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Mathematics Education: Distance Learning Program

October 7, 2010 -- By Amy Stix

College Office

"This grew with the Internet," said Maurice Burke, MSU professor of mathematics, when describing the university's unique Master of Science in Mathematics Education program. The advanced degree, which is designed for high school and junior college math teachers, is rare because it can be earned from anywhere in the world.

In the mid-1990's, MSU's traditional campus-based mathematics masters program was declining, due in part because, "Teachers were becoming more place bound," said Burke.

Many fulltime teachers who desire to deepen their understanding and competence in high school mathematics and pedagogical knowledge lack the extra time – and financial resources – to uproot to a new city and pursue a two-year graduate degree. For teachers who have children, that scenario is even more out of reach.

"It became clear that we had to offer an option for place bound teachers who had families or couldn't afford spending all that money for tuition," said Burke. So he and his colleagues went to work designing a challenging graduate curriculum that one could follow from home. Their first course was offered in 1998; soon after, "We quickly enlarged that into a full suite of programs."

In 2001, MSU's Master of Science in Mathematics Education was accepted into the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Student Exchange, which enables students at 14 state universities to enroll in eligible graduate programs with in-state tuition rates. Enrollment in MSU's program skyrocketed. Today, students participate from around Montana and the world. "We get students from military bases," said Burke, who has taught students based in Japan, Portugal and Hong Kong.

Students do get some face time with professors and each other. During the summer, participants come to MSU for a three-week "high octane" learning session, said Burke, who calls the masters program a "hybrid distance model."

After months of intensive online assignments, working groups and back-and-forth discussions, the in-person session is a "great opportunity to see and meet people," said Leslie Pehl, a current masters student (and MSU grad) who also teaches high school algebra, geometry and calculus in Columbus, Mont.

But as much as she enjoyed meeting and spending time with her online classmates, Pehl believes that the round-the-clock nature of online learning lends itself to deeper learning. "I have actually always thought the online classes are almost more in depth, because there are always things to add. You can always contribute to it," she said.

"I think the professors should be credited. They foster community. I think there is probably an art to teaching online," Pehl added.

As for the professors, said Burke, "Ours is a great program. We feel totally committed in reaching out to teachers and providing this avenue for improvement."

Updated: 04/15/2011