Editor’s Note: For the distance educator, this paper is a joyful and rewarding experience – a seemingly improbable success story about a mathematics professor who teaches his first online course. The editors feel that, while online technology, properly used, is wonderfully supportive of learning, Dr. Rochowicz has demonstrated unusual skill and insight in integrating technology and pedagogy to create a successful online course in mathematics.
A Distance Learning Experience
in a Quantitative Methods MBA Course
John A Rochowicz Jr
Teaching a course on the Internet is a unique and innovative experience for the professor as well as the student. This paper describes some personal experiences and thoughts on the teaching of statistics on the Internet for an executive MBA statistics course. Choosing learning materials such as textbook and software are discussed. Decisions as to what and how topics would be covered are presented. Assessing student learning and reflecting on what was learned in the teaching of such a course are also described. A comparison is made between a traditionally taught course and an online course. Advantages as well as disadvantages on teaching statistics in a distance learning environment are described. Teaching and learning statistics online is a very different experience.
Keywords: Spreadsheets, EXCEL spreadsheets, Statistics, Executive MBA degree, MBA degree, Distance Learning, WebCT environment, online learning, mathematics on the Web, statistics on the Web, and Quantitative Methods.
Statistics is a difficult course of study for many students. The material is very technical and process oriented. In order to be successful, the student must be motivated and interested in the material to be learned. The manner in which topics, materials and software are chosen for an online course is more difficult than introducing statistics in the traditional lecture computer lab format. A class taught on the Web entitled: Statistical Analysis: Quantitative Methods is described. Since no class meetings were face-to-face presenting the material in the clearest and most relevant manner had to be made possible. Teaching statistics on the Web involves an entirely new and different way of presenting concepts. Teaching in a Web environment also raises concerns. These include: a) how does the educator assess student learning? b) How do students demonstrate that they have learned the material?
After searching many sources and resources and considering many options in preparation for a course where professor and students were not face to face, a unique method of presenting content was determined. The approach taken focused student learning on details and practice in which the student selects the correct techniques, performs a statistical analysis with appropriate technology and communicates an interpretation of the analysis. Through this approach, emphasis is placed on the choice of the correct analysis and then writing in narrative form clear and appropriate results and findings.
The “class meetings” were online weekly meetings for about 3 to almost 4 hours. Discussion occurred in a WebCT chat room. Assignments were collected by email. Instructor results and comments were emailed back to students for learning reinforcement. Results were emailed to students promptly, usually by the next online session. “Office hours” were Sunday evenings for about 2 to 3 hours. The course ran for 6 weeks. The notion that using the Web allows learning and teaching to occur anytime and anyplace was a new experience for the instructor.
The concepts for the course covered a variety of topics from descriptive statistics to advanced inferential statistics. Detailed written notes were developed by the instructor and placed in WebCT. WebCT is an environment for online student-professor interaction and course of study. Instructions were also provided on how to use EXCEL for data analysis a well as how to do statistics with EXCEL. Emphasis was placed on interpretation and analysis of results. Each student was also required to provide a written report of the use of such data analysis for their work in healthcare. The course material was broken into 6 parts or sections. The parts included: a) Part I: Introduction, Descriptive Statistics, Probability and Probability Distributions; b) Part 2: Sampling Distributions, Estimation, Inferential Statistics, Confidence Intervals, and Introduction to Tests of Hypothesis; c) Part 3: More Tests of Hypothesis, Chi-Square Tests of Hypothesis and F Tests of Hypothesis (ANOVA’s); d) Part 4: Regression Analysis-Linear and Multiple Regression; e) Part 5: Time-Series Analysis, Forecasting, and Index Numbers; f) Part 6: Process Control, Decision Theory, and Game Theory. EXCEL, spreadsheet software, was used for each analysis and was available to the student.
The amount of material we covered in 6 weeks was beyond my and most student expectations. Assessing student learning was based on numerous data analyses conducted using EXCEL. Also 2 case studies were assigned and reviewed. Student analyses were submitted by email with a detailed written description of results. Another requirement for assessment was that each student describes his or her own examples of how the techniques learned would be used in their practice or healthcare business. Various exciting, interesting, and detailed reports were received. For example, one physician used statistical methods he learned to discuss quality control with customer satisfaction surveys in very clear and explicit details. Another example from a physician illustrated how horseback riding was therapeutic for children with various disabilities
The textbook used for this course was Statistics for Management and Economics by Gerald Keller (6th edition or 7th edition). Data was available in raw untreated form for numerous examples. Students did not have to enter data. The data was available on a disk that came with the textbook. Learning how to use technology was emphasized. Details were shown on how to: a) calculate in the traditional sense of using formulas; b) use EXCEL; and c) use Minitab. One of the biggest benefits of this book was the detailed descriptions presented on how to do statistics with EXCEL and Minitab. Every statistics topic possible was thoroughly covered. The use of tedious calculations was eliminated. Emphasis was placed on technique and communications of results. Typical topics included a) Descriptive statistics b) Hypothesis tests and inferential statistics for means, proportions and the differences between 2 or more that 2 means proportions, c) Regression and Correlation, d) Time Series and e) Decisions Analysis.
Numerous students encounter difficulties in deciding which statistical analysis is appropriate for a specific situation. Detailed summaries and examples throughout the course were provided by Keller and the instructor that helped students decide on the choice of the correct analysis.
