The Emporium is the Wal-Mart of higher education, a triumph in economy of scale and a glimpse at a possible future of computer-led learning. Eight thousand students a year take introductory math in a space that once housed a discount department store. Four math instructors, none of them professors, lead seven courses with enrollments of 200 to 2,000. Students walk to class through a shopping mall, past a health club and a tanning salon, as ambient Muzak plays.
It sounds like the antithesis of the collegiate ideal — a journey of learning shared by students and faculty. Parents sometimes ask why their children are not getting more professorial face time in math when they are spending $17,365 (in-state) or $31,336 (out-of-state) in tuition, fees and living expenses to attend the prestigious public university.
But Virginia Tech students pass introductory math courses at a higher rate now than 15 years ago, when the Emporium was built. And research has found the teaching model trims per-student expense by more than one-third, vital savings for public institutions with dwindling state support.
“When I first came here, I was like, ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ ” said Mike Bilynsky, a freshman from Epping, N.H., who is taking calculus. “But it works.”
No academic initiative has delivered more handsomely on the oft-stated promise of efficiency-via-technology in higher education, said Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit that studies technological innovations to improve learning and reduce cost. She calls the Emporium “a solution to the math problem” in colleges.
It may be an idea whose time has come. Since its creation in 1997, the Emporium model has spread to the universities of Alabama and Idaho (in 2000) and to Louisiana State University (in 2004). Interest has swelled as of late; Twigg says the Emporium has been adopted by about 100 schools. This academic year, Emporium-style math arrived at Montgomery College in Maryland and Northern Virginia Community College.
“How could computers not change mathematics?” said Peter Haskell, math department chairman at Virginia Tech. “How could they not change higher education? They’ve changed everything else.”
Emporium courses include pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry and geometry, subjects taken mostly by freshmen to satisfy math requirements. The format seems to work best in subjects that stress skill development — such as solving problems over and over. Computer-led lessons show promise for remedial English instruction and perhaps foreign language, Twigg said. Machines will never replace humans in poetry seminars.