Transitioning to
Online Introductory Math

Why Intro Math? And Why Online Now?

Introductory math courses (e.g. pre-calculus, calculus, college algebra, introductory statistics) often form a cornerstone of undergraduate general education requirements and serve as gateway courses for many STEM majors. At the same time, introductory math courses are frequently an academic chokepoint, an unfortunate off-ramp from a student’s path to a degree. Introductory math as an academic obstacle is a particularly acute problem for the least academically prepared students, representing an outsized proportion of first generation, racial minority, and lower socioeconomic-status students. As such, attending to introductory math and improving outcomes for students is perennially appropriate.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact individuals and communities, the disruption has dramatically impacted students as well as colleges and universities. For students, economic uncertainties make obtaining a college degree all the more necessary in order to be competitive in a shrinking job market. For institutions, the financial impacts of the pandemic make maintaining and increasing student enrollment and persistence an existential priority. This urgency is greatest for institutions with large populations of underserved students who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.[1]

Amid the trauma and tragedy of the pandemic, colleges and universities made an almost instantaneous switch from their traditional modes of learning to remote instruction in the middle of the spring 2020 term. This move by stereotypically slow-moving institutions required a herculean effort by faculty and staff, coupled with incredible patience and resilience from students. Since the end of that term, what was once thought to be a temporary response to an emergency situation is morphing into an uncertain future and online and hybrid learning will be part of the status quo for the foreseeable future. Although remote teaching and learning have been used and well-understood in some corners of the academic world, its implementation on this scale, by academic leaders and faculty with little or no experience in remote teaching, is unprecedented, requiring new investments and strategies to make this approach to instruction valuable and accessible to all. It is critical that that include introductory courses in math as well.

Designing (or re-designing) a course for different teaching modality is a key moment to consider (or re-consider) the quality of the predominant pedagogical approaches and instructional design. Increasing effort and expense can often be accompanied by increased quality; however, this relationship is not inevitable, especially not in the short term when faculty development and technology implementation will require additional time and resources, and faculty and students learn to operate in an environment that is new to many of them. The move to quality online learning for introductory math can also bring increased quality and efficiency for the institution, and more importantly, for students on their academic journeys.

This guide is intended to help institutions navigate the process of bringing their introductory math courses online while attending to both quality and efficiency. The resource constraints introduced by the pandemic and its health, social, financial, and economic impacts require a fresh examination of resource priorities. The guide can help department chairs, academic administrators, and senior leaders allocate increasingly scarce resources to have the most positive impact for multiple institutional stakeholders.


  1. As the fall semester gets underway in the midst of the pandemic, schools are starting to notice an alarming trend that lower-income and students and students of color are most likely to drop or not enroll at all, raising concerns that they might never get a college degree. See Heather Long and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “The Latest Crisis: Low-Income Students are Dropping Out of College this Fall in Alarming Numbers,” The Washington Post, September 16, 2020,