EXCEL was chosen because it is typically used in most if not all business courses on quantitative analysis and methods. EXCEL is also a great tool to learn for any business applications outside of the academic environment. Keller’s text had integrated EXCEL into the statistics concepts exceptionally well. The datasets used in this textbook by the way were available in other formats including ASCII and SPSS. In order to install the EXCEL components for this course, all one had to do was use a) data analysis ToolPak (available in EXCEL) and b) an add-in that came with the textbook. EXCEL is very easy to use and the author provided detailed examples on how to use EXCEL to do statistical analysis. Also the learning of EXCEL did not interfere with learning statistics as some other types of software might. Students that had no background knowledge about spreadsheets were learning how to use spreadsheets as well as quantitative methods for pursuing research in an MBA curriculum.
Typical students taking this course were physicians or healthcare members of the Pennsylvania Medical Society. All of them were pursuing an executive MBA degree for physicians. The experiences discussed are from two classes. These classes ran in spring 2003 (January and February, 2003) and in spring 2006 (February and March 2006). The first class had 18 students while the second class was comprised of 13 students with various undergraduate degrees.
Since the instructor had no idea whom he was teaching, he thought there would be difficulty conveying topics to learners without showing detailed calculations and concepts. This was not the case for this course. An online discussion “class” session was started by asking questions regarding statistical examples and concepts supplied in WEBCT. In a short time almost everyone was discussing solutions to these specific examples. More discussion and interaction was involved than the instructor had ever gotten from students in a traditional classroom. Students were found to be highly interactive, automatically doing the statistical analysis for each example. Students were learning statistics as well as EXCEL. Results were accurate and the interpretation of results was correct. The motivation was exceptional. Some students were actually using two computers, one for online communication and the other one for doing analyses with EXCEL.
Results of the Experience and Student Feedback
Every student that participated in the feedback survey indicated the value of this course to their career or the business aspects of their practice. Students that could not be available for these online “class” meetings had access to a transcript of the evening session. So notes and assignments were always available for students. The ability of studying on their time was noted as an advantage. The ways in which the discussions were presented and the material was described by the instructor were also noted as helpful and exceptional. Students also enjoyed the thoroughness in the way the author of the textbook clearly described how to choose the correct analysis and techniques for specific cases. Chi-square analyses, regression analyses, quality control charts and a variety of other techniques were easily understood through many examples. The packet of notes, examples, and assignments in WEBCT supplied by the instructor, were noted as very beneficial in the reinforcement of selecting appropriate analyses for each situation. The ease in using EXCEL to do statistics was also noted as a great aid in making learning effective. A few students even provided positive comments on the amount of material discussed in this course.
Reflections on a Distance Learning course in Statistics
Students were more involved in learning the material than in a traditional classroom situation. Almost everyone participated on the online discussions that occurred every week. Various advantages of studying online were found. Many commented that they could study at their own pace. The course was more interactive than instructor or the class imagined. Students worked out numerous examples with EXCEL as quickly as they asked questions. Clearly, technology frees the student from tedious calculations. Interpretation and correct data analysis were emphasized. The use of formulas and calculations were reduced and almost eliminated.
There are also some disadvantages in teaching an online course. The emotions of the student-teacher interactions such as facial and body expressions are not seen. Automatic reinforcement is not available. Group discussions become complex and chaotic. Collecting assignments and grading them on an appropriate level is difficult. Students can cheat more easily. Everyone must have software that works. One of the difficulties at the beginning of this course was to have all students accessible to EXCEL. In addition students had to know how to use the computer.
Both course experiences were very good to exceptional as indicated from the student feedback surveys. At times, students became so involved in doing the examples provided that the instructor could not keep track of all their discussions. Tracking students who were involved in the online discussion was difficult. Many students were involved in the classroom discussions at the same time. As revisions are made and the results of these 2 courses are considered, additional topics such as advanced multiple regression and post hoc analyses could also be added.
The MBA Capstone Experience
Students were required to synthesize their learning by presenting a research topic of their choice in a capstone experience. The instructor attended two of these sessions 2003 and 2007. In either case mention was made that using statistics in their research was invaluable and our quantitative methods course was a benefit. Also, the instructor finally met these students face to face. The professor already knew them virtually. It was a different experience to meet them in person.
The professor learned that a challenging academic level MBA course can be presented on the WEB. There was concern that teaching statistics online would lose some of the traditional “rigor” associated with it. The instructor was wrong. Through these classes, it was found that technology frees students from unnecessary calculations and focus can be placed on concepts and techniques. An observation made by the instructor was that technology motivates students with the capability of studying many topics not usually studied in a traditional way. With student motivation high and working technology, learning becomes fun and invaluable. Students learned quantitative methods that they could use for many business aspects of their medical practices. Learning becomes student focused and relevant. Many students also indicated that they thought the course was valuable to them. The instructor found that developing topics for the WebCT environment and using EXCEL for the data analyses to be challenging but well worth the time and effort.
Students in this online course were exceptionally motivated and may not be typical but the discussion presented here concerning the materials, the way in which topics were studied and the student-teacher interactions show that a statistics course can be studied online and with surprising results.
Keller, G. & Warrack, B. (2003). Statistics for Management and Economics (6th edition). Thomson Learning, Pacific Grove: CA.
Keller, G. (2006). Statistics for Management and Economics. (7th edition). Thomson Learning, Pacific Grove: CA.
About the Author
Dr John Rochowicz Jr. has been Professor of Mathematics at Alvernia College since 1984. He holds a BS degree in mathematics from Albright College, Reading, 1972 and an MS degree in mathematics from Lehigh University, Bethlehem, 1974. In 1993 he received an EdD degree in Educational Technology/Mathematics Education from Lehigh University.
His research interests include:
a) Learning different technologies for doing mathematics,
b) Applying probability distributions to the behavior of people and animals, and
c) Approximating and simulating events.
When not teaching or doing research, Dr Rochowicz enjoys walking. He also collects and enjoys music from all genres.