their face-to-face counterparts. College entrance examinations still require demonstration of mathematics proficiency for all entrants.
So, are the challenges of mathematics instruction in the online environment necessarily more severe? Not likely. Rather, they are different challenges. The most notable difference is the loss of real-time visual communication between student and instructor. While modern technology has improved this issue vastly, there is still a significant challenge in communicating complex mathematical ideas across a distance because the real-time visual aspect is still lacking. For example, consider the ability of an instructor to draw a diagram for use while explaining a geometric proof or to create a picture to explain an applied problem in real time. This is not the norm in the online environment. Chat rooms, webinars that share prepared presentations, or even e-mail are the more common forms of real-time or near real-time communication at present. These formats present challenges to the online instructor. For example, it is challenging if not impossible to input mathematical symbols into a live chat conversation. Even e-mail is often deficient in the ability to enter symbols into the body of the message.
Another significant challenge for the online mathematics instructor is the means to connect emotionally with students. Mathematics is the only discipline to ever attach the word anxiety as a suffix. Language arts anxiety, history anxiety or even art anxiety are not terms ever heard. However, math anxiety is a household term and a common topic of modern research. This can be amplified in the online environment as students are not co-located with peers or teachers, and their feelings of isolation may lead to greater frustration with and anxiety regarding the topic. This presents a challenge to the online instructor who must now find ways to connect with these students to relieve their anxiety - over a distance.
So, while online mathematics instruction is not necessarily more difficult than instruction in the face-to-face classroom, it is not without challenge as some may expect. Rather, it has its own set of unique challenges that instructors must address. As technology progresses, the real-time visual deficit is being reduced. Moving ahead, additional research in the area of math anxiety and its effects across a distance should be conducted to assist online instructors in creating and proving methods to connect emotionally with their students to help eliminate the math anxiety that many of them feel.