Davis math professor moves to cyberspace

Professor Duane Kouba has been teaching in the UC Davis Math Department for 30 years. For 20 of those years he’s been involved with the UC Davis basketball team and just about ten years ago he set up a webpage filled with calculus problems to assist his students, simply called “The Calculus Page Problem List.” The site’s stark white background and minimalist layout of problems leading straight to their solutions is so low-tech that your grandmother could probably navigate the site in between playing rounds of Pong on her Commodore 64, but that’s exactly Kouba’s intention.

“If you go to my website you can see that it’s low-tech — here’s a topic, here are problems, here are solutions,” Kouba said. “You just click on the links. No bells and whistles. I haven’t worked on it for many years, but people like it because my explanations are clear.”

The site’s simplicity, and the fact that the link is the first to appear when searching for “calculus problems” on a number of popular search engines, led to Kouba receiving an email from Salman Khan, the creator of highly acclaimed informational website Khan Academy.

“[Khan] said, ‘I’ve been using your calculus website for some problems and inspiration,’” Kouba said. “He asked, ‘Would you be interested in working with us? Let me know’ and of course I’m flabbergasted.”

Launched by five-degree-holding MIT graduate Salman Khan in 2006, Khan Academy is an online educational tool that hosts “micro lecture” videos in a number of languages on a number of subjects with a concentration in mathematics and sciences, and with the goal of distributing useful knowledge to as many people as possible.

According to the website, Khan Academy has uploaded over 4,000 videos to its free-access website, and has delivered over 235 million lessons. To fund this, they’ve racked up a number of grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Google to Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.

“Because everybody’s starting to get computer access, even though they don’t have food everyday and clean water, education should be free and I love that attitude,” Kouba said.

Fourth-year sociology major Xavier Ontiveros agrees.

“From a humanitarian perspective that sounds like the best thing we can do,” Ontiveros said. “Google and Wikipedia have saved my ass so many different times. People learn in very different ways. Some people will go to the internet, five different places, take bits and pieces of what will actually work for them, put it together and create one synthetic outcome that is just as sound.”

Lucian Novosel, a second-year computer science major, started using Khan Academy’s calculus lessons two years ago in a high school calculus class and still uses the site for reference. While he found it helpful for lower-level math, he sees a disconnect between the material and the caliber of his course load now.

“The level of Khan Academy is more high school-oriented. It’s really simple, there’s not that much material. If you try using Khan Academy for chemistry, it’s a wild goose chase for things that are actually relative,” Novosel said.

Kouba sees his new employment as an opportunity to improve the math education system.

“We want to make math better,” Kouba said. “Whatever he [Salman Khan] liked about what he saw on my website, he wants me to bring that to him, so I think that’s what I’m going to do. Based on our conversation, that is to add new problems and solutions for practice and maybe suggestions for his videos, and also just give my opinion about where I think he could make the current list of video topics better.”

In January of this year, Governor Jerry Brown announced a plan to pressure California public colleges and universities to expand their online course offerings for required lower-division classes after experimenting with a similar program at San Jose State University with another educational website called Udacity.

Novosel, while a fan of Khan Academy, has mixed emotions about such an idea.

“Interestingly enough, I have a friend at Arizona State University and a lot of her freshmen courses are actually all taught online,” Novosel said. “Now they’re really not that rigorous at all.”

Ontiveros is also skeptical about such a large shift from a person to digital format.

“I think it’s an attempt to outsource our learning experience to the internet as opposed to in the classroom. I don’t see any reason why a person-to-person learning experience should not be the first option,” he said.

Kouba, however, sees the digital realm as a frontier with untapped potential.

“[Khan] thinks public school teachers, at some level, have too much to do to teach 30 to 50 kids in a class because that’s what’s going on in public schools. His idea is he’s got spreadsheets that can track students’ progress through his videos,” Kouba said. “It’s a different way for teacher-student contact.”

For now, Kouba is ecstatic to work for Khan Academy through any capacity he can.

“It’s going to be fun,” Kouba said. “I’m going to write hard for ‘em, and try to make math more widely used; that’s my goal.”

SAM RIBAKOFF can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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