Professor Efren Ruiz believes online teaching strategies strengthen mathematics education

Prof. Ruiz is using the online transition to strengthen mathematics education at UH Hilo, not only for the remainder of the pandemic but for the future return to face-to-face instruction as well.

By Emily Burkhart.

Efren Ruiz
Efren Ruiz

The transition to online learning last semester upended educational experiences for most students and faculty with stressful new requirements. Professor of Mathematics Efren Ruiz, however, has used the transition to reflect on the ways that mathematics education at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo may be improved not only for the remainder of mandatory distance learning, but for the future return to face-to-face instruction as well.

“People always say mathematics is not a spectator sport,” Ruiz says about the importance of student interaction with the material and each other. A key part of Ruiz’s pedagogy, this satisfactory level of engagement, was substantially more difficult to achieve during last spring’s sudden transition to virtual learning.

“All of my classes were difficult to transition to online in the spring,” he recalls of the calculus and group theory courses he taught while also serving as chair of the mathematics department. He found pre-recorded lectures alone did not deliver the desired effect. Now, he implements a “flipped classroom” strategy where students take on more of the learning responsibilities.

“I had a lot of time to reflect over the summer. I wanted my class to be a lot more interactive, like what I would do in my normal class. How I could do these active learning activities but in the virtual world?”

By previewing lectures and formulas on both the longtime distant learning program of the UH System called Laulima (what he calls his “one stop shop”) and the web-based app VoiceThread, students can leave comments and get clarification about specific trouble areas before attending class. That way, their class time collaborations are spent discussing relevant questions in small groups via Zoom’s breakout rooms. Here, Ruiz can supervise as necessary, facilitating student interaction and handling questions through technologies like Google Docs or OverLeaf, a collaborative cloud-based program for writing, editing, and publishing scientific documents.

See below an example of a breakout room.

Approaching online teaching as a mathematician

An accomplished mathematician, Ruiz teaches in the full range of lower and upper division math courses offered at UH Hilo. Born in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte, Philippines, Ruiz grew up on Kaua‘i and graduated from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa with a bachelor of science in mathematics before receiving his doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Oregon. From there, he continued his research as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.

Currently, Ruiz’s research explores associated algebras (in particular Leavitt path algebras), dynamical systems, the classification of C*-algebras, and the structure theory of C*-algebras. Entering his 14 year as professor at UH Hilo, Ruiz’s passion for mathematics positions him well to creatively explore the design and implementation of his future curricula for virtual and in-person instruction.

“In mathematics, it’s much easier for someone to show you what’s happening” rather than trying to explain it abstractly, says Ruiz. “Eventually when we get back to face-to-face, I think this type of model is going to enhance the classroom experience even more, because I’m there personally. I can interact with them while they are working on the problems instead of them going home and working alone after a lecture. I’ve been happy with the interactions and participation. They have very good questions when they’ve watched the video and then try it themselves.”

In addition to the successes for students who can attend synchronously, Ruiz is finely attuned to the needs of students that may be facing new pandemic-related hurdles. Some, who moved home to Thailand and Indonesia last spring, face time zone hurdles that make it impossible to attend lectures.

“When I was looking at what I should do over the summer, I took this into consideration,” he says. “I designed it so the students wouldn’t lose any of the material that’s presented. That’s why I post all the notes and solutions to the in-class assignments.”

Ruiz also has employed a bi-monthly, mandatory check-in with his asynchronous students, “to let them know that I’m here to help them. I want to make a point that I care about their success in the class and I will do as much as I can to help them succeed.”

In a survey conducted at the end of last semester, UH Hilo students were asked about the professors they thought transitioned best to online teaching. Ruiz’s thorough and thoughtful approach to virtual learning was noted in the survey when a student praised him for his “great job with transitioning his class to online and communicating with students.” The extra communication makes a big difference in positive student experiences as many are facing a variety of new stressors.

“My driving force to educate students has always been showing them how much I care for them in terms of their success,” Ruiz says. “That’s been my general philosophy as an educator, and I wouldn’t even say just as an educator. My approach is more as a person who cares for other people they interact with. I try my best to help students succeed with their goals, whether they be with their career or passing the class.”

The math professor’s compassionate, student-centered strategy has turned a challenging situation into a growth opportunity.

“I would like to thank the students for all their hard work,” he says. “Their efforts are what make the courses successful.” Together, Ruiz and his students will exponentially enhance mathematics curricula for students in the pandemic era and beyond.


Story by Emily Burkhart, a senior double majoring in English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UH Hilo.